Nature vs Nurture in Education and Career

nature vs nurture in education and career

The debate between nature vs nurture in education and career is not well understood. Conventional wisdom touted by our daily media heavily favors nurture; better schools and advanced education for all is considered the yellow brick road to solve many of our nation’s problems. But, let’s play Dorothy and peek behind the curtain to see what the cultural Wizard of Educational Oz is concealing.

The latest study by the Department of Education has, once again, found that there is no correlation between good teachers and their certifications. Having an advanced education, going to a better rated college or even higher SAT scores does not make a better teacher. It seems the best teachers just seem have the right stuff, regardless of their training, grades and college learning environment. Great teaching comes naturally to some people; good training is important, but it’s the icing on the cake.

In my work as a career choice scientist, I’ve found that this is true of all professions; expensive, formal training has much less to do with how well people do in their field, especially over the long run. When it comes to excelling on the job, year after year, having natural talent trumps education. But, are we ready as a culture to accept the idea of “natural-ness” and loosen up our long-held love affair with the importance getting into the “best” schools and colleges? The scientific evidence suggests we ought to give it some serious thought.

Erik Turkheimer, a clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia, did a groundbreaking study that mined the statistics of 600 pairs of identical twins, where the majority of the families were living near or below the poverty level, and correlated this data with new statistical advances in determining the relationship between genes and socio-economic status. His study revealed some fascinating nuances on how genes and environments interplay in influencing a student’s performance and apparent intelligence.

In the lowest socio-economic conditions, in the earliest school years, environment trumps the genes. A deficient learning environment is a critical factor in influencing a student’s apparent intelligence, where the student’s genes play a minimal role at how well they perform. This suggests that even if the student has genetically inherited strengths to do well in certain subject areas, their talents will likely be stunted if the environment is sub-par. Environments that lack many basic needs such as good nutrition, a stable home and sense of security, and many other factors, pose a major detriment to learning, regardless of student’s individual aptitudes.

For instance, if a poorer kid who has an innate, but latent gift for math attends an ill-equipped school, she may never have a chance to develop it; it goes unnoticed, and without encouragement from parents and teachers an otherwise brilliant math whiz may flunk out of math class. Programs like Head Start level the playing field, even small environmental improvements can put the student on more solid ground and their performance jumps up significantly, allowing for their genetic predispositions (innate talents) to grab hold and develop.

The game changes when people are raised in a middle-class or well-off family; genes trump the environmental influence. Take a normal, largely healthy environment and add more improvements to that environment, say by hiring better teachers who use better methods, and you only get nominal increases in a student’s intelligence (as measured by their grades). When learning environments offer a level playing field from the beginning of a student’s life, improvements to the environment bring diminishing returns on performance. Higher up the socio-economic ladder, excellence in school is more directly related to one’s genetic ability, rather than environmental improvements. Given a standard environment, a kid’s innate talents for a subject will play a bigger role in giving them an edge, rather than enhancing their environment. Turkheimer suggests:

” . . . if you’re going to work with people’s environment to try and increase IQ (intelligence), then the place to invest your money is in taking people in really bad environments and making them OK, rather than taking people in pretty good environments and making it better.”

These findings shine light on why an Ivy League educated teacher with high SAT scores may not perform any better, or even worse than a teacher that went to a community college with average SATs. This may be somewhat baffling to “credentialists” who are invested in the idea that a “better” education is the key to solving our problems.

Natural Talent Trumps Credentials

View job performance through the lens of genes over environment (talent over education) and we have a profound insight. When people have a relatively equal playing field to learn in, it’s fair to say that better job performance out in the real world is not strongly correlated to the quality of their education. A young person with the natural talents for teaching can go to a no-name school and become a great teacher, where a Harvard grad with world-class training, but less innate talent for teaching, can turn out to be just average or even incompetent in front of the classroom. Having the right training—one that fits a person’s natural talents—will eventually prove to be better than having a “better” education. Anecdotal evidence suggests this is true, everyone knows someone in their workplace or life that didn’t get a fancy education, yet is exceptional at what they do.

At the moment, what I see is nurture gone haywire. Our obsession with getting into the best schools and colleges has given us several generations of well-groomed, super-confident young professionals who are being highly trained in fields that don’t fit their natural talents. Wall Street was loaded with Ivy Leaguers who aren’t cut out for finance. As the nation tightens its belt, better schools and grades don’t matter as much. Those are innately good at what they do will have the edge.

College professors know this game better than anybody. They personally turn the crank of the diploma mill and admit that most students are unwitting automatons just going through the motions, pining for the grade, without much heart or passion for what they are studying. I’ve helped quite a few professors bail out of academia for this reason alone; it’s no fun to teach entitled students who aren’t committed to anything but their earning potential. Teachers love to teach people who exhibit the talent, commitment and genuine fascination with the field, and many reluctantly hang on to their career, if only to teach those one or two students each semester that have the sparkle in their eye.

Unfortunately, most students are graduating with an expensive degree that doesn’t suit their talents, and this doesn’t bode well for building a better, highly innovative economy. In the short run many have reaped the rewards of good paying jobs, but in the longer run, we all lose.

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