Epigenetics and Multiple Life Cycles Education Policy

3.24.10 – Tom Sticht – The results of the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) indicated that almost half of adults (47%) had only Basic or Below Basic literacy skills. This lead the Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, to declare that this supported President George W. Bush’s plan

Epigenetics and Multiple Life Cycles Education Policy


Tom Sticht

International Consultant in Adult Education


The results of the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) indicated that almost half of adults (47%) had only Basic or Below Basic literacy skills. This lead the Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, to declare that this supported President George W. Bush’s plan for a one billion dollar project to improve the literacy skills of high school students. This was at a time when the federal spending for adult literacy training was just over $200 per enrollee, and still the administration did not ask for more funding for adult literacy education in the light of the devastating NAAL results.



I recognized this as another attempt to “stop illiteracy at the source.” In this case, millions of high school students were becoming adults considered functionally illiterate, so the plan was to stop the high schools from producing such adults. But of course, the high schools blame the middle schools for sending them functionally illiterate students; the middle schools blame the primary schools, the primary schools blame the parents and call for Head Start to do a better job, and now we have Early Head Start to stop illiteracy starting at birth!



In all this, then, it looks like we are willing to put billions of dollars into the education of babies, toddlers, children, adolescents, and young adults as long as they are in some sort of school. But as soon as they graduate or drop out of high school we seem to consider them as mostly lost causes, we throw a pittance in adult literacy education to them, and then go back to trying to fix their kids in formal school settings.



Overall, the primary focus of education policy has been to focus on intervening in the learning experiences of one generation, one life cycle, at a time, rather than explicitly recognizing the intergenerational consequences of education across multiple life cycles, that is, how the education of parents may influence the educability of the parent’s children.



In Toward a Multiple Life Cycles Education Policy: Investing in the Education of Adults to Improve the Educability of Children [http://www.nald.ca/library/research/sticht/06dec/06dec.pdf]

I argued for education policy that recognizes that affect, cognition, language, and literacy are transferred from parents to their children. I did an extensive review of behavioral and social sciences research on early childhood education, relationships of parent’s education to children’s literacy, parenting and preschool effectiveness, and other issues to argue that we should make larger investment in the education of youth and adults who are parents or who will be parents.



Now there is emerging  evidence for the importance of thinking of education in terms of a Multiple Life Cycles Education policy, this time from the biological sciences. In particular, I am talking about the field of epigenetics which, according to a definition on the Wikipedia web site, is:

quote“the study of inherited changes in phenotype (appearance) or gene expression caused by mechanisms other than changes in the underlying DNA sequence, hence the name epi- (Greek: åðß- over, above) -genetics.” end quote



The idea that aspects of one’s lifestyle may be transmitted across generations via non-genetic, biological factors forms a large part of the argument by David Shenk in his new book The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ is Wrong (New York, Double Day, 2010). He notes that epigenetic science is beginning to suggest that: quote”what an individual does in his/her life before having children can change the biological inheritance of those children and their descendants.” end quote (p. 130).



While the epigenetic science on the intergenerational transmission of certain acquired characteristics due to one’s lifestyle is still in its infancy, it may bolster the considerable behavioral and social science that argues for changing our policies of education from those that focus on one life cycle and lifelong learning. Instead, we need to focus on providing educational opportunities based on Multiple Life Cycles Education policy.



One concrete policy shift called for by the Multiple Life Cycles Education policy is a greater increase in the attention to education in parenting for adolescents, young adults, and adults who are likely to become parents.  By investing in the education of adults, we may increase the educability of their children, and their children’s children, via behavioral, social, and, possibly, epigenetic transfer.



tsticht at aznet.net


  1. California school observer

    This is a wonderfully creative application of current biological sciences to education – something in which our educational systems are appallingly at least 30 years behind.

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March 23rd, 2010

Tom Sticht Contributor EducationNews.org

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