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.


Disability support: your life choices

I don’t normally blog about family issues even though my educational and family situation is inseparably linked. The need to advocate for inclusive education as an educator and parent of a young person with a disability (Autism) is ingrained in my all my behaviour. Lately, the family has been dragged through an emotional quagmire because we were required to review of my son’s eligibility for a disability pension.

Australian disability support pension

After 29 years of active advocating, fighting and back downs you’d think we’d be able to comply happily to the review by relying on an armory built up over a lifetime. Sadly, it’s getting harder to draw on what we need due to the ever-increasing pressure to be “accountable” for the small amount of money that my son receives. I’m completely overwhelmed and sick of the argument that my son has to justify his right to be supported by his community because there are so many people rorting the social security system.

The new and current situation is that people on a disability pension need to both “prove” their disability and “prove” why they cannot work. For people with a lifelong and incurable disability such as Autism and Down Syndrome (and many others) to “prove” they still have a disability is cruel. Though not true for everyone, the initial diagnosis of a disability for a family member can be an emotional time as it was for us.  The new requirement for Centrelink that the proof of diagnosis must be recent meant we had to go through this process again. My son was originally diagnosed with Autism when he was 8 years old. This time we had nine days to acquire this proof of diagnosis.We did get an extension ton these nine days though but not for the 6 months needed while waiting for an appointment to see a public hospital psychiatrist. So, of course, we, his family, paid for a private assessment and report. I bet many were not in a financial situation to do this. More importantly, the process took us back to a time less stable and knocked the scabs off some old wounds.
We thought we had completed the review when my son had his Job Capacity interview at Centrelink. A psychologist at Centrelink completed the interview and said she would be supporting the continuation of his pension as a result. But the saga continues!
Yesterday, my son received a call from an organisation, on behalf of the Department of Human Services, contracted to now “confirm” diagnosis paperwork we had provided to Cenrelink from my son’s  psychologist and GP 2 months ago. I took over the call as my son was unable to understand the situation. Again, the fact that he was diagnosed initially in 1995 and has received loving caring support from family, friends and his medical team for 30 years confirmed diagnosis has to be questioned and verified for the second time in six months. Of course, I rang Centrelink to complain, The person I spoke to was well informed and very responsive. However, I could not accept his political rhetoric about the verification for all diagnosis is “fair” (even lifelong incurable ones like Autism). It allegedly would not be fair that some people’s diagnosis needs verification by this “contractor” and some don’t (please see my blog on the meaning of fairness).

So dear reader, you may ask, “Whats the problem, just do the medical review?” I will respond by saying that we have cared for this young man for 30 years. We responded to his diagnosis with pride, love, and support. He has received state special education as a child; is eligible for support through state disability services; has a health care card; has received private occupational, physio and speech therapy; has received private psychology services; and now, we need to front up for an interview so that a private contractor can determine that the documentation that we have recently had to collect is true and correct! It breaks our heart that we have to prove his diagnosis over and over again.  It isn’t fair. Fair does not mean equal. The brilliant minds in Human Services could surely work out how to personalise this process so that people with lifelong disabilities that cannot be “fixed” are treated with respect.

Tree -hugging, Marxist, greenie

Politically, I believe it is the responsibility of the whole community to support those in need. Therefore, a country’s government must take control of this on behalf of its people. I used to think that taxes contributed to the support of those that find it difficult to support themselves. Today it seems my taxes instead are supporting big business to avoid paying their taxes. There seems to be more expected for corporate social responsibility than there is expected on our government.Then again my Dad always said I was a “tree hugging, marxist, greenie!”. I’m proud to be called that and proud that my son also can proudly wear this label.
Even though he does not “work” for money, my son contributes to our community in  many ways. He is a song and screenplay writer. The words to one of his songs appears in the chapter he and I co-wrote in “Imagination for Inclusion” (Bland, 2016, p. 45). He wrote this song to help others understand his disability.
My son is an “artist with autism”. His love of Australian animals has endured for his whole life. If he is not donating time and money to “save the bilby“, or painting pictures of them , he is ridding the world of the cane toad.
Painting of magpie (Bland, 2016, p. 46)
The cane toad is a noxious amphibian that was introduced to Australia many years ago and in many ways threatens the existence of aussie animals. Some nights my son stays awake all night to kill and dispose of these creatures (humanely of course). Each week he takes his butterfly net by public transport across town to a park where he removes and destroys cane toad tadpoles. He also keeps an eye out for any introduced or domestic animals and fish that may upset the eco-system and reports any sightings to the city council. My son does this without any volunteer status or acknowledgement. He doesn’t expect it. Though he was delighted to see that I reported what he did to the local volunteer group he was pleased to see his name in their newsletter.
As do many people with a disability, my son contributes to our community in many and varied ways. He may not contribute to the economy in the usual manner or pay taxes but he does contribute quietly and without fuss to our local environment and arts  community. I think our community gets back much more than it costs our government per fortnight to support him.
I’m proud to say that he too is a “tree-hugging, marxist, greenie”.
Photo of my son



