Lessons from pioneers of the past and future

20th July 2012 at 01:00

Some of the most shocking lessons are the ones that stick, the ones children take with them through the rest of their lives. The famous "blues eyesbrown eyes" exercise by American teacher Jane Elliott in Iowa in 1968 is a striking example.

This was a lesson in exclusion, following the death of Martin Luther King, which taught youngsters how it felt to be mistreated because of the colour of one's eyes or skin. Not only did it teach the children about the Holocaust, prejudice and discrimination, it taught Ms Elliott about her own "frail ego, violence and frustration". Now, in her 80th year, her language to reporter Henry Hepburn is still vehement when she recalls "the little brown-eyed witch" who turned on her because she, the teacher, had blue eyes. To this day, some of her pupils say it was the most important thing they ever learned in their lives (TESS Interview, page 14).

That lesson was revived in recent times by a school in West Dunbartonshire (TESS, 14 January 2011), which shows how one teacher's classroom experiment is still rippling across the ocean and the decades.

Vivid scenarios are now being played out in classrooms across the world as futurologists encourage schools to prepare for a life without oil or an unknown future. Professor Michael Bassey of Nottingham Trent University foresees teacher-led teams of pupils supporting the elderly, growing food and raising livestock (page 24). Schools in the UK are encouraged to connect more with the communities around them and to cultivate their gardens in preparation for whatever the future might hold. Meanwhile, in Seattle, US, a geography teacher is preparing classes for a zombie invasion. He knows how to grab the attention of his pupils and they are learning to rebuild society.

Jane Elliott's experiment was controversial but groundbreaking. It seems absurd now that this international pioneer of the classroom dropped out of an MA in education because she was not allowed to write theses on dyslexia or her eye-colour exercise.

Teachers in Scotland are strongly encouraged nowadays to be pioneers in their classroom, doing practical and theoretical research. The McCrone report established the ill-fated chartered teacher route in 2001 as a step towards creating a master's profession. Ten years later, the Donaldson report argued that all new teachers should have a master's account opened for them.

When you read about Dean Park Primary in Edinburgh having a headteacher with a PhD, a senior depute working towards one, two chartered teachers and others on the way to a master's, you can see the vision materialising (page 5). Then you discover depute head Rehana Shanks' findings that very few primary teachers knew anything about Donaldson or McCrone - major reports that will affect their careers. It's enough to make you despair.

gillian.macdonald@tess.co.uk, Editor of the year (business and professional).

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