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of Opinion

This project is supported by the Wellcome Trust

Introduction for teachers

By Sandy Starr (Communications Officer at the Progress Educational Trust)
and Sarah Norcross (Director of the Progress Educational Trust)

This is the introduction to a School Resource Pack created by the Progress Educational Trust (PET) as part of its project 'Spectrum of Opinion: Genes'.

Aim of the pack

The aim of this School Resource Pack is to raise questions, provide answers and stimulate thinking among sixth-formers in relation to to two things: the concept of the 'spectrum' as it applies to mental health in general and autism in particular, and the distinction between genetic and non-genetic aspects of mental health. Autism is a principal (but not exclusive) focus of the School Resource Pack, because it is the condition most associated with the concept of the spectrum.

This School Resource Pack includes all the information that you need to:

  • Run lessons

  • Have a classroom discussion/debate

  • Set homework

Subject Areas where this School Resource Pack may be used:

  • Biology

  • Citizenship

  • Media Studies

  • Philosophy

  • Personal Social Health and Economic Education

  • Psychology

Learning outcomes

All students:

  • Understanding the concept of the 'spectrum'

  • Understanding the advantages and disadvantages of the concept of the 'spectrum'

  • Understanding the role of genetics in aspects of mental health

  • Understanding the challenges to the individual and the state posed by aspects of mental health

  • Recognising and assessing conflicting opinions

  • Recognising and assessing competing interests

Some students:

  • Developing research skills

  • Reassessing and questioning the meaning of familiar terminology

  • Learning to navigate fluid, contested and evolving meanings

Resources contained in the pack

The School Resource Pack contains 10 articles, each of which can be used as the standalone basis for a lesson or homework exercise. The articles are arranged roughly in ascending order of difficulty, and each of them is accompanied by three 'Questions to consider' and by a list of '10 key words and phrases' (or in four cases, '10 key words, phrases and names'), with the latter highlighted wherever they appear in the body of the article. Appended to the 10 articles is a 'Glossary of terms', which includes all key words, phrases and names, plus other relevant terms from the articles.

The pack is flexible, and the teacher can use as many or as few of the articles as they choose. Additional articles can be used as extension exercises or for homework.

Print version of the pack

The print version of the School Resource Pack - which can be downloaded as a .pdf document (605KB) here - highlights in bold underlined font the 'key words and phrases' (or 'key words, phrases and names') where they appear in each article. It is ideal for focusing on a single article, which can be printed and circulated to, and discussed with, students in the classroom.

Online version of the pack

The online version of the School Resource Pack - which can be found here - highlights in blue many more 'key words and phrases' (or 'key words, phrases and names') than are highlighted in the print version, and makes them into hyperlinks to corresponding definitions in the 'Glossary of terms'. The glossary itself is also more extensive in the online version of the pack.

The online version of the pack offers a more discursive experience for the student reader, where they can follow links and navigate between articles and glossary definitions in order to formulate and pursue their own interests, with the teacher having the option to rein in this discursiveness by setting an exercise (for example as a homework assignment).

Background: Why are mental health and genetics important?

Mental health and genetics are two subjects that enjoy increasing prominence, and are almost guaranteed to have an impact on today's schoolchildren either directly or via someone they know. Although terminology relating to each subject has entered into everyday discourse, both subjects are predicated on concepts that remain elusive, counterintuitive and contested. Consequently, students require some sensitivity to nuance and to conflicts of opinion and interest, if they are to grasp these subjects in a coherent way.

Background: Why is the 'spectrum' important?

The 'spectrum' is an excellent example of a concept that enjoys wide prominence but at the same time is challenging to grapple with. The term 'spectrum' can describe a range of behaviours, impairments and experiences observed formally in the clinic, or informally in broader society. It can refer to different sequences and permutations of genes, so that a 'spectrum' of genotypic factors can contribute to a 'spectrum' of phenotypic factors. In diagnosis, the term can refer to a related set of distinct categories, or to a continuum within a single category that allows for endless subtleties and variations.

A spectrum initially suggests variation in a single dimension, but this can be misleading. Autism, for instance, involves a tripartite set of impairments (in social interaction, communication and imagination) which may vary independently in different individuals. Additionally, different conditions (for example autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) may be overlapping in their causes and/or their effects. Attempts to accommodate these subtleties, such as the modern concept of 'multiaxial' diagnosis, make the labelling of conditions far from straightforward.