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/

Making research accessible through animation

In 1976 the Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) launched their manifesto which stated “nothing about us without us.” This kick-started the disability movement in the United Kingdom and contributed to the development of the social model of disability. Mike Oliver (2002, p.14), one of the pioneers of the social model of disability, argued that, epistemologically, research must reject the notion that is investigating the world; rather it should replace it with an understanding that “research produces the world.”In testament to this and the disability movement, the most important things to me as I go through my PhD is ensuring that my work maximises participation and inclusion and that the participants take an active role in the research. This notion has strongly influenced the way I am trying to go about my research, and accessibility is a key issue for me.

Hannah Ware

The young people I research with have been identified as having special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). They have difficulties with speech and language communication, meaning that researching in typical ways might not be particularly accessible or useful. Ethically and morally, it is integral that my participants truly understand the purpose of the research and are engaged and enthusiastic about participating. The research explores how the young people view and describe themselves, as well as  how young people experience belongingness in different educational settings. In order to research this, I co-construct narratives with the young people using different visual methods for elicitation.

I have spent a lot of time reflecting on the best way to communicate the purpose of my research to the young people. I have decided to use my animation skills to make the research, concepts, and ethics explicit. For example, part of the animation explores the importance of being able to say yes and no, or choosing to be silent. I have used animation combined with a narrator and also text to create an accessible video. The text that I have used is a symbol and text language called Widgit and it is often used in special schools. The symbols are designed to visually convey the concept of the word to help readers and non-readers access meaning. Increasing understanding through making text accessible is a key way to helping make my research more inclusive.

If any readers have the time, I would encourage them to click on the link below and take a few moments to watch the animation; I would be grateful for any feedback!



Hannah Ware is a second year PhD student at the Faculty of Education researching alongside young people identified as having special educational needs and/or disabilities. You can follow her on Twitter at @warehannahware  or email her at hw316@cam.ac.uk. 



A poetic reflection on a Cambridge PhD

Chesterton Road, 2014
It’s hard for me to write a sentence
which conveys all the things that I feel
For what seem like an importance
is a bit hard for one to deal.

“tread softly on my dreams, dear professor”
for it is fragile and soft,
“tread softly on my wishes, dear professor”
for it needs to be kept aloft.

Keep me grounded, however,
to remind me of reality,
Keep me grounded, however,
so I don’t lose focus in its entirety.

Being in this city overwhelmed me,
but at times it gives me peace,
though the thought of it scares me,
but I’m not alone in the least.

Being in this city excited me,
for the knowledge I’m gonna get,
Being in this city exhausted me,
for the standard I am expected to be at.


“tread softly on my dreams, dear professor”
for I need it to keep aloft,
keep me grounded, however, professor,
so my journey be smooth and soft.

This poem represents my overwhelming thoughts during my first term as a PhD student at the Faculty of Education in Cambridge. Leaving Southeast Asia and Brunei and embarking on a  PhD meant that I was on a risky, rocky road less travelled. I immediately faced new challenges: immersing myself in an unfamiliar environment; being in a single-sex, mature college (I chose Lucy Cavendish, which only admits women above 21); living with then-strangers (now turned friends); and preparing a draft of my PhD literature review.

Amy Haidi with friends at Lucy Cavendish College

Despite experiencing common PhD feelings such as perfectionism, the impostor syndrome and high expectations, I quickly found my niche and felt part of a supportive community. This enabled me to satisfy my thirst for knowledge and helped me overcome such feelings. Cambridge truly is a special place for learning. The libraries are amazing, the lectures are thought-provoking, and my supervisor and other academics act both as guides and sources of wisdom. Additionally, my friends find themselves in the same boat, each in their own way, and they act as sounding boards—and some even seem to become partners in crime. I have grown a lot since writing the poem two years ago, and all in all, I feel truly blessed to be here.

Hamizah (Amy) Haidi is a third year PhD student at the Faculty of Education. Her research explores the development of reflectivity in Secondary Science (Chemistry and Biology) pre-service teachers in the Cambridge Secondary Science PGCE in the UK. You can follow her on Twitter at @AmyHeidi or read her blog: https://reflectivejourneys.wordpress.com

The intersection of PhD life and College life

As storied and unique as Cambridge is, its collegiate system is perhaps simultaneously the most baffling, interesting, and worthwhile. Particularly as a foreigner, I had little idea how to go about selecting one, or what would come with being a member of a college. I was originally bemused by this system and thought little more of it than an idiosyncrasy of an eight hundred year old university. It was after my arrival that I came to understand its value and appreciate what it had to offer.

On the surface, the colleges each provide accommodation, dinning facilities,

Faculty of Education

pastoral care, and various funds and bursaries. Almost more valuable, however, is the community of scholars that it provides.

Obviously, the Faculty of Education provided me with a diverse community of both peers and senior academics. I quickly met people from all around the globe with a wide range of experiences and research interests. Naturally, everyone had a keen interest in education, which I greatly appreciated. However, I also quickly came to appreciate the diverse community in my college, Jesus College; I met students that I likely never would have come across if it had not been for the college system.

Jesus College

Through the MCR (“Middle Combination Room,” i.e. the college graduate society) events, my friend group expanded to include graduate students in archeology, pharmacology, development studies, geology, linguistics, plant sciences, and countless others. As a result, conversations over dinner are always fascinating and wide-ranging. While I have not become an expert in these other disciplines, I certainly have gained a modicum of understanding of some of the big issues—if not an appreciation for them. In some cases, these interdisciplinary discussions have even informed my research!

Beyond the community of people, my MCR provides another meaningful aspect to life in Cambridge. Getting involved meant a range of academic, social, and welfare activities outside of “work.” Having enjoyed the activities so much, I decided to get involved in the MCR committee and help. It not only gave me

CJ and friends

C.J. Rauch with fellow Education PhDs 

something to do in the evenings, but gave me a further chance to get to know others in my college—not just graduate students, but undergrads, senior academics, and administrators.

As with many things, what you get out of college life depends on what you put into it. I have loved my experience in my college and MCR; I no longer see it a weird relic of the Middle Ages, but a strength of a modern university.


C.J. Rauch is a third year PhD student at the Faculty of Education researching pre-service teachers in undergraduate teacher-education programmes in the United States.  He is the former president of the Jesus College MCRYou can follow him on Twitter at @CJRauchEduc or read his research blog at https://cjraucheduc.wordpress.com

A good educational read

Education is an interdisicplinary field. At the Faulty of Education in Cambridge, you will therefore find sociologists, historians, economists, psychologists, linguists, and literature scholars working side by side. Via Twitter we asked some of these scholars for book recommendations. Which book would they recommend to research students of Education and why? Not surprisingly, we received a wide range of suggestions from across different disciplines!

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Which Education books would you add to this list? We would welcome suggestions in the comments!