- agreeing with what is thought to be right or acceptable
- treating people in a way that does not favor some over others
- not too harsh or critical
- the same in number, amount, degree, rank, or quality
- having the same mathematical value
- not changing: the same for each person
If something is to be fair according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary it has to be 'right' and 'acceptable,' and it has to avoid favoritism and overtly directed criticism.
If something is to be equal according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary it has to be measured in 'sameness' and cannot change.
Seems pretty simple. What I'm thinking about a lot lately though, is the lack of simplicity in these definitions as they move from Merriam-Webster to practice in the world. In many cases, it appears that something can be perceived as very fair, but perhaps not very equal. It also appears that some things can be perceived as very equal, but not very fair.
Another word that inevitably enters the debate around fair vs. equal to make matters even more confusing is 'equity.'
noun eq·ui·ty \ˈe-kwə-tē\
- fairness or justice in the way people are treated
Equity reflects what we do. It's a noun. Equity is what results when we're able as individuals or groups to treat people fairly and in just ways. Because fair is not necessarily equal, I think that we can say that equity may contain elements of being equal, but being equal is not required to create equity.
When it comes to schools, few would argue that kids will thrive when allowed to learn in fair and just environments, especially if we're to accept that it would be very difficult to ensure that all schools were 'equal' in the way they operate on a daily basis.
At question is how we can ensure our schools are equitable when we know they can't be equal. There are many things about how schools operate that teachers and others who work in schools don't have a great deal of control over. On the other hand, though, teachers and others who work in schools have a great deal of control over the ways they interact with kids, how they support them, teach them and how much they care about them. They have a brilliant opportunity every day to care in conscious ways.
- the act of deciding how to treat people in fair and just ways so things can be righteous and acceptable
The depth and sophistication of care for kids in schools depend largely on how 'conscious' we who work in them are about the ways that we deliver this care. In order to do this effectively and positively, we need to learn the stories behind our students' stories, what I call their "learning stories."
When we make the effort to learn about a student's history we gain a sense of "so that's why we see what we see..." or "it makes so much sense now..." in the present. This insight provides clues and intelligence regarding the child's present state of learning, but more importantly, how and why that state is evident. It takes the guessing away from the process of assessing kids, and it levels the playing field for them as a result of us ceasing to make assumptions about their present learning capacity that invariably could be very wrong without the background evidence. We make these assumptions in schools, and it's not good practice.
We make assumptions about variables like family background, capacity to learn, social dynamics, etc. and how they affect a child's ability to learn, often without investigating them thoroughly. We discriminate against kids at times because of these assumptions, and in doing so, restrict them from optimized learning. I've heard statements like "his brother was bad so I think I'm in trouble next year with that one." When such assumptions go mainstream we get stereotypes like "boys don't learn that way," or "girls don't learn that way," or "kids in this community will never achieve as high as the ones on the other side of town." These assumptions and stereotypes are barriers to maximum levels of learning for any student victimized by them, and any student can be victimized by them at any time if we aren't totally committed to preventing this from happening. This is why the 'EDUkare' imperative is so important. Any child at any time can be considered at risk of diminished learning potential if we make assumptions about how they learn (or not) and why (or why not) learning is occurring in the absence of evidence and data to support the perspective. Invariably then, without evidence, any child can be considered "at risk" when unsubstantiated assumptions are made about their learning story. These assumptions create a learning environment that is unstable and based on opinion as opposed to objectivity and fairness. This is the basis for the term EDUkare, "educating kids from at-risk environments, and EDUkare learning contexts can take many forms as long as the raison d'etre is optimized learning for every single student.
So I think the pathway to practicing fairness and equality as educators is to believe that all kids can learn no matter the variables and no matter the risk and to deliver pedagogy that celebrates equally every single one of the diverse learners we are privileged to teach. This conscious caring forms the framework perspective to support equitable teaching and learning. It helps us pursue the answers to how and why learning is or is not occurring. So here's the formula where 'E' is equality (the same and not changing for anyone, aka totally conscious levels of care for every child), 'F' is fairness (righteous pedagogy that does not discriminate) and 'Eq' is equity (a completely just and supportive learning environment for every individual learner.