What matters most in educational development? Nature or Nurture?

That age-old debate of what makes us who we are? How much of ourselves is down to genes, parents or environment? How much is learned? 

Written by Dr Naoisé O'Reilly
With her gentle and approachable nature, Dr. Naoisé O’Reilly is an Irish woman who has become a Global Expert working with men, women, and children around the World. She can quickly take her clients out of their rut and turn a downward spiral into an upward one. Indeed, one of the more rewarding aspects of her work is showing clients, who had previously been written off by society, the basic steps they need to take flight and soar.
When she isn't enjoying the company of her family and friends, Naoise will usually be found with a book in her hand or... She also derives much pleasure from her Podcast, Purple Psychology, which was recently nominated for The People's Choice Award and enjoys the encouraging comments and insightful questions she receives from her listeners on every continent.
More information at www.purplelearning.ie

What are Nature and Nurture?:
I have always been obsessed with two aspects of the people I work with, their personality and the way they process the world around them. For me, personality is nature and processing ability, how you learn, is nurture. This has been a huge focus of my work as in order to help people change often long-term generational destructive patterns you have to understand where they steam from and what you have control over. 
How did this discovery come about for me?: Like all big research eureka moments this one came about by accident. Almost 8 years ago now, at the end of the first term at The Homework Club (my development center), we work through an evaluation process with the students to wrap up the term's achievements. Firstly, I decided to do the evaluation with all ages from 5 upwards. This turned out to be a great decision. 
The evaluation had two main functions, firstly to get the students thinking about their own progress over the term, where they had reached and where they would still like to improve in each topic. This gave them control over their own learning objectives and helps them map out a plan for the new year. The second function allowed them to study their learning style across 4 types of learner.The answer I expected was that the underdeveloped students to tick boxes across all 4 areas and have no real idea what their learning style was. 
This also allowed us to reflect on the students and their personalities. When I first started this study of the students, I saw a trend very quickly that the disorganized, unstructured and unfocused students didn't fit neatly into one category of learning style. They ticked one box in each section with no clear direction of thought.  Many of these students simply didn't know where their strengths lied or how they learned best. This evaluation exercise would allow as a teaching team to focus on key skills we felt that needed to be improved or to help the students develop more structure in certain areas and so on throughout the second term in preparation for the exams at the end of term three. But this exercise turned out to be much more significant. 
After the 3rd year of this study, I saw an even bigger significance than I did initially. As the student cohort had expanded in the ages (from 5 to 20+) and the learning difficulties of the students became more diverse, I now saw a new more important trend.
The younger students, especially those with conditions such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADD, ADHD, and Aspergers all exhibit a "multiplicity". This means they can honestly tick all the boxes on the questionnaire for their learning style. I initially thought the younger students just didn't understand the task. But then I reflected they can't have all got it wrong? I thought about the individuals involved and their learning styles and realized that they had done the excise correctly.
What this amounted to was that these students had multiple ways to work and process information. I referred to this as multiplicity, learning in 3 to 4 learning styles simultaneously. They needed to learn in many ways at once, especially to make it interesting and challenging for them. So for example when we always separate out reading, writing and creative tasks separately, it is hard for them to learn and to stay interested. If we suddenly use very visual ways to learn reading and writing around exciting visual and auditory style topics we suddenly saw much better results. It's worth noting that we also didn't see any of the behavior difficulties associated with the conditions. 
As students go through the system they seem to lose this gift of multiplicity.
I only saw a very small proportion of very well adjusted personalities and diversely interested students in the senior cycle above the age of 15. Most had become linear in their way of processing because of the environment or nurturing.  Since we always force students to work in one way in a very segregated style in the conversational school system, it seems to me that they lose this wonderful diverse multiplicity along the way. Not only does this mean they don't learn well within their learning style but they get out of the habit of using key skills they possess to do tasks in new, creative and fresh ways. Something that would be hugely beneficial for later working life in all sectors.
The time factor:
Often you feel you are racing the clock. I now know it is so much easier to cause a lasting significant change in people pre 7. Particularly in helping with literacy, learning or personality difficulties. I find myself ranting to those close to me about how we don't work to diagnose people with a condition pre 7 because we have become obsessed with conditions and labels for children instead of development. I think for me there is a whole sperate article on labels versus development. 
How about we forget the label and realize the importance of the opportunity that exists for us in this golden timeframe? So this leads me back to what matters most nature or nurture? Which is changeable? 

