Classroom experiment shows how susceptible children are to racism

Summary

An Antwerp teacher called on an experiment from 1960s America to show children how easily they discriminate against others based on basic differences

Do you think that an Antwerp teacher’s social experiment proves that children are highly susceptible to racism?

Based on 1968 exercise

Yesterday’s episode of VRT’s newsmagazine Koppen revealed the results of a classroom experiment carried out in an Antwerp primary school showing how easily children can be convinced to discriminate against each other. The point of the exercise was to reveal how susceptible children are in reinforcing prejudices.

The teacher, Jan Bergs, separated his class of fifth-year primary students into two groups: those with blue eyes and those with brown eyes, denoting one group as superior and with greater access to school equipment and materials. It was based on the same exercise undertaken by an American teacher, Jane Elliott, in 1968.

Elliot put her experiment into action the day after the murder of civil rights activist Martin Luther King to show her pupils how discrimination feels. She has gone on to be an internationally recognised expert and speaker on racism issues.

The Antwerp exercise showed similar results, nearly 50 years later. In one day’s time, the children, aged between 10 and 12, started to discriminate against other children on the basis of their assigned eye colour. During discussions, children stated, for example, that rubbish collectors normally have brown eyes, while surgeons and professional footballers have blue eyes.

Koppen showed the news item to Jane Elliott herself, and she reacted with shock. “Has nothing changed between 1968 and now?” she asked. “If this is indicative of the entire country, you’re in trouble. You need to do something.”

According to Wouter Van Bellingen, director of the Minderhedenforum (Minority Forum), inequality is strengthened by infrastructures in place in Flanders. “The conditions for discrimination are strongly present, which explains why large ethnic gaps exist here,” he said.

The diversity of society, he said, is not reflected in classrooms. He also noted, however, that if discrimination can be so quickly taught, it can be as quickly discouraged.

Bergs, meanwhile, said that changes should be implemented in Flanders’ education system, including broader study choices in the first year of secondary education and adding racism issues to teaching studies at universities and colleges. He also said that teachers should make clear to children what they expect from them.

Photo: Jan Bergs leads his fifth-year primary school students through an exercise about difference and discrimination
© VRT

Educational system

The Flemish educational system is divided into two levels: primary (age six to 12) and secondary school (12 to 18). Education is compulsory for children between the ages of six and 18.
Types - There are three educational networks in Flanders: the Flemish Community’s GO! network, and publicly funded education – either publicly or privately run.
Not enough space - In recent years, Flemish schools have been struggling with persistent teacher shortages and a growing lack of school spaces.
No tuition fees - Nursery, primary and secondary school are free in Flanders.
1

million school-going children in 2013

30

million euros Flemish education budget for new school infrastructures in 2013

11

percent of boys leaving secondary school without a diploma