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A Lesson No Teacher Should Miss: The Brown-Eyed/Blue-Eyed Experiment of 1968

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I’m posting twice today, because I came across this video that every teacher should see. It tells the story of the historic classroom experiment conducted by Jane Elliott, a 3rd-grade teacher from Iowa, on the day following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Because she knew her white students could never truly grasp what it felt like to be judged by the color of your skin, she divided the class into blue-eyed and brown-eyed groups and told them one group was superior to the other. Students’ reactions were powerful and immediate, and the effects of the experience lasted for decades.

I watched this film years ago, and since the original documentary is almost 30 years old, I think it’s safe to assume some younger people have never seen it. If you’re already familiar with it, watch again, because you’ll find it just as powerful today as you did the first time.

I don’t think any teacher today would get away with this kind of experiment, but showing this video to your students will likely impact them with almost the same intensity as the original simulation had on those kids in 1968.

(Sorry for the subtitles! The original video ended up being removed, so I had to replace it with this one. Still worth it!)

 

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7 Comments

  1. I actually had a teacher do this activity with my class. I think I was in 5th grade at the time – probably around 1978. It was a huge learning experience for me, and I will never forget it. It helped me to understand racism in a deep way that still resonates with me today.

    • Hey Terri. Thanks for sharing this. I have heard of some classrooms where this type of activity wasn’t done thoughtfully and had some negative results. It sounds like your teacher did a good job of it.

  2. Maik Siegel says:

    Hello Jennifer,
    thank you for posting this incredible video (and for creating this incredible website!). Do you have any sources that I could check to see how doing this experiment in a classroom can go wrong? It would be helpful to learn from the mistakes others have made. Thanks!

    • Hi Maik,
      Off the top of my head, I don’t. I would Google it and see what comes up. You might look for things like “how to discuss race in school” or other broad search terms like that, since this particular video may not get you the most relevant results.

  3. Karen Bland says:

    I remember being shown this film when I was in elementary school- early 1970s. Now I show it every year to my 8th graders. Very powerful!

  4. Yesenia Guzman says:

    I want to show this to my 12th graders but worry about the N word used twice. Has there been any issues playing this pbs video

    • Debbie Sachs says:

      Hey, Yesenia! I’m a Customer Experience Manager with Cult of Pedagogy and a retired elementary teacher. I personally don’t know of anyone who’s had issues playing this video. I’d just suggest providing a really good introduction, ensuring students have a good understanding of the time period and a general idea of the experiment. If the kids know ahead of time that they can expect to hear some language, such as the “n” word, as well as other comments that may make them feel uncomfortable, and that they’ll have an opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings during the debriefing or whatever assignment they’re given, then I think that is all you really need to do. Anyone else want to jump in?

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