Pedagogy of hope

Hope can be one of the keys to education reform.

I love living in the same community where I spent most of my classroom teaching years. As a beginning teacher arriving in the community some 29 years ago, I grew professionally over the nine years I taught there. Later I became as a Deputy Principal in another local school and later still moved away (professionally) to take on other leadership roles. But my heart and home is still in this community. It still gives me much pleasure to turn around the corner at the local shops and come face to face with a student I once taught or one of their parents. (This was not always the case back in the day when parents needed to discuss why their child had been suspended from school while we were in the meat aisle of the supermarket). Recently, I ran into as now 30 something past student, Bob (not his real name). I taught him when he was about 9-12 years old. Last century I taught multi-age classes and taught the same group of kids for a three year cycle. We had heaps of time to develop strong learning relationships and we shared whats now called “high expectations”.

“It’s like you knew what we needed”

 As with almost all of the students I taught in that decade, I remember Bob well. His kids had now started school and even though he was happy with the teachers his children had he said referring to me, “It’s like you knew what we needed”. From what he continued to say, I think he meant that what they learned, how they learned and who they learned with prepared them for their future. I have tried to define this “knowing what students needed” over the years and now believe it is HOPE. Having hope that a young person has a future makes all the difference to how teachers plan and implement their teaching. I have always had a keen interest in the concept of hope and I have researched what it means within an inclusive education context.

Pedagogy of hope

Thanks to the writing of wonderful academics and researchers such as Kitty Te Riele ,I learned about a “pedagogy of hope”. Basically it means that a teacher can see a future for a student and demonstrate this hope in their practice.



“Making Schools Different” (te Riele, 2009) among other great chapters, contains a chapter about “Pedagogy of hope”. te Riele describes four specific resources that contribute to the pedagogy of hope –

  •  a positive culture of learning;
  • focusing on possibility;
  • establishing a community of hope; and
  • critical reflection.

(te Riele, 2009, p. 67)

The above resources align well to the concept of inclusive education and I highly recommend this book as an addition to a teacher’s professional library. I think it helps us move beyond just having “high expectations” and  instead reflecting these expectations in our practice!

Another inspiring resource for me has been Terry Eagleton’s, “Hope Without Optimism” (2015).

img_5023Eagleton (2015) explains the ‘history’ of hope in literature, culture and religion. The difference between hope and optimism struck a chord with me. I’ve always been told by colleagues that I look at kids through rose coloured glasses and that I was too optimistic. In his book, Eagleton’s discusses the difference between optimism and hope. Optimism is described as a temperament of someone who wants to see the best outcome regardless of the realities or what has to happen to ensure that outcome (p. 1). Hope on the other hand is a virtue that requires “…strenuous commitment” and is “…underpinned by strong reason” (p. 3). I demonstrated commitment to the future of my students by planning teaching and learning that attempted to meet the needs of the future I imagined they had. For a start, I believed they had a future. Some of my colleagues did not and back in the day could not see why I put so much effort into the kid that had been given up on and was considered “lazy”, “useless”, and or “just plain bad”. Rather than looking though rose coloured glasses, I think I was hopeful and as Eagleton (2015) states “…revolutionary, transforming the present” (p.54). My colleagues and I differentiated before it was even “a thing”. We planned based on need and aligned it to the curriculum and assessment. Student interests were harnessed and resources appropriately allocated to enhance their strengths and support any learning difficulties.


