Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Fair Isn’t Always Equal

            Over the summer I taught 25 second and third graders at a literacy camp, and many of my campers had very different needs. This was very challenging because my campers were very young, and did not always understand why someone would get treated differently than them and often complain that it was not fair.

            “Miss Nicollllllllle! Why does Anthony get to leave the class and go for a walk??” a camper would complain.

            “HEY! Why can’t I use the iPad like Mehran?!” another camper would exclaim.

            However, what they really meant was that it was not equal, not that it was unfair. Fairness means that "all students have an equal opportunity to succeed" (Drake, Reid & Kolohon, 2014, p. 20), and that does not always mean that things are going to be equal. In order to explain this concept to them, I decided to have a little demonstration. During our morning circle I asked the campers to tell me what they think fairness means, and just as I expected I received a lot of answers about everyone getting the same thing, or doing the same thing. I then asked every camper to share their worst ‘ouch story’, and put a band-aid on their knee no matter where their injury was. Of course, they were all very confused and demanded to know why I would put their band-aid somewhere other than their injury. I then explained to them that I wanted to be fair so I made sure I would give each and everyone of them the exact same support, so that it was equal. After some discussion, the kids started realizing that equal treatment does not always mean fair treatment. Just because one camper needs to go on walks, or sit on a wiggle seat to get out some extra energy, does not mean that all the campers should. Or if one camper needs to use the iPad for certain activities because he is new to English, does not mean that all the campers should. After this discussion it was clear that the kids started to understand why it is fair that some children got different assistance than them, and I did not get any more complaints for the rest of the summer!


Standardized testing is criticised because such tests are unfair as they do not take student individuality into account (Drake, Reid & Kolohon, 2014).

            Dr. Richard Curwin argues that treating everyone the same is actually the most unfair way to teach students. He says being truly fair is harder and requires more work in the short run than just treating everyone the same, but in the long run, it saves time and is more effective. You can read more of his classroom tips here

            “Fairness is more likely when all students have had sufficient and appropriate opportunity both to learn and to demonstrate their learning” (Drake, Reid & Kolohon, 2014, p.21). Therefore teachers need to not only have different assessment tasks and assessment criteria (Drake, Reid & Kolohon, 2014), but also different instruction for children with exceptionalities. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) defines Specially Designed Instruction as adapting appropriately to the needs of the child, the content, methodology or delivery of instruction to address the unique needs of the child that result from the child’s disability and to ensure access of the child to the general curriculum, so that the child can meet the educational standards that apply to all children.

            As future educators it is important for us to remember that being fair means doing our best to give each student what he or she needs to be successful. What one child may need may be very different than what another child may need, and this may not always feel equal.


Curwin, R. (2012, October 23). Fair Isn’t Equal: Seven Classroom Tips [Web blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.edutopia.org/blog/fair-isnt-equal-richard-curwin

Drake, S. M., Reid, J.L. & Kolohon, W. (2014). Interweaving curriculum and classroom assessment: Engaging the 21st century learner. Toronto, ON: Oxford University Press.

Fairness [online image]. (2013). Retrieved from URL (https://www.partiallyexaminedlife.com/2013/05/09/educations-blunt-object- epistemology/) 

What Is “Special” About Special Education? Retrieved from http://sss.usf.edu/resources/format/pdf/specially_designed_instruction.pdf