On Disney Channel's "The Suite Life of Zack & Cody" and its spin-off, "The Suite Life on Deck," Dylan and Cole Sprouse played identical twins Zack and Cody Martin. Cody is a motivated straight-A student, while Zack slacks off in class and gets D's on the regular.
Turns out this situation -- one studious twin, one who zones out during class -- isn't very accurate, according to new research that explored the connection between genetics and motivation. The study, which will be published in Personality and Individual Differences' July issue, suggests your DNA may be to blame if school isn't your forte.
The study, led by Professor Yulia Kovas at Goldsmiths University of London, analyzed more than 13,000 twins from six countries -- Canada, Germany, Japan, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S. -- to find out what shapes a child's motivation in the classroom. The students evaluated their enjoyment of various school activities and rated their own ability in subjects.
Researchers found that 40% to 50% of the difference in children's drive to learn traced back to genes inherited from their parents. Genetics outweighed the environmental factor by so much, in fact, that it caught some of the researchers by surprise.
So what does this have to do with Zack and Cody? Well, they're identical twins, which means they share the same DNA. If DNA is largely responsible for our motivation in class, as this new research suggests, then Zack and Cody should be equally excited (or not excited) about cracking open a textbook.
Psych professor and co-author Dr. Stephen Petrill told Ohio State University that going into the study, he assumed twins' shared environment would have a larger effect on learning motivation than DNA. But shared environmental factors only had a negligible 3% impact, while nonshared environmental factors -- such as having different teachers -- accounted for about the same level of impact as DNA.
If this all sounds complicated, that's because it is. Petrill explained that the "knee-jerk reaction is to say someone is not properly motivating the student, or the child himself is responsible" for their academic performance. But blaming the problem on lack of parental guidance or teacher engagement -- or even directly blaming the student -- may not be the best approach.
It's clear many of these environmental factors take a back seat to far more complicated mental and biological processes involving both genes and gene-environment interactions, Petrill said.
"Most personality variables have a genetic component, but to have nearly no shared environment component is unexpected," Petrill explained. "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."
These findings could have some major implications on how administrators engage young students. It's good news for individuals, since this means it's fruitless to blame a boring teacher or a child's work ethic when a student is uninterested in learning. But it also means it'll take much more work and fine-tuning to determine how to give each student a motivational boost.
Oh, and to muddy it up even more, remember that most students aren't twins or even related -- and this study specifically examined twins -- so it'll be that much harder to zero in on the actual processes happening within individuals.