A Class Divided

Are you smarter because you have blue eyes? Are you smellier because you have brown eyes? Are you more likely to succeed because you are blue eyed? Are you more deceitful because you have brown eyes? How many chromosomes determine the colour of your eyes? How many chromosomes determine the colour of your skin? What is racist behaviour really based upon? Is it something we learn?

Power and authority are two of the fundamental concepts which Society and Culture students examine. They are currently looking at why people across the world are treated differently and learning to identify and describe interactions within and between social and cultural groups.

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Today we looked at the work of a forward-thinking schoolteacher from the 1970’s named Jane Elliott who wanted to teach her class about racism. She devised an experiment with the children in her class, who were only about six to seven years old.

Jane Elliott divided her class into children who have brown eyes and children who have blue eyes. On Day One, she told the blue-eyed children: “Today you are the best children, the cleverest children. You will be able to go to playtime first. You get the best things to eat at lunch. You get the pick of the best pens in the class room.” The blue-eyed children visibly brightened; they were smiling and looked happy. Jane went on to inform the blue-eyed children that they are not to play with the brown-eyed children, as they are not very bright and have to be last in all the tasks. The brown-eyed children also had to wear a scarf around their necks so there was no doubt who they were.

Some of the blue-eyed children were a little upset as they are friends with some of the brown-eyed children. They got over this quickly, however, as they were showered with positive praise from their teacher. She told them how brilliant they are when doing flash cards. When questions were asked in the classroom, it was the blue-eyed children who threw their hands up and answered correctly.

What of their brown-eyed counterparts? Their work on the flash cards was many minutes slower. In the playground, they leant on walls, looking sad and lonely, heads bowed, shoulders slumped; their body language following their feelings. Their class work also suffers as a result.

When the teacher asked about their experience of the first day, the brown-eyed children said they did not feel like trying in class as they believed that nothing good happened for them due to their brown eyes. The blue-eyed children spoke confidently that first day due to the positive praise they had received.

On the second day, Jane Elliott switched the preferential treatment to the brown-eyed children. They were ecstatic. As they lapped up the positive praise from the teacher, their body language changed and they were more confident. The flash cards, which took them six minutes on Day One, took them only two and a half minutes. Jane Elliott told them that “brown-eyed children learn fast” and they believed her.

At the end of the Day Two, Jane Elliott talked with the children about their experiences and related it to racism.

Based on Jane Elliot’s ground-breaking experiment, which not only demonstrated lessons in racism, but also had a strong and powerful message about self esteem and self belief, we divided our class into blue eyes and brown eyes.

What we discovered really opened our eyes (pardon the pun) to the effects of racial stereotyping, and challenged us to think about how our prejudices can affect the way we treat others.

For an extremely interesting participant observation method check out the following link to Jane Elliot’s 1970’s experiment

Elliot now travels the world conducting professional development with adults on the same issues. An audio account of Jane Elliot on racism is available on the ABC’s Radio National Program.