‘Fairness does not mean everyone gets the same. Fairness means that everyone gets what he or she needs.’
- Richard Lavoie
Richard Lavoie is a special education expert from America. In his DVD, How Difficult Can This Be: The F.A.T. City Workshop, he talks about the notion of fairness and students experiencing learning differences. He states that fairness is about individuals getting what they need, which doesn’t mean everyone gets the same thing. His philosophy is "that in order to treat them fairly we have to treat them differently".
This notion of fairness can, of course, challenge us as teachers and parents and perhaps make us think differently. I think it’s also important for students of all ages and abilities to recognise in life that we don’t all get or need the same thing. As role models we can engage in dialogue and demonstrate to the individuals in our care what that means. Perhaps it’s some students completing their work orally due to a handwriting challenge or a sibling having less homework because of an underlying attention or literacy concern. Maybe a calculator is required to support a memory challenge.
Equally, it’s important to differentiate and cater for a student’s areas of strength, too. Perhaps a child is a great artist, so I could provide them additional opportunities to share their ideas and work creatively in the classroom, or maybe I offer them extension in science because this is an area of great interest and talent for them.
Approaching our work as parents and teachers from this mindset of fairness doesn’t mean we always get it right but students can "feel" when we’re on their side, when we recognise and celebrate their strengths and areas of need and appreciate us trying to cater for them.
Throughout my career I have often heard the statement: "If I offer this particular strategy, support or opportunity to this child, it’s not fair to the others."
When participating in dialogue with adults, I might indicate that if a student is permanently in a wheelchair, we would never ask them to get out of their wheelchair and walk up the stairs. Instead, a school community would provide physical adaptations and resources needed by the student to accommodate their physical needs. It is the same for any student, regardless of their strengths and needs. If we are truly going to guide them towards their individual potential, whatever that means for them, we have to ensure that they are being given access and opportunities that they need to flourish and be supported, but these aspects certainly don’t need to be the same as everyone else.
How do we speak with students about this concept of fairness? I wholeheartedly believe the atmosphere in our classrooms relating to students’ individual learning needs and achievements is about our modelling as teachers. If we truly accept each student as they are, do the best we can for them and focus on a "can do" model in our classrooms as opposed to one that is deficit-based, students will respond accordingly. As long as students are feeling engaged, included and successful, they tend to care far less about what others are doing and if their work is different in some way. It’s when students are not engaged, are not feeling successful or understood, that problems begin to surface.
How lucky are we to be part of a community whose ethos is built on this foundation of inclusivity and individuality. Here’s to fairness and doing our best to give each student in our care what he or she needs.