With the mapping of the human genome, scientists find themselves in the middle of a revolution in genetics. Before these new understandings, the classic question was why there is so much variability in nature. In early explanations, for instance, biologists used to speak about dominant and recessive genes; now we know that there are at least fifteen forms of some dominant genes and various forms of recessive genes. This helps explain the enormous variability in species expression. The recent human genome mapping process also created turmoil in the field around the discovery that about 98.5% of human DNA is not made up of genes. Scientists first called this “extra” DNA “junk DNA,” but clearly there is important function in this misnamed “junk.”
We are moving toward a clearer understanding of the dynamics of genetics, which generally involve “nature via nurture.” Our genes are actually altered by context: a learning experience leads to changes in the particular genes activated in neural tissue. Genes and environment work together, not separately. For instance, cognitive ability and height are both highly heritable but do not have individual genes that contribute much to their inheritance. The key seems to be that the environment contributes to genetic expression.
Educators are working to understand the impact these new ideas have on our work. Scientists, for example, suggest that common learning disabilities are highly heritable, one of the highest for human traits. They are, actually, not really “specific” disabilities, but the extremes of normal variation. An even more interesting approach is the notion that what we call “disability” is only viewed as such because of context. A “disability” in one context is a talent in another. It turns out that dyslexics are over-represented in art schools by a factor of two. Also, astrophysicists who are dyslexic have a talent for holistic integration across the visual field and, thus, they are much better able to find black holes than are astrophysicists who are not dyslexic. These discoveries help educators to understand better the basic truth that variability is the norm and that we should be careful about labeling students who have different strengths and weakness. It is best to see each learner as unique. Our job is to help the learner understand and develop his appetites, talents, and aptitudes so that he can find the context for those strengths where they can be realized and celebrated. Our job is to create an educational environment that will best foster the educational realization of our students’ aspirations.