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


  1. Hey Miss Nicole,

    I enjoyed reading about your experiences working with your campers! Your demonstration was very effective and creative! I agree with you that teachers need to be aware of their students’ individual needs and level of support they require, especially for those who have learning disabilities or are learning English. Also, I think the picture you have is great as it shows how teachers need to consider student differences and make the appropriate accommodations even though the students may not be receiving the same type of resources or support. My question is: how do we ensure fairness? Your blog reminded me of my friend who immigrated to Canada from England. When she was registered as a student she was considered an English Second Language student, when English was her first language and they speak English in England! Although she was provided with extra time on all tests and exams, she never accepted it because she did not think it was fair for other students. I believe that the teacher and school need to make thoughtful decision on providing students with support that they need to help them achieve.

    - Breanna

  2. Dear Miss Nicole,

    I absolutely agree with your thought on how being fair means doing your best to give each student what they need to be successful. Every student is different and therefore requires different ways of learning. Dr. Richard Curwin is right when he says that treating everyone the same is the most unfair way to teach students. Every person is unique in their own way and sometimes they need to learn in ways that are best for them. I really enjoyed your camp experience about fairness and being equal. It seemed like you really got through to the children about how equal treatment does not always mean fair treatment. As a camp counsellor myself, each and everyone one of the campers I encounter every day have different learning needs. From a personal experience, one of my campers gets frustrated very easily and I usually give him three times a day where he could walk it off and grab a drink of water by the fountain before he “sets off.” Understanding the individual needs of your students around you is very important for their future success. My question to you is: How can we prevent “unfair” or “unequal” situations for occurring? I look forward to hearing more about your educational thoughts and experiences. Well done on the blog, you are very creative!

    - Jessica L

  3. Dear Miss Nicole,

    Utilizing your own experience with campers was a great way to connect with your topic. I really liked the demonstration you did with them because it makes us realize that once it is explained to children they can grasp the concept. I experience in my student placement a student ask the teacher why another student got to sit on a chair during carpet time and her response was "Because she is allowed to." Although, it was because she had leg braces, preventing her from being able to sit cross legged on the carpet. This further influenced the child to complain about how it was not fair. Instead the teacher could have used an activity similar to the one you used to visually demonstrate to the student that fair is not always equal. I really like the use of Dr. Richard Curwin in your blog because he highlights the importance of teaching fairly even though it may be more work, it will save you time in the long run. As future teachers I think this is crucial, because no student is the same and sometimes we will need to create unique instruction, in order to ensure the student can meet the same educational standards of everyone else.

    - Jennifer L