How do you define “fair”?

Wouldn’t we all be rich if we had a dollar for every time we heard a child say “But that’s not fair!”? Explaining the concept of fairness to young children can be difficult. They are stuck in the mindset that “fair means equal” or “fair means all for me”! I have worked with many adults who inadvertently are also stuck in this mindset. Sometimes when talking to teachers about adjustments to teaching, learning and assessment, some teachers will reflect the same mindset. For example, some think that making changes for individuals or groups of children in the classroom is actually unfair. It’s not equal when we do make changes – but it is fair. Some teachers find it hard to change the mindset that fair means equal.


When discussing teaching, learning and assessment – except for assessment usually done by psychologists and learning support specialists to compare a child’s progress to norms- we need to forget the concept that fair means equal. The popular theories of fairness can assist us determine why we should.


Theories of fair

Piaget’s , “Theory of Moral Development” (1956) and Kohlberg’s “Theory of Moral Reasoning” (1963, 1975, 1981), are two theories that can assist teachers understand how children develop and understand fairness within the bigger concept of moral development. Like most theories of development these are outlines within typically developing age based milestones. Damon’s “Theory of Distributive Justice” (1994), also provides teachers with a theory of fairness that can easily be applied to our classroom contexts.

Damon (1994) proposed that we progress through stages of development of understanding fairness or making decisions about sharing. Like all developmental theories, children do not progress through them lock step or in the same manner.

The stages:

Level 0 (personal gain)

* “I should get it”(under 4 years)

* “We should get it because we are girls” (4-5 years)

Level 1 (equality and/or merit)

* Strict equality (5-7 years)

* Reciprocity; merit, deserving (7-8 years)

Level 2 (benevolence)

* Moral relativity; special needs vs. deserving (8-10 years)

* Equality, reciprocity, needs; all coordinated and integrated (10 years and up)

In the benevolent stage the concept of fairness is beginning to be influenced by conflicting claims e.g. justice, merit, need. Fairness becomes relative in the eyes of children and different perspectives influence outcomes. Ultimately, when we are 10 years or older, we are able to determine what is fair by weighing up these claims. e.g it is fair for the smallest child should be at the front of the group to see what is happening. As teachers we need to make decisions not based on equality but on what children need to learn. We can’t use the excuse for not making adjustments to teaching, learning and assessment because we want to keep things the same for all- because equal is not fair (except through the eyes of  5 year old children).


Lavoie (1989) provides us with detailed reasoning as to why teachers can’t use the “…it wouldn’t be fair to change approach for one or two children” excuse. Lavioe strongly points out that “fair is everybody getting what they need to be successful“. Commonly the practices we employ to meet the needs of all students are called adjustments.

In Australia, when teaching students with a disability, adjustments are required by law and are outlined in the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) – Education Standards. And for all other children its just good practice! When we design learning, teaching and assessment so all can learn and demonstrated their learning, we need to plan to include these adjustments up front. Utilising approaches such as Universal Design for Learning and Response to Intervention or Recognition and Response assist teachers do this.

Being fair in classrooms

Fairness in classrooms means that the teacher needs to ensure everybody needs to get what they need in order to learn and demonstrate their learning. Sometimes we will need to explain this definition of fairness to our students, parents and even our colleagues. This is a great poster one teacher displays in their classroom.



Our Australian Curriculum content standards are worded in a way that assists us to be fair. For example, the following screen shot highlights the content and skill required for the standard, not the mode in which students can demonstrate their achievement of the standard. Words such as make, describe, compare, and recognise give teachers a lot of scope to provide choice and thus adjust for student need. For example, “compare” can be achieved as a drawing, graph, diagram, or report.


Investigating fairness

School staff need to collaboratively investigate what fairness means in their context. It is vital that teachers who plan together in year levels accept a definition of fairness that allows for adjustments to teaching, learning and assessment. Assessment needs to be planned so that students have choice to use preferred modes to demonstrate their learning. Of course we don’t want a child to “record” scientific observations through non-scientific methods but we can offer video, audio, diagrams and or models. These choices of mode need to be reflected in criteria sheets, rubrics and marking guides to ensure that we are fair in our marking and ultimately reporting and planning. Our curriculum allows for this choice and legislation (DDA- Education Standards) demands it from us.

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