Fair or Equal?

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Area: Other Areas
Grade Level: Middle School, Primary/Elementary School
Topics: Equality/Equity, ethics, fairness, justice
Estimated Time Necessary: 30 minutes

Lesson Plan

Students will explore the nature of fairness
Students will examine whether fairness requires that everyone should have the same things

Materials needed

  • List of roles and responsibilities (see below)
  • A bag of candy



Begin the exercise by holding up the bag of candy (make sure you have enough for at least one piece for every student) and ask, “What’s the fair way to distribute the candy in this bag? Who all should get a piece?”

Usually, students will agree that everyone should get the same number of pieces. (Occasionally, a student will—usually half in jest—claim that he or she ought to get the whole bag; this naturally doesn’t fly with his or her classmates and a discussion about why it’s not right can ensue.)

After talking about the fair way to distribute the sweets, pass out the candy according to the decision of the group. After giving students a few moments to enjoy their treat, ask, “Is everyone getting the same thing always the fair way? Are there situations in which it’s okay for people to be treated differently?”

Field the responses to segue into the roles and responsibilities exercise as follows.



Ask for four volunteers to come to the front of the classroom. Explain that they are going to be working together to build a house. Each of them, though, has different tools. Pass out to each student a slip of paper, each of which has a different description of the tools he or she has, and ask them to read aloud what they’ve received. Here is what they’ve got:

  • (On Slip 1): You have a bulldozer and a dump truck. You are an expert in the use of these machines.
  • (On Slip 2): You have a full collection of hand tools, like hammers, drills, and screwdrivers. You are an expert in the use of these tools.
  • (On Slip 3): You have a huge supply of bricks and cement. You are an expert bricklayer and cement-mixer.
  • (Slip 4): You have all the paints and brushes anyone could need. You are an expert painter.

Now ask students who they think should do what when the house is being built, and why. Usually, it’s pretty obvious, but the discussion can be fairly interesting as the class begins talking about why so-and-so should do such-and-such. (It’s also not unprecedented that students will say, for instance, that the painter ought to help do brick-laying, for example, as a way to learn new skills.)

As this discussion dies down, bring a different group of four students to the front of the room and give them slips that read:

  • You are the world’s greatest dessert chef.
  • You are the world’s greatest dishwasher.
  • You are the world’s greatest soup-maker.
  • You are the world’s greatest sandwich maker.

Now say something like: “Okay, it’s time to make lunch for everyone. Who should do what?” Again, the discussion is likely to be pretty straightforward, with the class generally agreeing that the tasks should be divvied up according to expertise. (This isn’t always the case; again, because sometimes students argue that people should be expected to do whatever is needed or that everyone ought to get good at everything, but most of the time, the consensus is that it’s good for everyone if everyone does what he or she does best.)

Time permitting, do one more iteration. This time, bring five students to the front and pass out slips that read:

  • You are the world’s best rebounder.
  • You are the world’s best shot-blocker.
  • You are the world’s best three-point shooter.
  • You are the world’s best passer.
  • You are the world’s best free-throw shooter.

Obviously, the question now is, “What the best way for this basketball team to play?” And again, pretty much just as obviously, students will respond that the players who are good at a given skill ought to focus on that skill. It’s worth talking some about why this is the case though; there might be different reasons to consider ranging from something like, “If everyone does what they’re good at, the team will win;” to “People have more fun if they do the thing they’re good at.” In any case, by this third iteration the class will have explored in some depth their positions on when it’s appropriate (if at all) for people to have different responsibilities given that they have different skills and abilities.

At this point, pass out to all students slips of paper with the phrase “What I do best is…” and ask them to fill in the blank. When they’ve done so, bring a group of four (randomly chosen) students to the front of the room. Ask each student to read his or her slip of paper, and then ask, “If you were building a house, who should do what?” Compare the answer in this discussion to those from the earlier example. What’s similar? What’s different? Why?

Do the same thing with different groups for the lunch-making and basketball-playing examples. Again, compare similarities and differences and probe together with students as to why they’ve answered as they have.

Finally, get everyone back in their seats, and have each student read his or her slip out loud. Then, have a large-group discussion focused on the question, “Given our skills and abilities, who should do what in our classroom? What’s the fair way to divvy up the tasks?” Typically, this leads to an interesting contrast with the other discussions, although sometimes students will want to assert that since they’re all good at different things, they all should have different kinds of assignments in the classroom.


The hope is that the students have begun to explore whether fairness always means that everyone should get the same thing. Are there cases in life where it’s fair to give some people more (or different things) than others? Often, students will give examples like handicapped parking spaces or extra time in test-taking for people with learning disabilities.

At the end of the discussion, it sometimes works to do a fill-in-the-blank “poem,” where students fill in this sentence, “With my special talents, one thing I can do to make the world a little better is…”

Here are some sample answers from a fourth grade class:

  • One thing I can do to make the world a little better is play with new friends.
  • One thing I can do to make the world a little better is be nice to my brother.
  • One thing I can do to make the world a little better is share my toys.
  • One thing I can do to make the world a little better is play basketball.
  • One thing I can do to make the world a little better is draw and paint.

This lesson plan, created by David Shapiro, is part of a series of lesson plans in Philosophy in Education: Questioning and Dialogue in Schools, by Jana Mohr Lone and Michael D. Burroughs (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).

This lesson plan was created for PLATO by: David Shapiro.