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Experience is a Powerful Teacher

Over the years, I have sought resources that would help docents and other educators understand more fully the positive impact of teaching through direct, personal experience. I hoped to find something that demonstrated how much more compelling that method of teaching is than is the technique of lecturing. Though some folks recognize the usefulness of “doing” over “hearing” when teaching, and others are willing to give it a try even if they are skeptical, many museum educators simply reject the notion or do little to actually incorporate it into their instructional methodology.
While some museum-types protest that an experiential approach is less academic or less focused than scripts, lectures, or docent-led talks, I believe those arguments are incorrect and diversionary. It is my opinion that such rejection is based primarily on issues of “comfort zones.” People are most comfortable teaching as they were taught (even though their experiences were in classrooms rather than galleries, houses, zoos, parks, or gardens) and most comfortable when content parameters and personal behaviors are at their most predictable.

Teaching by allowing others to do something, find something, or otherwise make discoveries does have an element of unpredictability inherent in its process. Anything can happen, although things usually happen within an anticipated range of possibilities. Nevertheless, the mere chance that visitors might sidetrack an educator’s linear train-of-thought can be threatening. especially to those whose first concern is orderliness and predictability.

Recently, however, I rediscovered a powerful advocate for experiential teaching. It was a broadcast on the PBS show, “Frontline.” The program was entitled “A Class Divided,” parts of which were originally aired on March 26, 1985, in an ABC television documentary called “The Eye of the Storm”. The Frontline broadcast, with its additional footage, was presented in February of 2003.

If you have not seen either program, I highly recommend you obtain a copy or a transcript and experience it for yourself (It is available from PBS.) Both programs are strong, provocative, and riveting. And, while I believe it is best to get a copy or version of your own, I will attempt to summarize the programs and review their lessons in the paragraphs that follow.

The year was 1968. It was the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered. The location was Riceville, Iowa, a rural town that had no blacks, non-Christians, or other minorities among its population. A class of third graders came to school upset and confused by the tragic event. Dr. King had been their “Hero of the Month” during the previous month, and the children couldn’t understand why he had been killed.

Their teacher, a woman named Jane Elliott, could have simply told the children about prejudice and bigotry, but she felt this would have had little impact or long-term effect. Prejudice and bigotry were unfamiliar to these children and outside their realm of personal experiences.

Therefore, she believed that talking about the subject would not be fully understood or appreciated, and would have little real consequence. Instead, Ms. Elliott planned a daring “experiential lesson” for her students – – one that would allow the children to experience prejudice and bigotry and to draw their own conclusions after having done so.

Jane Elliott began by conducting a brief discussion of prejudice, asking her students if there were people in the United States who are treated differently because of their skin color. The students replied that black people and American Indians were sometimes treated differently. Then, Ms. Elliott asked her students, “Do you think you know how it would feel to be judged by the color of your skin?”

The children all replied yes, they did know. Ms. Elliott continued, “I don’t think you’d know how that felt unless you had been through it, would you? It might be interesting to judge people [in class] today by the color of their eyes . . . would you like to try this? The children responded with an enthusiastic “yeah!”

Then, Ms. Elliott tells her students that, since she has blue eyes, she thought maybe the blue-eyed people should be on top the first day. When asked by one child what that meant, she responded, “I mean the blue-eyed people are better people in this room.”

When several children protested this, Ms. Elliott continued, insistently “Oh yes they are — blue-eyed people are smarter than brown-eyed people.” Then, she told her class that the blue- eyed students would get five extra minutes of recess, while brown-eyed people would have to stay in. And, the brown-eyed people would not get to use the drinking fountain. They would have to use paper cups. And, she continued, blue-eyed children shouldn’t play with brown-eyed children because they aren’t as good as they are.

Then, Ms. Elliott told her students that the brown-eyed children would wear special collars so that people could tell from a distance that they were brown-eyed. It was at this point that the lesson began to truly take hold. She asked her students who should go to lunch first. The children responded “the blue eyes.”

Ms. Elliott agreed, and then said, “No brown-eyed people go back for seconds. Blue-eyed people may go back for seconds.” When one child asked why the brown-eyed children couldn’t go back for more, the teacher asked, “Don’t you know?”

That child answered, “They’re not smart. They may take too much.”

As the lesson progressed, the children began to divide into two camps, the blue-eyes and the brown-eyes. Tensions between the two groups mounted, and they began to call each other names at recess and distrut one another, even among children who had, until that day, been good friends. Jane Elliott states, “I watched what had been marvelous, cooperative, wonderful, thoughtful children turn into nasty, vicious, discriminating, little third-graders in a space of fifteen minutes.”

The next day, Ms. Elliott reversed the lesson. She told her class, “Yesterday, I told you that brown-eyed people aren’t as good as blue-eyed people. That wasn’t true. I lied to you yesterday. The truth is that brown-eyed people are better than blue-eyed people.” Immediately, the blue-eyed children became upset and concerned.

When asked why, Ms. Elliott began by pointing out that a blue-eyed child had forgotten her glasses, but no brown-eyed children who wore glasses had forgotten their glasses. Then, she had the brown-eyed children take off the collars they had to wear and give them to the blue-eyed children, who were told to put them on.

