By Dr. JEFFREY L. MITCHELL
While each year thousands of studies are completed in psychology and education, there are a handful that over the years have had a lasting impact on education and learning.
In a series of Extra Credit articles, I have been highlighting several seminal studies that have had a profound impact on teaching and learning. Article 11 in this series shows how superficial differences in physical characteristics can quickly and powerfully lead to racist, discriminatory and prejudiced thoughts and actions.
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Can you create prejudice in a day? Can biases be based on the color of one’s eyes?
The study under examination shows this is possible. What this means more broadly for education and learning will then be explored.
On April 4, 1968 Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Inspired by Reverend King’s legacy, an Iowa school teacher, Jane Elliott, conducted an activity with her students, that later became a published study. She hoped her third-graders would better appreciate the influence of racism, discrimination and prejudice by participating in this activity.
Elliott divided her students into two groups: blue-eyed students and brown-eyed students. (It is important to note that all her students were Caucasian.) She randomly labeled the blue-eyed group as the “superior group.” From that point forward on that particular day, the blue-eyed group received preferential treatment.
For example, Elliott told her students that “scientific research” supports that blue-eyed people are “superior” to brown-eyed people. She discouraged the superior blue-eyed group from interacting with the brown-eyed group. Over the course of the day, the blue-eyed students were consistently praised and supported, and the brown-eyed students were consistently criticized and ignored.
Within the passing of one single school day, the blue-eyed students were observed to act superior to the brown-eyed students. The group of blue-eyed students performed better academically and even began bullying their brown-eyed classmates. The brown-eyed group experienced lower self-confidence and worse academic performance. The next day, Elliot reversed the roles of the groups. It did not take long for the brown-eyed students to behave exactly the same as the blue-eyed students behaved the day before. By the end of the experiment, the students were said to be very relieved that the activity was over.
Elliot was not a researcher conducting a formal study. Thus, there was a healthy skepticism surrounding the findings. However, in follow-up studies that did follow research protocol, similar results were obtained. Due to the anxiety generated among participants, deception and lack of consent, however, this study, if conducted today, would not pass muster with ethical review boards … even though some of the original participants still regard the experiment as life-
Drawing conclusions about a group of people based on superficial characteristics is a sad, and oft repeated, fact of history.
The eyebrow-raising finding from this study is how seemingly easy it was to lead a group of students to the trough of intolerance.
Why does this happen?
The need to belong is a fundamental aspect of the human experience. Even when that belonging is forged from superficial, artificial and meaningless differences.
When we are told, especially by someone we respect or revere (e.g., parent, teacher, politician), that we ought to think a certain way based on a certain characteristic, human beings are susceptible, especially when younger.
Useful are life and educational experiences that dig meaningfully deeper and explore what is really important about human differences.
Jane Elliot did this with her third-grade students when
she arbitrarily divided students based on eye color and then had them experience first-hand how wrong it was.
What to Do?
Whether at home or in school, celebrate differences in all their splendid forms. At Currey Ingram we first understand, then cultivate, then promote, then celebrate our students’ differences. It is amazing what students can and will do when placed in a culture of encouragement.
For example, during Strengths and Talents Week the stage is (literally) open for all comers to share all manners and types of strengths and talents.
Similarly, by harnessing unique Individual Education Plans (IEPs), that inform all elements of that student’s school experience, it’s clear how students are the center of their own experience, with the focus squarely on their growth relative to their strengths and talents. We try to de-emphasize comparisons between students and between students and standards.
Helping our students learn that the diversity of their strengths is what distinguishes them — not the color of their eyes. And by celebrating their strengths, we reaffirm that all of us have talents and gifts to share that contribute to creating a more compassionate, humane world.
Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell is head of school at Currey Ingram Academy.