Controversy Reigns

We know it was controversial. We knew it would be a tough day. And still, we did it.

For years, educators and psychologists alike having been continuing the work of Jane Elliott to help educate children and adults about their own and others’ true beliefs about race and discrimination. 

The most amazing part is that Jane Elliott began her study in Middle America, 1963 in a little town called Riceville. She began by telling her class that they didn’t really understand how to treat all American citizens as ‘brothers’. She then proceeded to segregate her class into the ‘brown-eyed’ children and ‘blue-eyed’ children; favouring the blue-eyed children and discriminating against the brown-eyed children. The results are quite startling.

Check out one clip here:

In the Zone, we teachers had noticed that our students, as a whole, also don’t really know how to treat all Australians as brothers and/or sisters. We had noticed a few comments, particularly in relation to Indigenous Australians. I hate to think what our students might say about some other cultures in Australia. 

As I was about to embark on a Unit of Work on ‘Human Rights’ with my AIM class, I had planned to do the ‘Blue-eyes/Brown-eyes’ exercise anyway. [NB: Two years ago, I had simply shown the video to my students and they had wished that we conducted the “real” exercise.] Following the a fore-mentioned observations,  we agreed that we would run the exercise across Stage 3 for one day; leaving the last session for debriefing.

In the end, we would only run it for 1/2 a normal school day.Image

We followed Jane Elliott’s original procedure with the exception that the favoured group would be those with brown eyes. The exercise’s success would be pinged on convincing the students that the teachers really believed that brown-eyed people were better than blue-eyed people. By 10am, skeptical students had begun to believe that the teachers weren’t mucking around. [NB. My AIM class had started a study of Human Rights the previous day and I had suspected that they might cotton-on. They were instructed not to discuss their observations with anyone else].

Many of the teachers observed that it was the hardest day in their teaching career. It’s certainly not a pleasant one. As staff, we ensured that we had emailed the parents an outline so that they were able to debrief with their children afterwards and in the end, we allowed a full 1/2 day to debrief.

Although we didn’t have punch-ups like Jane Elliott’s class, we definitely had teasing. At recess, a number of students were heard teasing the blue-eyed children. They were calling them simply that – “Blue-eyed”. Nearly 50 years on from the original exercise and the children’s responses were still the same. Interesting.

What was also interesting was that some students whose parents work at the school immediately ran to that adult at the first opportunity to talk about the injustice. One student even texted his father in the break to ask if he could be removed from the school. All the students who went to their parents had blue-eyes. My first question is this: Would the students have run to their parents if they didn’t have blue-eyes? Would they have spoken out against the injustice done to others?

Before we had our debrief, we asked students to write about their feelings of the day. Talk about stimulated to write! They could have kept going for far longer than the allocated 20 minutes. Here are some student observations.





















So… was it worth it? In my opinion, it was a hard day but a worthwhile day. And as we’ve been teaching our students; Hard = Good.

Are you wondering about the community’s reaction? We had a number of emails from both parents and students. One was negative (parent of a blue-eyed student) and the rest were overwhelmingly positive. One parent even said “Please do this for every Stage 3 group!”.

Should you try it?

I’ll leave that you and your team to decide.





2 thoughts on “Controversy Reigns

  1. You have taught a lesson that will never be forgotten. When you see these students years from now they will still talk about this lesson and ask if you still teach it and how it is working. I teach a similar lesson about dictatorship. It is an emotional day and hard to teach but I have realized well worth it. Bravo for being transcendent and getting your students and community to critically evaluate themselves. A timely lesson for any time period. Tip of the hat.

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