Genetics May Prevail in Kids Unmotivated to Learn

Genes may play a large role in why some kids feel unmotivated to learn at school, according to new findings from more than 13,000 twins in six countries.

In fact, the researchers found that 40 to 50 percent of the differences in children’s motivation to learn could be attributed to their genetic inheritance from their parents.

The findings surprised researcher Stephen Petrill, Ph.D., who believed that the twins’ shared environment, such as the family and teachers that they had in common, would have more impact than genetics.

Instead, genetics and nonshared environment factors had the largest effect on learning motivation, whereas the shared environment had an insignificant impact.

“We had pretty consistent findings across these different countries with their different educational systems and different cultures. It was surprising,” said Petrill, a professor of psychology at Ohio State University.

The study suggest that we should think twice before automatically blaming parents, teachers, and the children themselves for students who aren’t motivated in class.

“The knee-jerk reaction is to say someone is not properly motivating the student, or the child himself is responsible,” Petrill said.

“We found that there are personality differences that people inherit that have a major impact on motivation. That doesn’t mean we don’t try to encourage and inspire students, but we have to deal with the reality of why they’re different.”

The study involved separate studies of twins aged nine to 16 in the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, Germany, Russia, and the United States. Students reported how much they enjoyed various academic activities and were also asked to rate their own ability in different subjects in school.

The researchers compared how close the answers were for fraternal twins, who share half their inherited genes on average, with identical twins who share all of their inherited genes. Since the identical twins’ answers were more closely matched than those of fraternal twins, that suggests a stronger genetic effect.

The findings were extremely similar across all six countries with children of all ages, Petrill said. On average, 40 to 50 percent of the difference between twins in motivation could be explained by genetics.

About the same percentage could be explained by what is called the twins’ nonshared environment — for example, differential parenting or a teacher that one twin has but not the other. Only about three percent could be explained by their shared environment, such as their common family experience.

“Most personality variables have a genetic component, but to have nearly no shared environment component is unexpected,” Petrill said. “But it was consistent across all six countries.”

This doesn’t mean that there is a gene for how much children enjoy learning, he said. But the findings suggest a complex process, involving several genes and gene-environment interactions, that help influence children’s motivation to learn.

“We should absolutely encourage students and motivate them in the classroom. But these findings suggest the mechanisms for how we do that may be more complicated than we had previously thought,” he said.

The study is published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

Source: Ohio State University