New Study Says: No "Gifted" Children in Language or Maths Learning


A recent study of children's learning abilities and their DNA formations found that there is no such thing as an "innate talent" in children that determines whether they can learn a language or mathematics better than others.


The research was carried out by geneticists from Britain's Oxford University, King's College London and University College London. It covered some 12-year-old twins and unrelated children from 2,800 families in the UK; all the children were asked to take a reading comprehension test and a math test based on the national curriculum. Researchers then compared children's test results with their genetic data. Eventually, there came the conclusion that about half of the genes which influence the literacy of children of this age also influence their performance in maths. In other words, the long-existing myth that some children are blessed with language or math abilities is now untenable. According to the study, one's genes determine how difficult it is for him (or her) to learn something, rather than how he could outperform others in a certain field.


Scientists pointed out that a child's growing environment and life experience are as important as genes to shape their study behaviors. That is to say, if a child is unfortunately determined by his DNA that he will find it hard to learn things, parents and teachers will need to make more efforts to help him with his studies.


Professor Robert Plomin at King's College told the Telegraph that this was the first time genetic influence on learning ability was examined by using DNA alone, but the study didn't reveal which genes rule men's literacy or numeracy. Other views agree that the study arouse people's awareness of developing effective learning environments that are tailored to children's individual needs. However, there have been fears from opponents against genetic research in education because they feel that according to the outcomes of such researches, some children will be considered "doomed to fail" in an early stage.


If there's no gene that gives a child superiority in learning a language or maths, then how can we explain that some children, in fact, do "have an ear" for languages or do maths better than their peers? Educators have been studying this question since many decades ago. As for language study, there used to be various versions of "language aptitude tests" to see if a person can master a foreign language successfully, but criticism against such tests have always existed. Most linguists nowadays have reached a consensus that one's attitude and the immersion in the language environment are the key factors influencing his performance in language learning. To put it short, hard work, motivation and immersion together make one succeed.


Based on former studies and experiments, the reason why many children fear maths lies in their fear of failure. A famous contrast test was carried out earlier in which researchers divided a number of children into two groups and gave them some math questions to answer. After their results were revealed, parents were instructed by the researchers to greet their children in different ways. Parents of one group were told to praise children for their efforts to solve questions, while those of the other group would praise children for the high scores they achieved. Then, the children were put to sit one more test. This time they were given two sets of question, one was labeled "very difficult" and the other "simpler than last time". Every child was left to his own choice which set to do. It turned out that for the group which would be praised for efforts, 90% of the children chose the difficult set of questions, while the majority of the other group which was praised for high scores (that is, intelligence) picked the simpler set. This experiment showed how parents' behavior in giving compliments and encouragement could shape children's attitude towards maths learning. In an exam-oriented education system, children are afraid of getting wrong answers, unaware that trying different means and getting wrong answers are actually very good ways to explore the field of maths.


From the previous studies and experiments, we can come to the conclusion that the outcome of learning is never determined solely by DNA or teaching methods, but is influenced by multiple factors including genetics, motivation and the learning environment. A "talent" is something one can acquire by effort, if not born with.

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