A Class Divided

This week, I’ll be talking about something that I don’t know much about, so there will be many quotes (because, you know, I would rather give educated opinions than ignorant ones). Yay! Quotes! Now for psychology or education majors, “A Class Divided” is probably pretty old hat. I myself just discovered its existence, and I think it’s something worth sharing. Watching the video below will probably give you a pretty good idea of what it’s all about, but I’ll explain further. It’s basically an exercise to see how children treat each other differently based on one group being arbitrarily designated as inferior, in this case by eye color.

You can also read more about it here.

My sister*, the elementary education major, from whom you will probably be reading a lot of quotes while I continue to be interested in education, underwent the exercise in one of her classes. While it was a different experience, of course, from the original exercise on young children in the late 1960’s, the results were nevertheless interesting.

She writes:

“As a language arts minor, I am required to take an intercultural communications class. This is especially beneficial to me because there will be students from all kinds of cultural backgrounds in my future classroom. On Wednesday, my professor did a rather unusual exercise. She made all of the blue-eyed or light-eyed people in our classroom stand in the hallway and all of the brown eyed people stay in the class. We waited outside for fifteen minutes and she would periodically check on us and rather brusquely tell us that we were being too loud and disruptive. When we entered the classroom, it was obvious that we were seen as inferior. If we did anything wrong, such as smile, laugh, or not pay attention, she would over-generalize for the whole group. She repeatedly asked brown-eyed people what they noticed from our behavior and got negative responses. We played a game in class and even if our answers were correct she gave us fewer points than the brown-eyed people. She even paired the brown-eyed people up with the blue-eyed so they could “facilitate” us because we were incapable of doing so ourselves. My facilitator actually told the professor that I had a good answer, to which she replied, “Well, Chelsea is a credit to her race!”

I realize that this was a simulation. My professor didn’t just wake up one day and think, “Well, since I have brown eyes, brown eyes are obviously superior.” Even though I was aware of this, it was still extremely frustrating. As a Caucasian student at a primarily white school, I have never felt like I was part of a marginalized group. Of course, the fact that I am a woman means that sometimes I am not taken as seriously as I could be, but I am used to this and I’m usually able to shake it off. The blonde jokes that are directed my way sometimes get old as well, but I know that my friends and family are just teasing me. The kind of frustration that I faced within this one hour of class time was completely different, however. It made me so angry because there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. I knew that the answers I was giving were correct because I love my class and have done all the readings, but it didn’t matter. Nobody was listening to me. It was almost as if I were invisible.

On Friday, she explained to the class that this was an exercise from “A Class Divided”. A teacher in Riceville, IA, a small, rural community that is primarily white, did this exercise with her third graders the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. passed away. On the first day, she would have one eye color above another; on the second day, she would switch what eye color was superior and inferior. She continued to do it for years and now does adult trainings as well. It’s incredible to see how these two days in class affected the third graders for the rest of their lives. The teacher also did a study and found that the students who are “superior” tend to improve academically for the rest of the year. On the day that students are “inferior” they tend to do worse.

This training has definitely been effective and influential. In just one hour, I had the opportunity to see what it would be like to walk in someone else’s shoes. It made me consider the privilege that I hold just because I was born this way in a different light. I highly recommend watching the documentary if you have time and promoting trainings like this in your hometown school.”

I don’t think I can say it much better. Additionally, I believe these results would hold for any number of groups in which a type of person could be made to feel inferior, be it women, minorities, socioeconomic groups, or those who simply learn at a slower pace. Classrooms need to become inclusive and teachers need to focus on giving individual attention and encouragement where it is needed. Then, and only then, will students be able to learn up to their full potential and not feel intimidated in the classroom.


*Note: You should follow my sister’s ideas as religiously as you follow mine, dear readers. She’s very smart and over-achiever-y. Case in point: I ask her for some quotes for my post, she gives me a 600 word short essay. Gotta love her.