Equality, equity, and what ‘fair’ really means

Every Monday morning the S4TP team can be found in a virtual meeting discussing actions and priorities for the week ahead. Whoever is chairing that week starts the meeting with something for the team to think about and reflect upon or discuss. This takes various forms – sometimes it’s an article, a TV programme, a video clip, a quote, or it could even be a picture, a poem or a song. Sometimes it’s enough for us to simply listen, absorb and reflect silently.

Other times it starts a discussion and an exploration of thoughts, ideas, and actions. We’ve decided to start sharing some of these with you on the website in our Monday Meeting Musings section – we hope you find the topics interesting, enlightening, encouraging, inspiring and sometimes even challenging!

Take a look at the picture on the left.  I think most of us have come across this quote at some point over the years.  I’ve always loved it, and decided to investigate it a little further and use it as a catalyst for our Monday Meeting Musing last week.  I found out a few things: firstly, like many inspirational quotes on the internet, it is highly likely that this quote has been incorrectly attributed.  If you look at his writings, it is clear that Albert Einstein probably didn’t think that everyone was a genius, and that he also was probably quite content with the status quo regarding the world’s education systems.

Interestingly, however, Dr. Einstein also once said this, “I want to oppose the idea that the school has to teach directly that special knowledge and those accomplishments which one has to use later directly in life. The demands of life are much too manifold to let such a specialized training in school appear possible […] The development of general ability for independent thinking and judgement should always be placed foremost.” (https://www.macleans.ca/education/uniandcollege/why-we-should-forget-einsteins-tree-climbing-fish/) He seems to be at once acknowledging that people need particular skills for use later in life, but suggesting that school is not the place for this to happen.

This led us to consider the quote (from wherever it originated) in the context of our work at Solutions for the Planet, and to think about how we give students within the education system the opportunity for developing those life skills, and how we make the opportunity ‘fair’ for everyone.

The dictionary defines equality as ‘the right of different groups of people to have a similar social position and receive the same treatment‘. That sounded clear to the team. We want people to have access to the same opportunities, ‘equal opportunities’ in health, education, society, employment. So, what’s equity? The definition of equity is ‘the quality of being fair and impartial‘. At face value that all makes sense, except people’s understanding of what is fair can differ so dramatically, and this is where the image below really helped us clarify some of these concepts.

The view that it is fair to give everyone exactly the same tools and that they will all benefit the same amount is not one that is shared by the S4TP team, and we reflected on this in the context of work we do running the Big Ideas programme in schools across the UK.

The students we work with, just like adults, have different learning styles. For some, auditory or visual tools might work best, for others it may be that kinaesthetic learning – building, drawing what you learn – is more effective. Going into a school and delivering one type of activity would may well privilege a student who likes to learn in that style. This would be much like the concept in the first image.

We discussed how we felt that the materials we deliver on a Big Ideas Day are designed so that the students start on a level playing field. To remove the barriers to learning, we aim to deliver a programme that reflects the principal outlined in the second image. We are very clear that there are times when students might need more and different support, as it portrays. Overall, the content of the day is planned to allow for the use of art, images, traditional writing activities and presentations, and a mentoring approach is used.  Our programme is inclusive of all students, of all abilities.

We would all like to see a time where systemic barriers can be removed, as in the third image, and we are committed to exploring what these are and challenging them where possible.  In the meantime, we want to create a space where acceptance of difference and/or varying levels of need in different scenarios is of paramount importance. The image above uses height as the differentiator, but what if the same three individuals were studying a subject in school – have a look at the book titles in this adaptation of the concept:

At Solutions, we acknowledge that the programme isn’t perfect. We know that in different situations, different students and adults we work with will need different levels of support. We are committed to continually learning and developing our support and our programme to adapt to these needs and yes, in some cases, give out a few more boxes.

* Addendum: since this piece was written, I came across this piece about the changing attitudes to the exam-focused and knowledge-heavy education system in many Asian countries, and how this system is slowly changing, with Singapore being the first to implement a move from the status quo with it’s new ‘Learn for Life’ programme. The piece says, ‘The concern of a growing number of teachers, employers and policymakers alike is that schooling focuses too narrowly and intensely on restrictive final exams for school-leavers. That neglects broader skills, and risks crushing creativity and innovation.’ It’s worth a read, and some reflection.


Contributions from all members of the Solutions for the Planet team.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Solutions for the Planet Ltd.