Laying the Groundwork for Differentiation: Fair Isn’t Always Equal

Laying the Groundwork For DifferentiationLaying the groundwork for differentiation is a critical part of setting up the school year. Students in my upper elementary class should expect to see differentiated instruction, which means that their peers may have different assignments or different learning tools. Some children will have difficulty with this concept unless the stage is set properly.

Fair Isn’t Always Equal

In order to lay the foundation for differentiation, I use a lesson that was developed by two of my teaching colleagues, Perk Musacchio of Skills to Soar and elementary school counselor, Lisa Yackel. This lesson (shared with permission) was designed to help children understand why a teacher might use different learning materials with students in the same class.

You won’t need any special materials to teach this lesson… just a good old-fashioned marker and some chart paper (or chalk and a chalkboard). If you want to add some pizzazz, find a stuffed animal of a dog and a goldfish.

Follow these easy steps to teach your students that fair isn’t always equal.

  1. Ask students if “fair” is equal. In order for something to be fair, should it be equal? Discuss their thoughts without leading to the correct answer, which will be revealed in the next few steps.
  2. Tell students that your friend is getting a puppy. This will be his/her first puppy, and he/she needs some help knowing what supplies to get for the new pet.


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  3. Draw a T-chart on the board. Write the word Supplies at the top of the chart and label the first column with the word Puppy. Ask the students to brainstorm ideas for what the puppy will need. List those supplies on the chart. For example, students may say that the puppy needs a food bowl, a collar, a leash, a chew toy, etc.
  4. After you have developed a comprehensive list, write the word Goldfish at the top of the second column on your T-chart. Tell the students that you are considering a goldfish for a pet.
  5. Ponder aloud that you want things to be fair for the two pets, so you need to get the same exact supplies for your goldfish. If the puppy gets a collar and a chew toy, then your goldfish should get the same things in order for it to be fair. Read through the puppy supply list and have them consider each of those supplies for your new goldfish. Share a few laughs together and then discuss. Is that fair?
  6. Now, make a realistic list of supplies for the goldfish. Write those supplies on the T-chart. For example, a goldfish might need a filter, an air pump, and flake food. The two pets have different needs and require different supplies. A good pet owner would give each pet exactly what it needs, even if it’s not the same. In this case, fair is NOT equal.
  7. Finally, you’ll want to relate this back to your own classroom full of students with different needs. Explain that all students are different and have unique needs. Your job is to meet those needs using the supplies that are best for each person. In your classroom, fair is definitely not always equal. They can expect to see peers with different assignments and/or materials. Give some examples. One student may practice a math skill using a number line, while another student may learn better with counters. Students may read different books or have different projects or different homework that meets their needs. As the teacher, it’s your job to figure out the best supplies for each student.
Fair Is Not Equal
Download your free materials to accompany this lesson (above).

By laying the groundwork for differentiation in your classroom, it will feel “normal” for things to look different. Students will see that you take their needs seriously, and they will follow suit with respectful behavior in regard to unique learning needs.

As a follow-up to this lesson, I like to have my students write a reflection about their own personal needs as a student. I ask them to think about what has worked well for them in the past, including any special tools that have been helpful (and not helpful) in other classrooms.

Speaking of laying the groundwork in your classroom, check out this post with tips for explicit instruction on the qualities of a good student.

Fair Isn't Always Equal

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