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Real Education is Powerful

Posted by Melia Dicker on Nov 02, 2011 - 05:26 AM

Today's theme for Blog for IDEC 2012 Week is "Real education is powerful."

One of the most powerful experiences of learning I've ever seen is captured in the Frontline special "A Class Divided." Here's an excerpt from the introduction on the website:

On the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in April 1968, Jane Elliott's third graders from the small, all-white town of Riceville, Iowa, came to class confused and upset. They recently had made King their "Hero of the Month," and they couldn't understand why someone would kill him. So Elliott decided to teach her class a daring lesson in the meaning of discrimination. She wanted to show her pupils what discrimination feels like, and what it can do to people.
 
Elliott divided her class by eye color -- those with blue eyes and those with brown. On the first day, the blue-eyed children were told they were smarter, nicer, neater, and better than those with brown eyes. Throughout the day, Elliott praised them and allowed them privileges such as a taking a longer recess and being first in the lunch line. In contrast, the brown-eyed children had to wear collars around their necks and their behavior and performance were criticized and ridiculed by Elliott. On the second day, the roles were reversed and the blue-eyed children were made to feel inferior while the brown eyes were designated the dominant group.
 
What happened over the course of the unique two-day exercise astonished both students and teacher. On both days, children who were designated as inferior took on the look and behavior of genuinely inferior students, performing poorly on tests and other work. In contrast, the "superior" students -- students who had been sweet and tolerant before the exercise -- became mean-spirited and seemed to like discriminating against the "inferior" group.
 
"I watched what had been marvelous, cooperative, wonderful, thoughtful children turn into nasty, vicious, discriminating little third-graders in a space of fifteen minutes," says Elliott. She says she realized then that she had "created a microcosm of society in a third-grade classroom."

Elliott repeated the exercise with her new classes in the following year. The third time, in 1970, cameras were present. Fourteen years later, FRONTLINE's "A Class Divided" chronicled a mini-reunion of that 1970 third-grade class. As young adults, Elliott's former students watch themselves on film and talk about the impact Elliott's lesson in bigotry has had on their lives and attitudes. It is Jane Elliott's first chance to find out how much of her lesson her students had retained.
 
"Nobody likes to be looked down upon. Nobody likes to be hated, teased or discriminated against," says Verla, one of the former students. 

Jane Elliott could have approached the lesson on discrimination with definitions and worksheets, but instead she chose to give her students the experience of discrimination. Then she and the class debriefed the experiment and made meaning of it. More than a decade later, the students remembered what they had learned, and it's likely that they had changed their attitudes and behaviors as a result.

Watch "A Class Divided" online. Discuss it with your class, or with your children. They'll learn a powerful lesson that they're unlikely to forget.


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