Stereotyping Experiment: “A Class Divided” Summary and Analysis

A free online PBS documentary called A Class Divided takes a look at a two-day experiment conducted by a third-grade teacher, Jane Elliott, in Iowa. The day after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, Jane Elliott knew that merely telling and preaching to her third-graders against discrimination wasn’t enough. “The shooting of Martin Luther King could not just be talked about and explained away. There was no way to explain this to little third-graders…”

Summary of the Class Divided Experiment

It was Tuesday during National Brotherhood Week, and the teacher asked her students “What is brotherhood?” The students answered with the golden rule and also said it’s about treating everyone like they’re your brother. She then asked her students: “Is there anyone in this United Stated that we don’t treat as our brothers?” The children answered black people and the Indians. The students responded to the teacher’s next question: what kinds of things do people say about these people? One of the students answered “look at the dumb people” and another said something about calling black people n**gers.

Mrs. Elliott then asked her third-graders if they think they could understand how it felt to be discriminated against. The students could be heard saying yes and no. That’s when she suggested to the class that maybe separating the classroom based on eye-color would help better understand what people of different skin-color go through, to which the students agreed.

On the first day of the experiment, the students were told that blue-eyed people are better than brown-eyed people. They were told by the authoritative figure of the classroom (Mrs. Elliott), that brown-eyed people are lesser than blue-eyed and that they must wear collars so people could tell who had brown eyes. She told her students that brown-eyed people are slower, dumber, worse listeners, didn’t know how to behave. The students were told that brown-eyed people cannot drink out of the water fountain and must drink out of paper cups (as to not infect the blue-eyed children with whatever they have) and that they get five minutes less of recess and can’t be played with by the superior, blue-eyed children.

Elliott was surprised at how fast her third-graders turned. “I watched wonderful, thoughtful children, turn into nasty, vicious, discriminating little third-graders.” There was bullying from the blue-eyed children, along with a violent punch to the gut of a brown-eyed boy to a blue-eyed boy after being teased about his eyes. The next day, a blue-eyed boy “forgot his glasses” (perhaps, liking the feeling of feeling superior to his brown-eyed peers, he wanted to show off his blue-eyes), only to find out that the roles were going to be reversed. On the second day of the experiment, brown-eyed people were declared superior to the blue-eyed people.

Phonic Cards

On both days of the experiments, phonic cards were shown to both groups. On the first day, the superior brown-eyed children went through the cards in about half the time the brown-eyed children did. On the second day, the opposite effect occurred, where the brown-eyed children went through the cards faster and the blue-eyed children took a longer time to get through the phonic cards.

What They Learned

At the end of the day, the kids could take their collars off and shared what they learned in a class discussion. That you can’t judge people based on their skin color, or eye color or whatever physical feature. It doesn’t matter what’s on the outside. Also, the children took away that they can’t understand what it’s like to be somebody else until they’ve walked in their shoes. Jane Elliott found that after the experiment was performed, the children’s performance academically improved.

What Happens When You Apply This to Adults?

This experiment was recorded and made into a documentary that was shared with many people, including a group of prisoners. And after, the experiment was actually performed by Jane Elliott on the correction department employees. In the group of adults, the brown-eyed people were treated with superiority, while the blue-eyed people were given a hard time.

Surprisingly, the brown-eyed adults discriminated against the blue-eyed adults (both black and white adults with brown eyes discriminated against the blue-eyed people), saying that blue-eyed individuals were incompetent, slow, rude and ignorant. Isn’t that shocking and appalling?

An Analysis

Discrimination and prejudice is an idea built in peoples’ minds, creating actual barriers that are hard to overcome. When looking at the experiment performed on the adults, the blue-eyed people argued back to Elliott’s attack on their behavior, making the individuals seem rude- when really, it was only the circumstances that were placed upon them.

In the real world, we can look at this type of situation as the effects of rich versus impoverished environments (Bownds). There is still today, clearly discrimination against minorities, despite all being “equal.” When we think about qualities some might consider those of “a typical African-American” (baggy clothes, crude behavior and language), we can’t seem to keep in mind how automatically we are associating the color of a person’s skin with these qualities.

We see rebellious behavior as “evidence”—like when the blue-eyed adults argued with Elliott when being attacked for their behavior, which was “evidence” for the brown-eyed adults that blue-eyed individuals are rude. Instead, a better way of looking at both of these situations is looking at the circumstances/environment that is placed upon these discriminated individuals. A richer environment (one with no discrimination) can be compared with an impoverished environment (one filled with prejudice).

I’m sure that plenty of studies have shown “evidence” that African-Americans are of lesser intelligence than their fellow whites, and that they’re less successful due to their lesser intelligence. These studies have collected data in different schools showing that African-Americans don’t do as well as white people. There are many flaws with these types of studies, starting with calling it evidence that black people are different than white people. Also, why is it that the circumstances/environments for African-Americans are set up for them to fail or be lesser? It’s a vicious cycle society has created, and it has literally rewired our brains to believe that these differences are due to skin color.

White people are given a better environment to strive in. A white child, with white parents, is given better circumstances than a black child with black parents. Say both sets of parents each have the same jobs—all four, exactly the same (say the profession is a teacher for all). The white parents are probably going to make more than the African American parents, which means they will be able to better help their children grow, being able to buy them more things, providing a “richer” environment.

In a study of rats, when the rats were given a “richer” environment, they had thicker cerebral cortexes and their brain never cells are larger and have more neuron connections. So, applying this to humans, the white child, having more neuronal connections due to the help of his richer environment, does better on tests, because he can learn more easily. Also, the black child has something else working against him. The feeling of actually being lesser than the white child, feeling like the white child is more superior.. this feeling, as we could tell from Jane Elliott’s experiment on her third graders when using the phonic cards, affects the discriminated child’s learning and cognitive responses, when the children feel that they are less advantageous than the “superior” group.

It’s not that African Americans create this environment for themselves (this feeling of being less superior)—it’s the way society has set up this economic system, which works against them. Perception is filtered by many factors. The way American society is set-up directly affects how we perceive it. The ideas we have are a paradigm we have yet to shake, as we accept what we perceive as “real”. It may seem very real that black people are “dumber” because—look at all the studies done! This is just the way we perceive this whole, untrue idea because it’s not actually real. That’s not the way it is. We are all essentially the same.

Humans get confused by sensation and perception all the time, but our minds play tricks on us. It’s hard to overcome stereotyping and discrimination when these illusions are hard-wired into our minds due to our everyday lives. And these falsehoods and ideas are actually physically rewiring how our brains work and perceive. These stereotypes damn black people from the start, only fulfilling the low expectations society has placed on them and letting that act as a mental barrier.


  • David Bownds, Biology of the Mind
    This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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