Teaching Fairness vs. Equality – A Classroom Activity


Teaching fairness vs. equality; Removing the Stumbling Block

The most popular posts on this blog are Fair Isn’t Equal and Teaching the Difference Between Fairness and Equality. With good reason. These are challenging concepts for children (and let’s face it, many adults) to fully wrap their brains around. Even when we understand the difference between these concepts, many find ourselves reverting back to the age-old whine, “It’s not fair.”

To review:

Fairness means that each person gets what he or she needs to be successful.

Equality is giving each person the exact same thing.


Further, fairness continues to be one of the most commonly used arguments against inclusion. “It’s not fair to hold some students back to prevent others from falling behind,” is just one of many myths that continues to be perpetuated by those who do not fully understand the concept of fairness. Therefore, for a classroom (or a school or an organization) to be truly inclusive, it is critical that the difference between fairness and equality be both understood and embraced.


A Classroom Activity:

  1. Place two rewards high up on a shelf, so high that only the tallest student/participant can reach them (even if it takes some stretching or a little jumping).
  2. Ask for volunteers. Say, “Anyone who can reach one can have it, no strings attached.” When the hands go up, choose the tallest person first.
  3. Ask for a second volunteer. Ignore the hands and select the shortest person in the room. After a few unsuccessful attempts, he will often go for a chair or table. Say, “You may not use a chair; that would be unfair. So and so did it under her own steam. You must do the same.” Participants will likely complain: “That’s not fair! He can’t help that he’s small.”
  4. Ponder their argument and say, “Okay, give me your best reasons for allowing him to use a chair or any other kind of assistance in reaching the reward when so and so had no help. How can that be fair?!?”
  5. Listen to participants argue their case, relent (which is what you were going to do anyway) and let the student use the chair to grab the reward.
If it is even necessary, refer back to this demonstration to explain why you do certain things in your differentiated, inclusive classroom with different students at different times in order to help each of them find success. They will get it. Fair isn’t always equal.

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