Can you change Nature or Nurture?

From my research over the last 8 years, I have proven that it is possible to change the processing abilities of students if you work with the student pre 10. By 15 you have lost the golden opportunity to nurture people to a more dynamic processing abilities. 
For some personalities, they naturally process the world in more ways than others. But with the Purple Learning environment system where you teach people in all 4 processing ways, visual, auditory, kinesthetic and practical you can develop the more predisposed linear people to work in all of these ways beyond the age of 15. 
The death of creativity:
It was a shock for me to realise that the traditional school system appears to flatten what I call multiplicity out of students. I think when Ken Robinson talks about the death of creativity in the school system, for me, he is talking about this linear processing that we develop by the conformity of the traditional education ways. So this nurturing is an environmental created way of working, experiencing and seeing the world around you. 
So how about nature? Nature is personality. This is generational. I've been particularly researching the correlation between personality and processing abilities. How you take in the world around you and how you communicate this interpretation. What I find really striking about personalities in families is that they often skip a generation. You can have a child in a family who resembles a grandparent or an Aunt or Uncle from either side of the parent's families. Often many of the clashes or black sheep in families are the rarer personalities that only seem to surface less in the generations. 
Why are certain ages important?
The image shows what I call the Purple Development Timescale. In this, you can see that ages 6, 7, 10 and 15 are all vitally important milestones in learning and development. 

So why are 7 and 10 such critical ages in learning? At 7 your personality starts to cement itself. So combined with how you naturally take in the world around you so prior to this is a huge pivotal time to work with someone on their learning styles. By 10 you start to see yourself in context to the outer world. So this is another vital time period up to 15 to increase your capacity for being different and stretch the development beyond your natural comfort zone. 
What are the educational development implications?:
So what are the implications of these factors? Well, firstly it has a huge impact on widening people's processing abilities. The more dynamic education is up to the age of 10 the wider the learning possibilities are for the future of each student. If there are learning challenges these need to be addressed pre the age of 7. I get my best literacy difficulty results with students before the age of 6 in a positive way without obsessing over what's wrong with them or what label they should be given. The irony is that time and time I have shown that if I work with a student before 7 they don't require a label later as the literacy difficulties are gone. Ages 10 t0 15 require much more thought in education. We need to be much more aware of the comfort zones of certain personalities and the quirks of what each need. The biggest school refusal stages are between 13 and 15. But the challenges that have to lead to these have begun at age 10. I often tell people that I need to go backward in order to find the result for now. But the reality is for me that I wish I was starting at the ground zero point. If we encouraged multiplicity in schools rather than our very linear approach we would be creating more dynamic people for the current environment and times we live in. But we don't, we have the most amount of control and linearity in education pre 15. After this stage, there is little point in becoming more dynamic. The damage is already done. The opportunity to nurture lost. The personalities who are naturally dynamic that we currently label as everything from ADHD to gifted wouldn't be bored either and stitch off as many of them do currently. This is why nature and nurture both have important roles to play in educational development. 
So what matters most in development Nature or Nurture. The answer is both, but what is more important is time. You have a crucial window of opportunity. You can't control Nature but you can optimise people's personality for the better. You are completely in control of Nurture and the more diverse you are at critical ages of development the bigger the impact in producing well-rounded people. This is the key to escaping the label vortex that we are currently creating in conventional education.

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