Are classrooms fair?

I taught the way I think most people do for the first 8 years. I created assignments that were aimed at the middle student–practice is important but didn’t want overkill or busy work.

But is that fair?

What’s “fair”?

Is it every student doing the same assignments? Or is it every student being assigned what they need to learn?

I knew that many higher level students didn’t need to balance 20 equations if they could remember from physical science or junior high (or learn quickly). But how could I give some students less work without causing a huge uproar in the classroom? Surely a room full of teenagers would cry “but that’s not fair” if a student didn’t need as much practice and another got assigned extra because yet hadn’t gotten it yet.

But think about it from the lower student’s perspective. Just as it’s not fair to require a student to do more practice than is necessary just because other students haven’t gotten it yet, surely it’s not fair for a struggling student to be given up on as the class moves on before they’re ready.

We’re not respecting students as individuals on either side of the spectrum.

So I’ve changed my concept of “fair”–it’s no longer “same” but now it’s “what each student needs to be successful.” That means that when a student can demonstrate understanding then they’re done, they don’t have to keep balancing equations just because there’s that many on the worksheet. If a student finishes the worksheet but they’re still struggling then they get more help, more support and more chances to practice and demonstrate.

And what about that teenager uprising I was worried about? Never happened!

Two years of teaching this way with over 250 students and not one single student pulled that dreaded phase out, and neither did any of their teachers. And students (both those that got to stop practicing earlier and those that had extra work assigned) wanted other teachers to adopt the style. They saw that each student was respected as they’re own student and they each were provided with the support needed to learn.

People respond wonderfully to respect.

And as for worrying about kids that took longer to get through the course–wasn’t really a problem. I found that if I took the time to make sure they got what they needed to learn the early concepts and topics in the course then they were prepared to tackle the later concepts with their bolstered knowledge, skills and confidence–and they often caught up to the middle students, while the middle students ended on time and the uppe level students often ends early and got the chance to design independent research/enrichment projects. Win-win-win!

So what’s your conception of “fair”? Are traditional classrooms “fair”? What can we do to change them?

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