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Research School Network: Hassan Farah Wins BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

Hassan Farah Wins BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

by Doncaster Research School
on the

No, this is not a typo – just a story about what could have been.

As a biology teacher, I have learnt that when it comes to teaching the topic of reproduction, students are always fascinated by twins. You have planned to teach this part of the topic in one lesson but end up stretching it to two because the students are just bursting with questions – How are they made?”; Can they really read each other’s minds?; Is it true, we all have our own twin somewhere in the world?”. I am sure you have your own stories of teaching twins, like those who score exactly the same in tests and get the same questions right and the same questions wrong. This, of course, brings me to the age-old question of nature versus nurture.

I have recently been looking at the excellent TEDS (Twins Early Development Study) website ( based at King’s College, London. The study has been going on for 20 years and involves over 20,000 twins. By studying differences between identical twin pairs and non identical twin pairs, the study has gained a better understanding of how genes and our environment, influence learning, cognitive abilities, and behaviour.

To be honest, a few articles I have read recently from TEDS, have left me feeling a little disheartened. The first investigated whether there was a strong genetic influence on performance in core GCSE subjects [1]. It concluded that performance in GCSE science had a strong genetic influence, where the heritability was substantial at 58%. The second, investigated whether genetics affected a student’s choice of subjects as well as their achievement [2]. The results showed that whether 16 year olds chose to continue their studies at A‑level is more heritable for STEM subjects (60%) and less influenced by a shared environment (23%). In 2015, Nick Gibbs, in his Importance of STEM’ speech to Parliament [3] states how the UK will need more scientists and mathematicians to meet the demands of our growing economy. Yet, as the CBI’s 2015 Education and Skills survey found, 44% of relevant firms reported difficulties recruiting STEM graduates last year.

When STEM GCSEs and A‑levels are so heavily influenced by hereditary factors, how will we fulfil the challenge of meeting the shortfall in the number of graduates and apprentices available to take up the estimated 142,000 new jobs in science, research, engineering and technology from now until 2023? [4].

But then I was watching the BBC Sports Personality of the Year on Sunday night and last year I finally got around to reading Mo Farah’s autobiography Twin Ambitions’. Mo has an identical twin brother, Hassan, who is pictured in the first photograph and the one below.

The book tells how, at the age of eight, after fleeing war-torn Somalia, the family first moved to Djibouti and then the plan was for them to move to Europe, firstly by going to London to visit Mo and Hassan’s dad. But shortly before the family were due to fly, Hassan fell ill, and the family couldn’t cancel or change their flights because that would have meant losing a lot of money. It was decided that Mo, his mum and younger brothers would fly to London while Hassan recovered in Djibouti. The twin’s dad returned to Djibouti to bring back Hassan and reunite the family. But after a fortnight he returned home empty-handed as Hassan could not be found. Hassan had moved with other family members back to Somalia.

Hassan has always wondered if he too could have achieved his brother’s greatness if he had been allowed to board the plane to Heathrow as a boy in 1991, he said: Mo and I were on a par as runners. I would sometimes beat him in the races we ran barefoot through the dusty Somalian streets. Sometimes I would beat him as we chased each other around, sometimes he would beat me. But now he has had the most technically-advanced training and advice available in the world, with top running tracks and gyms to work in, and I have had nothing. Who knows what I could have become? We could have been famous twin Olympic athletes.”

So it isn’t all down to genes. Environmental influences have a huge role to play in the success of individuals. As teachers, we are the equivalent of Mo’s trainers and sports psychologists. Maybe Mo would never have achieved his four gold medals without the help of Alan Watkinson, his P.E. teacher who spotted his potential and offered support and guidance. The secret to creating the next generation of enthusiastic scientists is by having a current generation of inspiring and knowledgeable teachers.

The work of research schools will have a role in developing teachers. Research schools will make it easier for teachers to engage with research evidence and will encourage an evidence-informed culture. Research schools will translate research into classroom practice and will provide evidence that a teaching strategy is effective. As a consequence, teachers will improve their knowledge and understanding of their subject and pedagogy; increase their self-confidence in the classroom and be more willing and able to make changes to their practice.

Genes do have a role to play in students’ destinies but a great teacher can change a student’s life.


  1. Shakeshaft NG, Trzaskowski M, McMillan A, Rimfeld K, Krapohl E, Haworth CMA, et al. (2013) Strong Genetic Influence on a UK Nationwide Test of Educational Achievement at the End of Compulsory Education at Age 16. PLoS ONE 8(12): e80341.

  1. Rimfeld, K. et al.Genetics affects choice of academic subjects as well as achievement. Rep.6, 26373; doi: 10.1038/srep26373 (2016).



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