Ms. Elliott verbally rewarded brown-eyed children for such things as their good posture and being well behaved. And, she reprimanded the blue-eyed children for things from wiggling to having shorter attention spans. She began to call the brown-eyed children “the superior people” and the blue-eyed children “slow” and “wasteful.”

Once again, teasing and taunting took place, only the reverse of how it had the day before. When Ms. Elliott told one child, “I hate today.” He answered that he, too, hated it. Ms. Elliott said she hated it because she was blue-eyed, and the child said he hated it for the same reason.

There were other consequences beyond the nasty exchanges that took place between children of different eye colors. Those children whose eye color group was on top actually tested higher that day and tested lower on the day when life, for them, was reversed.

Following lengthy discussions by both groups of children about how it felt being on the “bottom,” Ms. Elliott lead a “de-briefing” type discussion. She asked the children, “Should the color of some other person’s eyes have anything to do with how you treat them?” The children responded with a very emphatic “NO!” Then, she asked the youngsters if you should judge people by the color of their skin? Again, the answer was an emphatic “NO!”

Jane Elliott asked if it made any difference whether people’s eye color or skin colors were different than their own. Was that how to decide if a person was good or bad? Again the answer was an emphatic “NO!” The students had learned the lesson — firmly, concretely, and personally — through experience.

Ms. Elliott told her children to take their collars off and asked them what they wanted to do with them. To a child, they wanted to throw the collars away. Some even proceeded to try and tear them apart. “Go ahead!” she told them. “Now you know a little bit more than you knew at the beginning of this week about prejudice.” The children answered, “Yes … a lot more!”

In the 1985 interview, after watching the 1968 filming of her classroom activity, Jane Elliott was asked tor her comments. She said, “I knew the night before (when Martin Luther King was shot) that it was time to deal with this [racism] in a concrete way, not just talking about it, because we had talked about racism since the first day of school. I decide at that point that it was time to try the eye color thing, which I had thought about many, many times but never used.”

The students of that 1968 class were brought back together for a reunion, which was filmed for the 1985 documentary. They spoke of how the lessons of that day in third grade had been unforgettable; how the emotions and discoveries of that lesson were indelibly embossed in their minds; and how they still retained the message and emotions of that lesson so many years hence.

Least you think that this form of learning is only effective for youngsters, you should know that experiential teaching — teaching by having learners engage in direct experience, or doing something — is equally effective for older students and adults. The eye color lesson, and the experiential method of teaching about prejudice and racism that makes it so powerful, has been applied to adult audiences. Ms. Elliott was hired to use it to sensitize prison system employees of the Iowa Department of Corrections. And, though the lesson needed to be adapted slightly to fit the conversation level and demeanor of the adult group, it was taught in a similar fashion. Even with an adult audience. learning through direct experience and personal discovery conveyed the lesson more powerfully and memorably than a lecture or an instructor-led talk would have.

Jane Elliott was a classroom teacher who recognized a teaching challenge and developed a solution that was both useful and important. Along the way, and incidental to its reason for creation, she proved the power of teaching through student involvement and experience. Educators in museums, historic sites, zoos, aquariums, parks, and gardens should take note. The opportunity to visit your facility may be an experience unto itself and, therefore, memorable. But, to ensure that students remember more than just going to your facility — that they learn from your resources and remember learning from them — a powerful and dynamic teaching encounter is required.

The experience of “doing something” and responding to doing it creates such a powerful encounter — far more powerful and memorable than mere listening or looking at things. Though developing and conducting such learning experiences may seem more challenging than lecturing, they aren’t. They simply require a change in the approach a docent takes.

And, do not think that experiential teaching need have the intensity, complexity, or angst of Jane Elliott’s eye color activity to be successful. Experiential teaching activities can be simple. Consider how easy it would be to use or adapt these experiential activities as you read the few examples offered below.

Have visitors imagine packing small bag to bring on a journey from the East Coast to the American west if traveling by wagon during the early 1800’s. What might they have to leave behind? What personal items would be important and portable enough to bring along?

After looking at an abstract painting or sculpture, ask visitors how they might defend it to a group of skeptics who were used to viewing works that were very realistic?

Hand out different types of snake skins, animal pelts, and/or other sample props to the visitors in your group. Ask them to use their senses to describe for the others how their prop looks, feels, and smells.

Arrange for visitors to look at specimens through microscopes or magnifying glasses. Have them discuss how the enlarged views differ from those seen by the naked eye.

Let students decide how they might re-organize the art works, historic objects, plants, or scientific specimens in a gallery, exhibition hall, or given space. Have them discuss what concepts or attributes guided their re-organization.

Ask groups of visitors to brainstorm a list of the many chores that might be required to maintain a historic property, mansion, zoo, park, garden, or aquarium. Discuss the items on their list, embellish each item with further details, and offer additional chores or responsibilities they may have overlooked.

Challenge visitors to make a list of attributes they might ascribe to a culture whose artifacts are being examined. Then, ask them to show ! you the evidence they used to make their assumptions.

Alan Gartenhaus, Publishing Editor

Gartenhaus, Alan. “Experience is a Powerful Teacher,” The Docent Educator 12.4 (Summer 2003): 4-7.


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