Nature vs. Nurture


The relative influence of heredity and experience on one’s learning and abilities

Principal Metaphors

Nature vs. Nurture is not explicit on what learning is or how it happens, merely on the relative importance of heredity and experience on learning. That said, the vocabulary invoked in popular debates is most often reflective of Folk Theories, and notions associated with the Attainment Metaphor figure especially prominently:
  • Knowledge is … territories/areas/domains/fields (typically involving challenge)
  • Knowing is … attaining a goal
  • Learner is … a seeker (individual)
  • Learning is … journeying (arriving at, reaching, progressing, accomplishing, achieving)
  • Teaching is … leading, guiding, directing, facilitating




Nature vs. Nurture refers to a longstanding popular debate on the relative influences of heredity and experience on one’s learning, abilities, and identity. In one way or another, almost every theory of learning weighs in on the matter, especially since the early 1900s when some Behaviorisms challenged centuries of assumption by asserting that all human behavior is environmentally determined. Important associated notions include:
  • Aptitude – an assumed-to-be-innate ability or disposition in relation to a specific discipline or type of work


Most criticisms of Nature vs. Nurture focus more on the manner of thinking that infuses the debate than on the terms of the debate itself. That is, the Nature vs. Nurture debate relies on a this-or-that, zero-sum, category-imposing cluster of assumptions. Contemporary perspectives on the topic tend to shift the focus of the discussion from “which has greater influence” to “how they work together.” Coupled to this shift is a redefinition of personal potential, away from a once-dominant belief in limits (defined by genetics and realized or denied by experience) and toward an ever-changing horizon of possibilities (dependent on, but not determined by either genetics or experience).

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Francis Galton

Status as a Theory of Learning

Nature vs. Nurture is typically deployed as a theory of learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Nature vs. Nurture is not a theory of teaching.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Researchers consumed by the Nature vs. Nurture debate often assert that there is substantial empirical evidence of the “reality” of the phenomenon. In particular, comparisons of identical twins who have been raised separately to those raised together appear to reveal that such qualities as intelligence and personality traits are strongly heritable. Much of this evidence has been contested, and the portions that have been demonstrated as valid can be more readily explained in terms of interacting (rather than competing) elements. Phrased differently, those who engage in Nature vs. Nurture debate rarely analyze their assumptions about learning, and consequently help to perpetuate indefensible dualisms.


  • Aptitude

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2021). “Nature vs. Nurture” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

⇦ Back to Map
⇦ Back to List