Is Jane Elliott’s Lesson Relevant Today?

Punita RiceTeaching

Do you remember Jane Elliott’s famous “A Class Divided” lesson? It’s the one where the blue-eyed children and the brown-eyed children were set up against one another. Times have changed, but maybe we still need this lesson. Is Jane Elliott’s lesson relevant today?

Her original lesson, in its time, was groundbreaking. People were still deeply entrenched in what the researcher Sonia Nieto might describe as monoculturalism (with a healthy dose of blatant racism mixed in), it was impressive to show mere tolerance of diversity.

Jane Elliott was a pioneer for demonstrating the importance of recognizing not just the importance of progressing well beyond tolerance, but of recognizing the destructive nature of prejudice. As evidenced by Jane Elliott’s work, when students perceive themselves as being inferior, or even as being wrongly perceived as inferior by others, it can impact their mood, their self-esteem, and their work quality (and speed). Plus, framing student behaviors as defiant or oppositional, which is in the eye of the beholder (the educator) can contribute to CLD students’ low performance.

Is Jane Elliott’s Lesson Relevant Today?

Do you think Jane Elliott’s lesson about tolerance and diversity is still relevant today?  In recent years, Jane Elliot has recently been working on presentations examining “the anatomy of prejudice” (here’s a link to an interview with her on her on-going, unfinished crusade).

These presentations are valuable in contexts where participants need to overcome intolerance, but given the emphasis on multicultural education in most professional programs for teachers, most teachers with even a rudimentary understanding of multicultural education and cultural competence understand that blatantly intolerant attitudes have no place in education, and so, in theory, should not gain as much from studying Elliot’s work or going through her exercise. However, this just isn’t the reality.

There is a disconnect between expectation and practice, and there may, indeed, be many teachers (even those who consider themselves highly culturally proficient) who might benefit from Elliott’s lessons. While Elliot’s work is well-received and seems to be necessary in the contexts in which she still presents (working with ‘regular’ people outside of the education world), they may still be very relevant in teaching contexts, where educators should aim for a standard far higher than tolerance, but must at least be tolerant in order to aim higher.

Do you think teachers still need this lesson?

Nieto’s levels of multicultural education support identify “affirmation, solidarity, and critique” as the highest level of support. “A Class Divided” is still a powerful lesson for a monocultural environment (the lowest possible level on Nieto’s scale). Those communities are striving merely for tolerance. But is Jane Elliott’s lesson relevant or necessary in most learning contexts where teachers support culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) learners.

Most US teacher training programs, in my estimation, align more with the second to last level of support: respect. Typical educators in the United States may have no problem with tolerance and even acceptance, but may struggle to treat all CLD students with respect.

In theory, this is not good enough, since if we imagine that people will end up realistically achieving cultural competence of multicultural education support on a level lower than the one they strive for. By aiming for respect, if the mark is missed, then teachers may end up merely at acceptance. Thus, it is particularly important for professional development programs to aim for the highest possible level: affirmation, solidarity, and critique (Nieto, 2008). That said, every single teacher must have the ‘bare minimum’ of tolerance. If that can be achieved, then they must strive towards acceptance, and then respect.

Is Jane Elliott’s lesson relevant today in your opinion? Does it aim too low for the standards we hold teachers to today? Or do you think it’s more relevant than ever?

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Frontline. (2003, January 1). An unfinished crusade: An interview with Jane Elliott [Interview transcript]. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/an-unfinished-crusade-an-interview-with-jane-elliott/

Nieto, S. (2008). Affirmation, solidarity and critique: Moving beyond tolerance in education. In E. Lee, D. Menkart, & M. Okazawa-Rey (Eds.), Beyond heroes and holidays (pp. 18-29). Washington, DC: Teaching for Change. Retrieved from http://www.sonianieto.com/OLD/PDF/Moving%20beyond%20tolerance%20Mult%20Ed%201994.pdf

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P.S. – How my brother and me ended up with different language acquisition models, and more on teaching in this day and age