Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A Class Divided (Jane Elliott)

As you know by now, I am currently doing a course on Equality and Diversity, focusing on Louise Derman-Sparks' Anti-Bias Approach (ABA). At our last workshop, we were shown a  very interesting documentary about Jane Elliott's exercise in the 1970s, a program called "Eye of the Storm”, during which she separates the children into different group, according to the colour of their eyes. The idea of the eercise came straight after the assassination of martin Luther King. Jane Elliott asked her school children if they would like to try an exercise to feel what it was like to be treated the way a colored person is treated in America, mentioning that it would be interesting if there was segregation based on eye color instead of skin color. The children enthusiastically agreed. On that day, she designated the blue-eyed children as the superior group and gave them extra privileges, such as second helpings at lunch, access to the new jungle gym, and five extra minutes at recess.The blue-eyed children sat in the front of the classroom, and the brown-eyed children were sent to sit the back rows. The blue-eyed children were encouraged to play only with other blue-eyes and to ignore those with brown eyes. The brown-eyed and blue-eyed children were not allowed to drink from the same water fountain.  What was amazing to watch was the immediate changes in their personalities and interaction with each other as early as the first 15 minutes.One day, the blue eyes are looked upon as the privileged group.  The roles were reversed the second day. Jane Elliott basically created a microcosm of society in a third-grade classroom and made sure children were going to be presented in the most practical way possible to discrimination and what it feels to be discriminated: “I knew that my children were going to walk in someone else's moccasins for a day. Like it or lump it, they were going to have to walk in someone else's moccasins”.  The video shows how a reunion of Elliott's third graders, now young adults, took place in the 80s. It also shows Elliott teaching her lesson to adult employees of Iowa's prison system and to people of a workplace. It documents how their reactions to her exercise were similar to those of the children. 

Please have a look at the video: it teaches us a lot about ourselves!

What came to me when I watched it was that it was a remarkable experiment, but it occurred to me that today such an exercise would never be permitted.

Not because we have a conservative stance in our country. On the contrary, I firmly believe that teachers (preschool teachers, primary and secondary school teachers etc..) are being very creative in the way they teach nowadays. I just have to look at all the informative paperwork that comes my way from my own children’s primary school. The children have a new subject called SPHE (social physical health education) which deals with issues such as bullying, being different, integrating everybody, being a family, a community etc.. My eldest daughter attend the Presentation Secondary School in Wexford. Two weeks ago, she attended with all her peers a workshop on LGBT (“lesbian, gays, bisexual and transsexuals”). This is a push towards LGBT inclusive curricula which can help educators to create more honest and accurate instructional programs, as well as safer and more affirming environments for all youth. Times have moved on. That’s a fact. This is no longer the 80s Irish education system. Schools are no longer circumscribed drastically because people are afraid to speak. Anti-bias approaches are being adopted across the curriculum. It is again a low process, but it is happening. Educators are being educated and are educating the children, teaching them how to respond to inequality and discrimination. If values taught at school used to be narrow and restricted in the 60s and the 80s, I think that nowadays, horizons are being broadened up.

The exercise of “a class divided” would simply not be allowed as it could damage children if not done properly. Jane Elliott herself didn’t recommend educators to use the exercise if they have received no training. I, as a parent, would not allow my children to take part in it. I really believe that a child can be scarred for life even if they are pretending. This could give them a complex and completely destroys their self-esteem and their sense of belonging. I would never agree to have the exercise implemented in a classroom. Children can be taught in many other direct and indirect ways using props, books, stories etc… Children do not need to be put in the shoes of an oppressed or discriminated group, whether they are in preschool or in primary school!

However,  I would see great benefits of the exercise if implemented in Irish’s workplaces for instance. Or with teachers in training.. After all, to teach children about equality, as Louise Sparks has explained, adults working with children need to look at their own attitudes towards minority group. And this is the perfect example.


  1. For the video "A class Divided" by Jane Elliott it shows about 7 videos into it that adults since they have been exposed to discrimination before they are still offended and shows the minority will always exist and the back lash of knowing about discrimination will always effect people. This article on the video shows how this can be detrimental to people, their opinions, way of thinking because even if feeling superior or below another minority group produces different reactions of either more positive behavior or more negative behavior it can have effects on their self esteem and not actually permanently change an individuals opinion.

  2. The video only shows the positive affect, for all we know the adults in the film probably grew up with a little damage. I completely agree with you.

  3. In the video "A Class Divided" Jane Elliott shows a technique she developed to teach her 3rd graders about equality. However, since Martin Luther King had just been assassinated, she wanted to give her students a life lesson that they would always remember. She divided her class into blue and brown eyed kids and gave each group the superiority for a day. Fourteen years after, we see in the video the same students in a classroom, discussing their thoughts about racism and discrimination. They all believe in equality and also that a person shouldn't be judged based on their appearance.


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