Historically burdened concepts in education

My work focuses on four terms with burdened histories: intelligence, genetics, race, and socio-economic status. Broadly, I use mixed-methods and intersectionality theory to examine how genetics research into intelligence and educational attainment might affect the United States education system, where documented racial and socioeconomic disparities prevail and where teacher perceptions of student ability are known to affect student performance and referrals for gifted education programs (Elhoweris et al, 2005; Gillborn et al, 2012; Grissom, 2016; Slate et al, 1990).

Intelligence is a highly charged word with ties to racist, classist, and eugenic narratives. As a highly valued quality, it has been used to legitimize racial and socioeconomic inequality and discrimination. Today, groups like the Alt-Right, Neo-Nazis, and the US president use genetic ideologies to announce superiority, justify privilege, and legitimize marginalization, discrimination, and racism. For example, President Trump has stated that he possesses ‘superior genes’. He’s also said, “his high I.Q. cabinet [that is predominantly White and male] will unify the nation.’ The value western society places on a concept like intelligence is laden with judgment about who is more deserving, who will be more successful, and ultimately who is more desirable.

Behavior genetics research on cognitive ability and educational attainment must make significant progress in order to  pinpoint exact markers that account for the high heritability estimates identified in twin studies. Despite this, the concept of inheritance, and specifically the influence of genes on intelligence, has also carried over into political and educational spheres.

For example, British researchers Kathryn Asbury and Robert Plomin see the possibilities of this research for childhood education. For Asbury and Plomin, “The ability to learn from teachers is, we know, influenced more by genes than by experience” (Asbury and Plomin, 2013: 7). Their 2013 publication of the book G is for Genes: The Impact of Genetics on Education and Achievement advocates for a system of personalized learning, where pedagogical practice is informed by genetic research– able to predict which kinds of educational interventions a child will be most receptive to.

How might four words with contested, charged, and murky histories converge to inform current systems of education and teacher interactions with their students? My research focuses on how teachers with no background knowledge in genetics interpret the arguments of behavior geneticists like Plomin and the policy points put forth in G is for Genes. This book was written for teachers and is marketed as a potential transformative approach to alleviating high-stakes work environments fraught with red-tape and bureaucracy. The United States education system is marked by racial and socioeconomic disparities in student achievement. So, how does behavioral genetics research on cognitive ability and educational attainment shape teacher understandings of racial and socioeconomic disparities?

I consider my work a piece of bioethics. I stand between the natural and social sciences, two fields often at odds with each other. I am driven by concern for how this research might be used unintentionally (or intentionally) to marginalize peripheral groups in the US education system. However, some would consider my work controversial, arguing that by examining genetic research on cognitive ability and education, I give too much consideration and by extension credibility to an inherently eugenic institution. On the other hand, many behavior geneticists believe their work does and will benefit mankind, and feel many in the social sciences recycle the same criticisms and are unwilling to hear their story. When it comes to behavior genetics, I believe collaboration and dialogue between the natural and social sciences is necessary if either side is to have their voices heard by the other. This is especially critical given the history that underpins both genetics and the study of intelligence and the need to learn from the past.


Daphne Martschenko

Intelligence. Genetics. Race. Socio-economic status. Using these four words in the same sentence has closed many doors for me as a researcher. Each is difficult to talk about on its own—they’re almost explosive when joined together. In education, explicit conversations about genetics are almost taboo. However, I believe it is more dangerous for these genetic ideologies to remain under the surface, potentially misguided and uninformed, than to be brought out into the open where they can be thought out and worked through.

Despite the difficulties I’ve faced getting people to talk about these four words, I strongly believe in examining how these concepts and the  hard and social sciences interact and overlap—and in the value of picking up some diplomacy skills along the way.

Works Cited

Asbury, K., & Plomin, R. (2013). G is for genes : the impact of genetics on education and achievement, xii, 197 pages.

Elhoweris, H., Mutua, K., Alsheikh, N., & Holloway, P. (2005). Effect of Children’s Ethnicity on Teachers’ Referral and Recommendation Decisions in Gifted and Talented Programs. Remedial and Special Education26(1), 25–31. http://doi.org/10.1177/07419325050260010401

Gillborn, D., Rollock, N., Vincent, C., & Ball, S. J. (2012). “You got a pass, so what more do you want?”: race, class and gender intersections in the educational experiences of the Black middle class. Race Ethnicity and Education15(1), 121–139. http://doi.org/10.1080/13613324.2012.638869

Slate, J. R., Jones, C. H., & Charlesworth, J. R. (1990).Relationship of Conceptions of Intelligence to Preferred Teaching Behaviors. Action in Teacher Education12(1), 25–30. http://doi.org/10.1080/01626620.1990.10734385

Grissom, J. A., & Redding, C. (2016). Discretion and Disproportionality: Explaining the Underrepresentation of High-Achieving Students of Color in Gifted Programs. AERA Open2(1). http://doi.org/10.1177/2332858415622175


Daphne Martschenko is a second year PhD student at the Faculty of Education researching the impacts of behavior genetics on teacher philosophies on student ability and achievement. She is a former member of Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club. You can follow her on Twitter at @daphmarts or read her research blog at: https://historicallyburdenedconcepts.wordpress.com/


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