Topic 6: Individual Differences

What do I need to know?

  • Genes have an influence on intelligence, but there is no specific gene for intelligence. Instead, like many traits, it is the influence of many genes . Genes explain 30% of the variation in intelligence in young children, rising to 76% of the variation in intelligence in adults. This is because as individuals get older they are free to choose their own experiences and these will be based on genes. It is also the case that some genes relating to intelligence are thought not to exert an influence until later in life.
  • A meta-analysis from Steenbergen-Hu and colleagues in 2016 showed that grouping students in the same year group by high, medium, and low ability led to no academic improvement for any group. However, the meta-analysis did show some academic benefits when students were grouped according to ability within a classroom, or across year groups. Finally there were also academic attainment benefits for special grouping of children considered to be particularly gifted.
  • Smart drugs are prescription drugs used without prescription (or at a higher dose than prescribed) to improve cognition. While they can improve attention and memory, it depends on the dose, and it seems that improvement is only observed in those who are poor performers to begin with.
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a common behavioural disorder affecting approximately 6% of children. Behaviours can include difficulties with holding attention, talking excessively, being easily distracted, and not following instructions through.
  • Dyslexia affects between 5% and 12% of children, and is considered a specific learning disorder or disability, since it affects only reading abilities. Children with dyslexia may have trouble manipulating the sounds of words, naming familiar items quickly, and reading fluently.
  • Dyscalculia is a specific learning disorder affecting the ability to learn mathematics skills. Around 3% to 6% of people are estimated to have dyscalculia. Dyscalculia can manifest in difficulties with estimation, forgetting mathematical procedures, and not being able to grasp the meaning of zero.
  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a diverse set of conditions affecting around 1% of the population. Children with ASD may have difficulties during social interactions (for example, in understanding others’ feelings), social communication, and social imagination.
  • Individuals with the same developmental disorder will not necessarily respond in the same way to teaching strategies as many other factors, such as self-esteem, are important too.

What can I do in my classroom?

  • For a child with ADHD, give clear instructions and repeat them. Write them down so that they are available to the child if they have forgotten them. You could also break down long tasks into small chunks and provide goals and rewards along the way.
  • For a child who has dyslexia, two phonological-based approaches are effective. Phonological awareness training involves raising awareness of different word sounds. Phonics instruction involves teaching the connection between word sounds and the written form they take.
  • For a child who has ASD, use more simple language and visual prompts. Provide time for the child to process the information, and consider asking more closed questions rather than open ones. Try to reduce social demands during the child’s learning.
  • Get to know the child and teach to the child not the diagnosis.

Credit: Neuroscience for Teachers: Applying Research Evidence from Brain Science by Richard Churches, Eleanor Dommett and Ian Devonshire.

What should I be wary of?

Learning styles schemes

  • “Learning styles” schemes claim to be able to group individuals according to their personal learning style, often distinguishing between visual, auditory, or kinaesthetic learners. The schemes suggest that teaching according to a child’s preferred learning style will help them to learn, but there is no reliable evidence that this is true.
  • If learners are restricted to learning in one mode, because they are thought to have a visual learning style for instance, they may not build the skills necessary to access material in a different mode.
  • The way that information is taught in the classroom is important, but should be based on the content rather than preferences of learners. Presenting material in multiple modes appears to be beneficial for all learners.

Find out more about learning styles in a summary post by Victoria Knowland and Michael Thomas.

  • It is a myth that intelligence is fixed across the lifespan – intelligence actually fluctuates throughout development, including adolescence.

Find out more about the nature of intelligence in a summary post by Victoria Knowland and Michael Thomas.

Where can I find out more?

  • Watch Professor Brian Butterworth talk about dyscalculia on the Numberphile YouTube channel, and read his review paper on the topic in Science magazine.
  • Watch a short video from Digital Promise explaining the importance of diversity and the importance of tailoring teaching and learning activities to individual children.
  • Read this booklet from the National Autistic Society which covers strategies for working with Autistic children in the classroom.
  • Watch Professor Robert Plomin talk about the role of genes in education, and the meaning of heritability for Tes’s YouTube channel.