"The blue eyed people get 5 extra minutes of recess, while the brown-eyed people have to stay in"

Over at Dangerous Minds Melissa Sweat wrote about the 1968 "blue eyes/brown eyes" classroom experiment.

The class of third graders are told that blue-eyed people are smarter and better than brown-eyed people. Blue-eyed people get an extra five minutes of recess, and the two groups aren’t allowed to play with one another on the playground. The brown-eyed children wear fabric collars so they can be identified from a distance. When, during recess, one of the children calls the other “brown-eyed” as an epithet and the child retaliates by slugging the taunter, Jane Elliott does what any good teacher would do: the child is reprimanded, but the overall exercise continues.

It was the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968 that Elliott ran her first “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” exercise in her Riceville, Iowa classroom. In 1970, Elliott would come to national attention when ABC broadcast their Eye of the Storm documentary which filmed the experiment in action. Below, is a portion from the 1985 PBS Frontline documentary A Class Divided which features the ABC footage as well as clips of a class reunion.

Blue eyes/brown eyes: Jane Elliott’s controversial classroom experiment on racism, 1968


  1. Holly crap that kid in the busted up glasses is my doppelganger at that exact time. I hope he grew up as geeky as I did.

    1.  I remember this experiment from when it was performed in our kindergarten class. It… didn’t quite turn out the way the psychologists expected. I think I’ve still got a jar of blue eyes preserved in rubbing alcohol somewhere.


  2. I feel about this project much like I do about Milgram’s authority experiments, except stronger. I appreciate the intent and some of the results, but am horrified at what the subjects were put through without anything resembling informed consent. 

    1. What the subjects were put through? Like what black kids were constantly put through during this period? God forbid that children should ever be introduced to reality.

      1. Exactly.  Experiment, schmearimint.  Walk into any multi-racial school and just observe.  Jeez.  Whiteys can be so dense.  They need an “experiment” to prove darker kids have a harder time? FACEPALM

        1. HELL YEA! Who needs methodology and empirical data when we have subjective observations and anecdotal evidence!

          1. Umm, there’s nothing stopping anyone from developing a methodology for observing “natural experiments” and to generate empirical data from those observations.  This is actually something a lot of scientists do pretty much all the time. This is exactly the sort of study that anthropologists might do for example.

            But besides that, yeah, I think it should be pretty fucking obvious that black people are treated differently from white people without a peer reviewed study.  Demanding sociological studies before you’ll accept that racism is a thing is kinda ridiculous.

        2. in a school environment whitey isn’t always on top, when i was in elementary school there was predominately a Filipino and Vietnamese population, being one of the few blonde haired blue eyed kids I was ostracized as a freak, kids wouldn’t talk to me, instead of being picked last for teams the kid before me was picked last and i was told that i wasn’t wanted

          one of my funniest memories is a group of kids yelling me out of the line to play horse, they kept yelling “GET OUT OF HERE! WHITE MEN CANT JUMP! WHITE MEN CANT JUMP!”
          thanks woody harrelson, thanks alot

          1. Yeah, I wish these kinds of experiments were done on the regular. I was ostracized in school just because I was the shy bookish nerd of the class. It doesn’t have to do with race necessarily – it has to do with the majority vs. the “outsiders.”

          2. Yes, you were a racial minority in that context and got treated as a racial minority.  One would hope that would give you some insight into people who are racial minorities in day-to-day life.

      2. I am sympathetic with your view, Monkey_pants. And I would guess that you, this teacher, and I are on pretty much the same page where racism is concerned. 

        But I don’t think I agree with your argument as stated here, and I’ll try to show why by analogy. There are places in the world today where children are kidnapped and used as soldiers.Some of them help burn other villages down until the day when they’re shot and killed themselves. This is reality, and I would encourage schools to help prepare their students for understanding it. But if a teacher takes it upon himself one day to start giving his students this direct experience of being child soldiers, I will question his methods. 

        1. That’s just a terrible, terrible analogy. The two situations are not the same. The only real way to truly have empathy is to have a real understanding of someone else’s point of view. I may come across as harsh, but you remind me of the thousands of helicopter parents in the country busy churning out carefully protected, permanently damaged children who will never be actual adults because their parents insist on preventing them from ever experiencing anything difficult or bad. Life is harsh, and painful and difficult. The way to prepare children for life as happy, productive, thinking adults is not to carefully shield them from life, it’s to introduce painful and difficult concepts to them in a controlled environment where what is happening to them can be thoroughly explained and discussed. Exactly what this teacher is doing.  I’ll wager quite a bit that these children were not traumatized by this experience – instead they probably look back on it as one of the most profound and instructive experiences of their lives. 

          1.  IIRC people said similar things about the Milgram experiment (that it was a profound and instructive experience).

          2. I meant my analogy to be extreme. My point was that your initial argument seemed to valorize getting “introduced to reality” a bit too much. I appreciate the argument you make here more. 

            I actually agree with you, monkey_pants, about the dangers of helicopter parenting. I’m the guy at the playground who says that kids need to learn how to fall when they’re young. I’m not a fan of overprotection. 

