Working with the Fairness Ideal

Working with the Fairness Ideal over a period of several weeks involves three things: students exploring fairness in connection with content and with their own lives, reflecting on what they understand about fairness and how it works, and detecting situations where fairness is an issue.

Exploring Curricular Connections

Because the module consists mostly of routines, it is necessary for the teacher to bring appropriate content to the routine. This is obviously easier in some subjects than others. Some examples of content we have seen teachers use with the Fairness Ideal include:

Literature - Examples of choices, decisions, actions, or outcomes taken from literature students are reading.

History - Historical events, practices, or leadership and political decisions students are studying.

Current events - Community issues to judicial decisions that are in the news.

Science - Ethical dilemmas or environmental issues that scientists face.

Mathematics - Looking at probability-based games, situations involving optimization, or real-life complexities that can be investigated mathematically.

Using Moral Dilemmas

At the core of these diverse contexts in which fairness arises, one can often find a moral dilemma. Dilemmas involve choices around controversial issues. By guiding them on how to make sensible and responsible choices, discussing dilemmas helps students to be comfortable with initial uncertainty and confusion. Additionally, students learn to empathize with new and different perspectives and become more sensitive to situations involving complex choices.

Good dilemmas do not have an obvious "good or bad" solution. On the one hand, this makes sense because the essence of fairness dilemmas is their complexity, and highly polarized situations in which there is a clear right and wrong tend not to be viewed as very complex. On the other hand, the reason fairness might be such a familiar and well-developed concept in kids is precisely because of the strong feelings of righteous indignation (guilt and shame) they experience in response to situations they perceive as unfair. Often, perceiving an issue as polarized is what motivates us to engage with it. It is only later, upon engagement, that we come to see its complexity. Some characteristics of good dilemmas include:


  • Center on a controversial issue that poses real problems.
  • Create tension between needs, interests, values, goals, etc.
  • Offer alternative solutions that have pros and cons. There are no blatant or disguised "good and bad" answers.
  • Have outcomes with important consequences for all people involved.
  • Touch on the personal values and emotions that make them meaningful, even if they are fictional or about other people.


Reflecting on Fairness

Throughout the module you will want to have students reflect back and think about their thinking about fairness. You could do this informally through a class discussion or by using a routine designed for reflection.

Connect Back Routine. This routine helps students consolidate their growing understanding of the concept of fairness. It helps students to reflect on the fairness routines they have been learning and see how they are connected to the larger concept of fairness as illustrated in the "Figuring out Fair" map.

I used to think..., But now I think...Routine In this routine, students write and/or discuss what they used to think about the topic of fairness or about the process of figuring out whether something is fair and then contrast this by writing down what it is that they now think.


Detecting Opportunities: Developing awareness of when fairness is an issue

An important part of developing students' disposition to engage with issues of fairness involves them spotting opportunities where fairness is a concern. To do this, students need opportunities both to think about the types of occasions where fairness is an issue and to try to identify those as they naturally occur in situations they find themselves in.

When is it hard to know? Discussion. To foster this awareness you can ask your students to identify occasions when it is hard to know when something is fair or not. You can follow this up by asking students what they can do to help them figure out fairness in situations like the ones identified. Some teachers may have asked a version of these questions when introducing the module. It is fine to repeat them as students' responses often change.

The Fairness Thermometer. This routine asks students to spot occasions out of the classroom where fairness is at issue. It is similar to the How Unfair? activity you may have had your students do when introducing the module. Here it is done on an ongoing basis to help students be more sensitive to occasions they may be encountering.