Pedagogy of hope in higher education

Fast forward to the next century! I am privileged to be working in teacher education and realise that I still have hope in the future of our pre-service teachers. Planning and teaching and assessing achievement for new units in inclusive education reflected this hope when I aligned theory and practice. By monitoring the effectiveness and impact of my teaching and adjusting it, I was still able to “forward-think” and “forward-move” (Eagleton, 2015, p. 54). Though in this context my students were explicitly told what I was doing and why.  I believe that teachers too need some theory to “hang their hats on” and use this theory to reflect on their choices when planning teaching, learning and assessment. Obviously, in my area of teaching it was theory of inclusive education. I taught the pre-service teachers (and post grad) the manner in which I hoped they would teach in their future classrooms. And we explicitly reviewed the strategies I used and discussed their evidence based appropriateness for the range of students they will teach in the future. Though it’s ownership is now questioned, I still like to think I was following Ghandi’s advice to –



To go beyond “high expectations”, I enacted these expectations in my teaching and learning as described by te Riele’s discussion of pedagogy of hope (2009). Modelling the way in which hope can be a theoretical framework to “hang your hat on” can assist teachers to judge their practice by. I chose to teach the content Universal Design for Learning (UDL) through UDL methods (Rose & Meyer, 2001) as it aligned with theories of inclusive education. I have blogged about how I used this conceptual framework and its outcomes.



Imagination for inclusion

I was thrilled to contribute to Dr Derek Bland’s (2016) edited volume, “Imagination for Inclusion”. My son and I wrote a chapter and named it “Letters of Gratitude: A pedagogy of hope for teachers of young people with disabilities”, (Duke, 2016). In this chapter, we offer the findings of a narrative inquiry project that explored hope through my reflections as a mother about how my son’s education was enhanced by “…his hopeful teachers” (2016, p. 43) some 20 years ago. One of the results of the inquiry was letters written by me to two of my son’s teachers who demonstrated their hope in his future. Using these letters in my pre-service teacher inclusive education units opened up discussion about what could be considered elements of “pedagogy of hope” (te Riele, 2009). We analysed the letters and looked for resources that were evidence of hope in the reflections. A section of the unsent letter from me below reflects how one teacher used their creative imagination and located strengths in my son (2016, p. 48-49).


So strong was the hope the teacher described above had in my son, he now describes himself as an “artist with autism” when you ask him what “does he do?”.

The manner in which universities prepare pre-service teachers for the diverse range of learners they will teach has been criticised in the past (Forlin & Chambers, 2011; Shaddock, 2005) and is continuing with the recent release of PISA, TIMMS, and NAPLAN results. Some criticisms include lack of influence by academics to attitudinal and pedagogical change of pre-service teachers (Shaddock, 2005) and modelling of best practice. In addition to this, the publication of The Grattan Report (Norton, 2012),  mapped Australian higher education, and reignited the academic discussion about the research versus teaching debate. The Grattan Report highlighted that Australian academics have the fourth lowest preference for teaching compared to other countries and that the “engagement between academics and students remains below levels achieved in other countries” (Norton, 2012, p. 2). This reduced engagement is reported to be a result of ineffective teaching in university classrooms. Engagement is related to hope. Findings from my research in the use of UDL has shown pre-service teachers were engaged in critical reflection, becoming part of a vibrant learning community within the unit, focusing on possibility in the language we use to describe children, and creating a positive learning culture (te Riele, 2009). The pre-service teachers provided useful feedback in the systemic collection of data about my teaching that verified to me I had enacted a “pedagogy of hope” in my units. Below are the types of comment indicative of student opinion.


So in conclusion –

  • having hope for a positive future for our students requires commitment and action through the way we chose content, teach it and assess it. It doesn’t mean we are wearing rose coloured glasses. We are “…revolutionary, transforming the present” (Eagleton, 2015, p. 54) when we enact hope.
  • Its about hard but worthwhile work to determine the best approaches to teaching and learning. By acknowledging our student’s future we employ evidence based methods that skill our learners and provide them with the knowledge they need to move into the future. Its NOT about ignoring content and knowledge and focusing only on skills; its about encouraging engagement and motivation in our students to learn an apply their learning.
  • It means we have a strengths based attitude to diversity and communicate this in the way we speak about and to young people.

Along with parents as partners, if we don’t demonstrate hope in our student’s future and model it to them, who or what will?