Yellow bib project shows pupils how genocide could occur

14th January 2011 at 00:00

A group of S1 pupils was deliberately ostracised and discriminated against by staff at a secondary school, in a project designed to show how genocide could occur.

The 20 Dumbarton Academy pupils, from a cohort of 120, wore yellow bibs for a day, designating that they were inferior and would have fewer rights than their peers.

Some found the day upsetting, but staff, pupils and researchers were united in praising the project, and the school hopes to run it again.

The experiment, based on Jane Elliott's famous "blue eyesbrown eyes" experiment of 1968, took place in spring 2009, but came to wider attention at the recent Scottish Educational Research Association annual conference.

Researcher Henry Maitles, of the University of the West of Scotland, told delegates he would never have been allowed to run such an experiment, on ethical grounds. But the "yellow bib" idea was devised by the school and backed by West Dunbartonshire Council, providing a rare opportunity to scrutinise such a project.

It took place on the final day of the school's 12-day "One World" citizenship project that year, which largely suspended the usual S1 timetable and has been highlighted by Learning and Teaching Scotland as good practice. The 20 pupils knew in advance what was planned, as did their parents, but other pupils were not briefed. Using the expertise of English teacher Mandy Moody, who has a PhD in psychology, they had been chosen for their resilience.

S1 was addressed by headteacher Graham Hutton and West Dunbartonshire education director Terry Lanagan. Pupils were informed that First Minister Alex Salmond was acting on (bogus) research showing that, because they had absorbed less Vitamin D, children born in winter were inferior. As a result, they would be marked out by yellow bibs and treated differently.

The winter babies - each designated a teacher to go to should they find the situation too stressful - were made to sit on the floor, ignored when they put their hands up, and let out last for lunch. This took place throughout a day of workshops exploring the Holocaust, Anne Frank, stages of genocide, the Rwandan genocide and a senior pupils' visit to Auschwitz.

Professor Maitles, in a paper written with Glasgow teacher Erin McKelvie, said: "Even as an experienced educator and researcher, following one group of the winter babies was quite disconcerting. Although the teachers and outside speakers on the day were never brutal, there was an undertone of discrimination in every workshop."

The "most controversial and disturbing point" came in a drama workshop on discrimination, during which winter babies were completely excluded and made to stand quietly in the corner. Coupled with snubs at lunchtime, when the whole school could see the pupils in bibs, this caused two winter baby girls to become "overcome with frustration" and "very emotional in their responses", noted the researchers.

Most non-bibbed pupils kept their heads down, but 18 complained about treatment of the winter babies, although the dissent petered out.

"Given the authoritarian nature of a Scottish secondary school and that the whole experiment was sprung on them on the day, this was, I believe, a positive sign," says Professor Maitles. Two boys felt they had gained from the lowering of classmates' status, one commenting that he had enjoyed being "in charge of the winter babies".

All pupils thought the project had been a good idea, although there was anger among boys at not having been listened to, while some girls claimed they had discovered their true friends.

Mr Lanagan said the project had been "extremely powerful", largely because of thorough preparation and the context of wider work on genocide.

Two years on, Alistair Goold, Dumbarton Academy lead teacher for religious, moral and philosophical studies, says it still stands out for pupils above all other One World activities.

www.jceps.comindex.php? pageID=articleamp;articleID=183 practiceooneworldintroduction.asp


Following the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, Iowa teacher Jane Elliott told her class of white children aged eight and nine that people with blue eyes were scientifically shown to be cleverer than those with brown eyes.

Although she did not explicitly tell her pupils to treat each other differently, the blue-eyed children quickly became bossy and arrogant and their work improved, while those with brown eyes were cowed and struggled with simple questions.

Despite an often hostile public response after her experiment gained national attention, she continued it every year until 1984, largely with the support of education officials. She left teaching that year to work on diversity training in the corporate sector, which she continues to do to this day.

There was a fundamental difference between her approach and that at Dumbarton Academy: no pupils were told the project's true purpose beforehand. Former pupils have lauded her work, although some academics dispute its long-term benefits.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today