            If we have a remaining difference of opinion, it probably comes down to our estimation of how well-designed the blue eyes/brown eyes experiment was. A lot of people see it as wondrous. I’m appreciative of what this teacher tried to accomplish, but feel like there are obvious potential downsides that it’s not clear to me she took into account. I began by saying I was horrified. I’ll downgrade that to skeptical. 

    2. Did you watch the video? (I mean this genuinely). I was a little…concerned by the description, but in practice it wasn’t quite the same. She starts out talking about discrimination, and what discrimination might feel like, and makes it very clear that the color of eyes is an arbitrary thing (“i’m blued eyed, so I say blue-eyed people are the best!”) before going on to the “blue eyed people are smarter!” bit, so it’s clearly framed as a kind of make-believe. And then of course she reverses the whole thing the next day. It’s the kind of thing that really only works with that age group- they’re old enough to know it’s pretend/arbitrary, but they’re still young enough to get completely caught up in the play as if it were true.

      1. Except she apparently did it with some prison guards & such as adults, and found much the same thing.  They even asked their eye color and had “browns only” signs up all over.

        1. well, yeah, but that looks like a kind of seminar thing, and you can get that with any kind of thing that asks adults to play along. They do clearly know better. A couple of times, you can catch furtive smiles.  But I think the kids forget a little. 

        2. I saw that decades ago and it stayed with me – especially when she said to the the young woman playing all cutesy (paraphrasing) “don’t get cute, get educated!” and that really pushed me to recognize when i was using my gender as a free pass and also when others were too. We cannot look at the original experiment with “today’s eyes” and judge what she did – things were very different then and less politically correct but I’m sure the experiment was effective in that it made the kids think out of the box, to question what they are told and to use reasoning… sadly these things are not taught to school kids today.

      2. I’ve heard of this experiment before but this is the first time I have seen some of the actual footage. I never knew that she reversed the groups so that they each got to experience being both the preferred group and the less preferred group. It always sounded like a cruel experiment to me, but seeing her teaching so explicitly about discrimination as she takes them through the exercise makes it a lot more understandable. I don’t even really see this as an experiment but just as a teaching exercise.

      3. Thanks for the thoughtful question, novium. It’s been years since I watched any footage of this, and my memory may be exaggerating certain aspects. I recall the powerful effect the children said this project had on them, which is wonderful – and that may be the more important point. But it also left me uncomfortable with the teacher deciding to do this to her students on her own. Maybe I should watch this video and rethink my position. 

        I used to teach Milgram’s famous experiment – the one where subjects think they’re delivering electric shocks to a man for missing words on a spelling test, potentially to the point where he has a heart attack. The findings are flabbergasting and of roughly equal social significance to the blue eyes/brown eyes results. But there came a day when I began to feel conflicted about teaching this material too. Maybe it’s simplest to say that I have come to value informed consent highly. 

        1. Consent is important.  But surely there’s a difference in an experiment (or even teaching an experiment) and something designed as a teaching tool to promote empathy and understanding of discrimination?

          1. You are correct, novium. The Milgram experiment would no longer be allowed without an extensive consent process. Because blue eyes/brown eyes is a teaching method, the same rules do not apply. And Internal Review Boards would certainly have no jurisdiction over teaching about an experiment.

            Yet my conscience was still tripped. (Sometimes it is overactive, no doubt.) 

  3. Looking at that girl with the cool cat-eye glasses, I’d say Iowa (or at least their 3rd graders) were waaay cooler back then!

  4. At my elementary school, we had captains taking turns picking other students for dodgeball teams.  It came to much the same thing, even if it produced a continuum rather than two discrete categories.

  5. Wow, how remarkable. I was just a few minutes ago recalling a day in elementary school in the late 60’s, I think in second or third grade, when my teacher laid this trip on our class. Caused enormous upset in the classroom, with the blue-eyed kids lording it over us lowly brown-eyes. Caused such a ruckus — kids must have told their parents and enough complained that the principal had to come into the classroom first thing the next day and apologize and clarify the event for our young minds. I can only assume the teacher had not cleared it with the principal. Can’t say I learned much from the experience except how unfair it was, which I suppose was the lesson.

  6. The experiment is interesting, but what grabbed my attention is how little school has changed in the past 45 years. That classroom looks a lot like a modern 3rd grade classroom. Why so little innovation in education? 

      1. I had the displeasure of experiencing open classrooms for two years.  It’s amazing how much harder it is to concentrate in that kind of environment.  Not to mention what happens if you have one teacher somewhere in the school with a short fuse.  

    1. I taught high school for a year and we had a seminar-type thing for new teachers.  Someone mentioned a joke that went something like:
      Rip Van Winkle wakes up in the 21st century after being asleep since the mid 18th.  People take him from place to place and he has trouble understanding what all these places are.  He’s never seen anything like a hospital — the closest thing he’s seen is a hospice where people go to die.  He’s never seen anything like a train station. 

      But when they bring him to a school he sees the desks, sees the chalkboard, and says, “Oh, I know what this place is!”

