If there are any words I’ve come to dread as a parent or a teacher, “It’s not fair!” is the phrase I dread the most. It is an extremely hard phrase to reason with. My husband tells me that when he was a child, he and his brother used to put their drinks side by side every night so they could guarantee that they both had gotten the exact same amount of juice as the other. My kids try to do the same with popcorn and my students try it with seemingly everything.
The funny thing about these two words is that even though kids (and sometimes school systems) treat them like synonyms; they are not.
What is equal?
As humans we want to make sure that we are getting everything that we are entitled to. This sometimes means that if we see someone getting “more” than us, we want to remedy that situation by either getting more ourselves or bringing them down to our level. In the classroom this pops up with kids when you differentiate work, give small group teacher time, or basically any time that kids can see a discrepancy between their experience and another’s experience. No classroom functions well if every student gets exactly the same everything. It doesn’t work because their needs are more varied than making everything equal can account for.
What is fair?
When I talk to kids, I often make an analogy about a giraffe and a caterpillar. In this scenario both the giraffe and the caterpillar live in the same place and they both eat leaves. The ruler of the town decided that there should be a set number of leaves for each animal, so that the town doesn’t run out of leaves. The ruler decides to divide the leaves equally and gives the caterpillar and the giraffe the same amount of leaves. I then stop and ask, “Is this fair?”
The kids invariably shout, “NO!” They recognize the innately different needs in terms of amount of leaves between a giraffe and a caterpillar. I then set them brainstorming how else the leaves could be divided if dividing them equally isn’t fair. There are usually lots of discussions about this and quite often I’ve had kids decide to get paper or whiteboards to make diagrams In the end we always come to a solution that takes into account that a giraffe needs more leaves than a caterpillar does to survive. Also if a caterpillar has too many leaves they could get sick or go to waste. We then try to sum up our ideas about fair and equal. Sometimes we’ve said that fair doesn’t mean equal and other times we’ve said that fair is giving each person what they need.
When we’ve made our own definition of fair, we bring it back to the classroom. So is it a good idea to make sure that we always do exactly the same thing for every person? They now quickly point out some of the different needs they may have or others may have. I then remind them of the definition that “fair is giving each person what they need”. I then give them opportunity to think of times in the classroom that things might be different for different people but, everyone is getting what they need.
I have this discussion early in the year, every year and it works. Since I’ve started using it, I’ve noticed that my students are more aware of their own needs and the needs of others. I also display a poster that either uses their definition of fair that year or my standard definition. I’ve included three posters that you can use with your class. Just click on the image and it will send you to my tpt store.