Doing well in school is nothing to be proud of

Monday January 27 2020

We recently celebrated those who passed their 2019 Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE).

For several days, newspaper headlines displayed names and pictures of those who scored As. Their performance promises them a place in top Universities in and outside the country.

At college graduations, the very few first-class students are celebrated while a majority limp on in frustration.

I recently read the article by Olivia Goldhill, Doing well in school is nothing to be proud of. The article, published in Quartz, argues that new research presents views contrary to our tradition. I thought it important to review this article.

Olivia arrives at her conclusions citing new research (August 2018), Gene discovery and polygenic prediction from a genome-wide association study of educational attainment in 1.1 million individuals, composing an international team of scientists.

The study had “identified 1,271 genetic variants that are associated with how many years people spend in school. Their result follows on from several other academics’ papers and years of research identifying the genetic variants associated with educational achievements.”


The authors reported that:

These studies do not support the idea that intelligence is all down to genetics: Even with full knowledge of all these variants, an analysis of any one individual’s genes could not be used to make a meaningful prediction about whether they’re going to get a PhD or drop out of school. But they do show that genetics have an impact; while genetics do not definitively determine how someone will fare in school, they create certain predispositions. In total, all the genetic variants account for 11 percent of variation in educational attainment across the population.

High achievers feel validated when results correspond to their achievements. The study notes that most cultures in the modern times treat educational success as a sign of moral worth. Parents, communities and teachers celebrate kids who do well in school. They shouldn’t.

Latest research findings from the work of Robert Plomin, professor of behavioural genetics at King’s College London also established that genetic data from 20,000 DNA variants across several genes collectively account for between two and nine percent of the differences in children’s educational achievement.


In his paper, “Predicting Educational Achievement from DNA”, Plomin argues that his findings could herald future widespread use of genetic risk score to predict genetic risk and resilience in the social and behavioural sciences.

These research findings from genes should never be ignored since they have been used before to promote the idea that there is such a thing as genetically-determined intelligence often used as a basis for superiority.

Indeed, as a student in the US, I registered for an advanced math course. In my first class, the professor advised me to change my registration to a similar course offered under Martin Luther (ML) program at the University.

Students widely felt that ML was basically a euphemism for inferior students from different minority groups. I refused to change my registration. After the first continuous test, in which I did well, the professor developed a weird invigilation tactic whenever we had an exam.

He would simply stand behind my back, perhaps trying to ensure that I was indeed the one taking the exam. Although it was a form of intimidation, I ignored it.

Only later did I realise that some of my classmates and the professor considered themselves a superior race.

Goldhill’s article suggests that, how you perform in the classroom is the result of many things ranging from environmental to biological factors, including but not limited to genetics. The family’s socioeconomic status, the level of emphasis that the family places on education and accessibility to good teachers determine the performance of learners. There is also the element of luck where the student’s skill set conveniently matches exam requirements. Doing well, in school is, largely, a sign of good luck.

Parents in some cases are the greatest problem as it relates to educational performance. In some cases where perhaps one of the children performs poorly, their comments may reinforce failure, especially when they openly address them as weak in academics. The child could be suffering from dyslexia or autism but such comments destroy their confidence.

Instead, the parents should be looking at such children as a category that thinks differently while investigating.


The advent of artificial intelligence has brought adaptive learning, an educational system that adjusts the presentation of learning material in response to student performance.

On the other hand, students who consistently perform well are not without a problem. A single failure could lead to depression. Perhaps the increasing incidences in mental health may be attributable to young people who hitherto have performed well but have recently encountered failure to a point where they feel they are no longer worth anything.

Some research shows that high achievers in some cases feel entitled and less willing to ask for help even when they need it, while others think they are imposters referred to as imposter syndrome.

In the KCSE results where, only 125,746 out of 660,240, or 20 percent of candidates, qualified to go to university, there are thousands who missed university entry requirements but are perhaps as good as those who qualified.

They may never know that it wasn’t entirely their fault. Our system of education is unforgiving and often ignores these many reasons for failing to perform well in the exam.

While genetics could be used to explain good performance in education, there is evidence that good performance is, to a large extent, a function of good luck.

Yes, there is a need to acknowledge those who perform well but it must be in moderation. It is equally important to encourage those who have not excelled.

In as much as there are consequences for those who fail, there are also similar consequences for those who pass.

The writer is a professor of entrepreneurship at University of Nairobi’s School of Business.