  7. This looks like an age-appropriate quick-play implementation of the Color Game from The War Between the Classes. Or, alternatively, this is the grandfather of the version in the book, since it predates it by a few decades. We had to read it in English class in high school.

    However, where I lived, racism wasn’t that big of a problem… as long as you weren’t a native.

  8. I’m curious – how would they deal with heterochromia?

    And if this were an actual standing policy, might it motivate a few of the more resourceful and knowledgeable kids to try to change their eye color in various ways?

    1. Just assign them to blue since brown-eyed people outnumber blue-eyed people handily pretty much anywhere but Norway and Minnersoter.

  9. What a brave person; not only because of the potential backlash and controversy but also because it must have been extremely difficult to see children that she loved suffer and see the worst of them come out.

    I watched the PBS documentary and it was wonderful to see the reunion, how she embraced every ancient student as an old friend, remembering each of their names: A true teacher. It sure puts a lot of perspective on what she did and why. She wanted to give them the gift of knowing exactly why empathy and social justice matter: Not because they’re cute concepts and pretty words but because the alternative is the loss of humanity.

  10. My poor kid would get shafted on both days of the experiment.  We still haven’t figured out what color his eyes are. At an early checkup, we asked the pediatrician.  She said “They are … they are … I don’t know.”  There is distinct blue, green, yellow, and brown.  Plus several variations on each.  We call them hazel, which isn’t really a match, because WTF isn’t an option.

    1. Clearly, he is a deviant half-breed.

      (I’m sure your son is perfectly charming and well-loved. The above is totally sarcasm.)

      1. That’s our theory too.  My wife claims no genetic relation to him.  She tells people he’s the product of two gametes from me.

        She teaches genetics …

        1. Given the implications for what she suspects your sex chromosones might look like, have you had genetic testing done in your lifetime?


    2. While my eyes aren’t that complicated, they are somewhere between blue and green – the Navy thinks they’re green, while my driver’s license says they’re blue, it all depends on the light. Good luck to your son on that front.

    3. I have a similar eye color, but if I wear contacts, even with the tiny hint of blue tint, my eyes are green.  I generally go with ‘hazel’.  YMMV.

    4. Mine are bluegreygreen with a bit of mustard around the pupils.  I just call them green, but it’s not very accurate.

    5. Burn the witch!

      Just kidding. My eyes are sort of a muddy greenish/brown color with gold webbing. My evil blue eyed brother and sister used to lord it over me that their blue eyes were superior and say that I have simple brown eyes when I clearly don’t. I just call it hazel.

  11. Yes!  I had this done to me in elementary school, was on the winning side for a while then they turned the tables.

    Although done without consent etc, the lesson was assimilated in an instant into the minds of all present, and no-one complained or felt odd about the experience.

    But going from ‘the best’ to ‘we’d rather you sat at the back’ was a little deflating.

    If it happens to my kids, I wouldn’t be cross.

  12. My 7 year old just yesterday was asking about the process of captains ‘picking’ their teams – which at age 7 is basically a popularity contest and has little to do with skills.  And it is awful for kids to be picked last – which I had somehow imagined schools had gotten past by now.

    Clearly my kid had some issues with the process.  He is the biggest and sportiest kid in the class, and much better adjusted and popular than I ever dreamed of being at that age.  But he didn’t like the looks on some of the ‘later to be picked kids’ faces (sadness).

    Kids are wonderful, but also desperate to find any indications of their own status. A brown-eyed/blue-eyed division would be no more arbitrary than any other divisions that they find or create. So far it has been a wide range of divisions and modes of exclusion/inclusion, and my kid has been on both sides of the divide depending on the issue.

    Anything that teaches kids empathy and caring is a good thing, if done carefully and with caring and empathy.

    1. As a kid who was almost always picked last (or at least in the bottom 3), I’m proud of your son for spotting exactly what is fucked up with allowing individual children (team captains) to choose from their peers who their teammates are in the real world.

    2. I would have been picked second to last, but Mr. Murphy sensibly had us count off odds and evens. In the mid 1960s. Turns out that not all gym teachers were assholes.

        1. He might have been more sympathetic because he was about 5′-4″ and his two sons were in the zeroth percentile for height.

    3. Jesus – they still let that happen? Why don’t they just line the kids up and have them vote on which members of the class they like the least? Talk about cruel and unnecessary.

    1. Thank you!  I absolutely love Frontline.  Just hearing the narrator’s voice and beating drums of the theme music gives me goosebumps.

  13. They did this in my junior high school for a while but too many parents complained after too many kids took it too seriously.  I have hazel eyes.  I was never sure where I would fit.

  14. Man, I have a lot of respect for teachers after watching this video. There’s no way I could stand in front of a group of 3rd graders and lead them as well as Jane does.

    1. Yeah, it’s incredibly skilled work.  People think of it as being mostly about knowing and lecturing about the subject matter but there’s a whole set of skills that are actually more important in a lot of ways, especially for elementary school teachers.

  15. They tried this in the early 70s at my elementary school.  Sadly, being precocious, I had already read about the experiment in a magazine, and was not impressed.  If I were in a jury pool, I’d have been eliminated for having inside knowledge of the case.

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