Well-known educator and author Rick Wormeli sent some tweets out last week describing how to use an analogy in the classroom to help students understand differentiation. I thought it was useful (though one would have to be very careful to ensure that it doesn’t communicate that the kids for whom you do things differently are not “less smart” than others) and invited Rick to share it in more detail in this blog. He graciously agreed.

Fair Isn’t Always Equal: $5 Bills on the Wall Technique

Rick Wormeli, September 2012

Many of us tell our students, “Fair isn’t always equal,” in response to their claims of justices miscarried, but we need to find ways to make the principle clear and meaningful to students.  While working at a middle school in Naples, Maine years ago, one teacher shared this wonderful technique with me, and I’ve used it successfully with both students and colleagues on repeated occasion ever since, augmenting as necessary:

Place two $5 bills, or anything your students would find prize worthy, high up on a classroom wall, so high up, only the tallest student in the class, leaping, can reach them.  Ask for volunteers: “Anyone who can leap up and reach one of those bills, can have it for free, no strings attached.”   When the hands of volunteers go up, choose the tallest student.  He, or if in middle school, more likely, she, goes up to the wall, jumps, grabs one of the bills, and returns to her seat.

Ask for another volunteer to go for the second bill.  This time, choose the shortest person in the room.  He makes his attempt to grab the bill, but can’t quite reach it.  He moves across the room to grab a chair, but stop him from doing so: “You may not use a chair; that would be unfair. Your classmate did it under her own power, without any assistance. You must do the same.”

The class erupts in complaint: “That’s not fair! He should be allowed to use the chair! He can’t help how tall he is,” they say.  Act like you’re pondering their argument, then say, “Okay, give me your best reasons for allowing him to use a chair or any form of assistance in reaching that $5 when your other classmate did not use any assistance. How can that be fair?”

Let students confer with one another, then offer their rationale. After listening to them argue their case, relent, which is what you were going to do anyway, and let the student use the chair and grab the second $5 bill.

After this demonstration with my students, I never again have to explain why I’d do different things with different students in order to get everyone in the class to the same high standard set for the class, and that includes changing deadlines, levels of support, rates of learning, tools used, and varying assessments. They get it: fair isn’t always equal, and thank goodness the teacher is fair.

When using this technique, make sure to choose someone for the second volunteer who is good natured and accepts his shorter height without issue.  If necessary, talk with the student ahead of time, inviting him to play this role in the class lesson. Thank both student volunteers for being good natured and helping you to make the point in the lesson.  Make sure, too, to have a classroom culture where differences are considered strengths, not weaknesses. ‘Easy to say, harder to do, I know.  With students, build an expectation and skill set for perseverance and problem-solving, too.  A culture of students assisting with instruction and affirming differences as positives limits the chance of negative feelings at being singled out for something so important to students (physical growth) yet beyond their control.

If using students is uncomfortable, ask adult volunteers to assist you in the demonstration, or choose a situation that focuses on a trait of less personal nature or different category altogether, such as a specific skill or knowledge base.

The goal is to be so vivid and clear with the message that all students are engaged and see the value of differentiating instruction when needed.  We need to clear their heads of the notion that always equal means always credible, or that standardizing learning experiences are always effective.  With experiences like this one, students build community and advocate for one another.  With both, the path to learning is a little clearer.