Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Fair or Equal?

When I brought out the bag of Starburst candies in Ms. Mazaheri’s fourth grade class today and asked the students what would be the fair way to pass them out, they pretty much all agreed that everyone should get the same amount.

M. said that I should give every kid 5 candies. I said that there weren’t enough in the bag for that. T. said that I should just go around giving every student one candy and keep going until they ran out. “But that means some of us won’t get the same amount,” complained A.

“Suppose I start with two each?” I proposed.

“Then, whatever’s left you can see if there’s enough to go around again,” said X.

So, as I was passing out the treats, I wondered aloud if there could ever be a time when it would be fair that people got different amounts. “Well, if you did good on a test or something,” said T.

“Or if you gave a good answer to one of your questions,” said M. eagerly.

I wanted them to think about whether or not fair always means equal, so I got four boys to volunteer to come up to the front of the room. “These gentlemen and going to make us lunch,” I said, which cracked up all the girls in the class. “But they all have different mad skills.” I then passed out little pieces of paper to each boy, each with a different expertise: one was the world’s best soup-maker, another the world’s best sandwich-maker, the third, the world’s best dishwasher (which, when he read it aloud evoked lots of laughter from the class); and the fourth was the world’s best dessert-maker.

After exploring why it was so funny that X. was the world’s best dishwasher, we talked about whether all the young men should do the same work in preparing our lunch and whether they all ought to be paid the same amount for doing so. What was great was when students distinguished between jobs that are fun and jobs that are hard; generally, they said that you ought to be paid more for a job that is hard, but just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. (For that matter, one student added, a job can be easy and NOT fun, too.)

I was a little worried that the exercise might come off as pedantic, since I DID want the students to at least entertain the idea that what’s fair and what’s equal can be pulled apart, but since they arrived at that conclusion without my help—and since they generally agreed that sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t—I thought things stayed reasonably philosophical.

We ended by going around the room having each student say what he or she was best at; (the answers included stuff like drawing, playing video games, and baby-sitting) and I asked students to reflect on how they might bring these different skills into play in the classroom.

As I was wrapping up, A. raised her hand and waived it around wildly. “One more question?” I asked, thrilled that she was still engaged with the lesson.

“Yeah,” she said, “can we have another Starburst?”

Seemed fair to me.

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