Excerpt from "The School That Equity Built"
AN EQUITABLE CLASSROOM ENVIRONMENT
The classroom learning environment can be
structured to allow choice, student
involvement, sharing, freedom to explore, and
flexibility in presentation. Teachers need to
respond, evaluate, discipline, encourage,
comfort and assist each student in an
The overall aim is to increase awareness and
acceptance of the idea that the individual,
not stereotypical attributes such as gender,
race, age, social class, challenge or ability,
determine what a person can do and enjoy.
Given this understanding, discriminatory
practices can be identified and eliminated
and the barriers to equality of opportunity can
Girls need to be included in the curriculum
and valued as an equal voice in the
classroom. Boys need to learn the proactive
skills which will enable them to speak about
their feelings, to correct injustices and to allow
all members of the class to participate. We all
need to connect, respect, value, and listen to
each other. Biased attitudes and beliefs need
to be countered. And effective problem
solving strategies need to be taught and
BUILDING A COMMUNITY
In a classroom that is positive and fair, students
learn to employ critical thinking and to
understand that there are differences of
opinion. They need to exercise their voice,
express their opinions and recognize bias.
With open dialogue, students can learn to
value the contributions of people from a wide
variety of backgrounds. They can develop an
understanding of diversity and how our life
experiences may be the same or different
because of gender, class, race, ability,
religion, age, size, ethnicity, geographical
location, and sexual orientation.
Make your class a community of learning:
Offer opportunities which allow students
to construct a knowledgeable,
confident, positive self-identity.
Engage students in cooperative
activities which will facilitate
comfortable, empathetic and just
interactions with one another.
Teach communicating, negotiating
and problem solving skills to build a
cooperative classroom group.
Make sure every student feels
comfortable and safe.
Empower each student to state
personal views, speak up against
discrimination and go beyond the
classroom to effect social change.
Invite and welcome the children ’s
Make sure the classroom displays
include each child ’s language, physical
disability and race.
Pronounce students ’ birth names
Teachers can establish rapport with parents
and create a welcoming atmosphere for
classroom visitors. Communicating regularly
with parents and guardians through good
news calls, class newsletter items or calendar
entries demonstrates the importance of
everyone working together toward the same
goals. There are many opportunities to reach
out. Including parents and guardians in
school related activities shows the students
that everyone has a role to play in making the
classroom and school inclusive.
There is a hidden curriculum in every
classroom and in every school. Teachers give
powerful messages to their class, through
body language or through a reaction to
someone ’s ideas and behaviours. Bias of any
kind influences a child ’s self-concept and
attitudes. One group is perceived as being
‘superior ’ with the privilege of power and
authority, while another group is perceived as
being ‘inferior ’ with fewer rights and less
Think about the hidden curriculum:
Educators have a responsibility to every
student. Awareness is the key.
constantly make generalizations based
on their knowledge and experience.
It is not enough to allow students to
communicate, share, exchange ideas,
and listen critically, empathetically and
carefully. Teachers also need to think
about the subtle messages they are
Teachers can analyze their own
genderedness and belief systems. It is possible
to change personal attitudes and values. An
open-minded, humanitarian educator who
provides students with a trusting, open and
honest learning environment is a powerful role
model. When teachers correct their own
speech or actions they provide positive
examples for the students. Students learn that
errors can be made unintentionally and that a
caring person will acknowledge the mistake
and try to correct the behaviour.
Reflect on your own beliefs and actions:
Who speaks the most in the classroom?
Do I devalue certain student
more of my attention?
Do I let the same students monopolize
Do I encourage all students to share?
Do I use biased or discriminatory
What assumptions do I bring to the
classroom regarding appropriate
behaviour for boys and girls?
Do I allow the boys to interrupt the
To whom do I assign tasks? Is there a
gender bias of boys being asked more
often to move equipment and carry
Using inclusionary, non-discriminatory
language takes time and practice. But it can
change perceptions, foster a new pattern of
speaking and relating to others, and create
equity. Teachers are powerful agents in a
child ’s socialization, development, and
Awareness of the importance of using
inclusive language will lead to eradicating
violent metaphors in speech. Positive, non-
violent communication can reinforce
cooperative behaviours. Stop and think about
metaphors, common phrases and clichés. Are
they offensive to others? What is their
Classroom arrangement and instructional
grouping can have a positive effect on the
way students and teachers relate and learn
from one another. Classroom seating plans
can be changed monthly to give students the
opportunity to work with each member of the
class during some part of the school year.
Arrange the classroom for group interaction:
Arrange for paired learning first. Then
move two pairs together to begin
cooperative group work.
Arrange larger groups as interpersonal,
listening and problem solving skills
become more familiar to the students.
Create groups with both genders.
Create awareness and acceptance of
students who require preferential
seating because of special visual,
auditory needs or distractibility.
Organize groups and activities to
encourage more cross gender
Change the class seating plan often to
Group sizes can start with two students and as
interpersonal, listening and problem solving
skills become more familiar to them, group size
can increase. This will allow personal
communication skills to be developed in
mixed gender groups. Students can assist
another student in their group who requires
modifications or preferential seating to meet
their needs – visual, auditory or attention.
Teachers can physically organize the
classroom and the learning experiences to
encourage more cross-gender interaction
and activities. An early years teacher can
place a hardhat and a calculator at the
Drama centre. Nuts and bolts can be used
along with buttons at a primary Math sorting
centre. In the junior grades, non-fiction books
on tape can be placed at the listening
centre. Lockers or coat hooks can be
assigned alphabetically in grades seven and
eight. This would allow both genders to
experience activities and interaction that they
may not choose independently.
Manipulatives, resources and books in the
classroom should reflect the composition of
the student body and our society. When new
materials are purchased, examine them for
Evaluate materials for equity goals:
Do your resources reflect the
contributions of women and men from
Do the materials reflect the reality of
Canada ’s racial, religious and cultural
Do the materials provide practical
information as well as other perspectives
on the same topic? Classroom books
should provide a balance of fiction and
Are Aboriginal peoples featured in an
authentic manner? Learning materials
should contribute to a feeling of self-
worth in all students.
Are the posters and labels that are
displayed in the classroom inclusive,
biased or sexist?
Do materials portray diversity in
authentic and appropriate ways?
The Science and Mathematics centres
should include non-gendered materials
from the students ’ environment such as
plastic cups, wood scraps or pine cones.
Strategy games such as checkers,
chess and puzzles help to develop
cause and effect thinking, problem
solving, and talking through a problem.
A class checklist taped to the
computer ensures equal access and
opportunity for everyone in the room.
Appropriate classroom management
strategies can promote listening and respect
for another person ’s feelings and opinions.
Modelling inclusionary practices and teaching
students to be fair and equitable towards
each other will establish a positive, safe
Give your students opportunities to:
Share personal experiences.
Discuss their concerns in a just, fair, safe and supportive classroom environment.
CONFRONTING THE ‘ISMS’
An inclusionary classroom replaces
competitiveness, authoritarianism, and
hierarchies with cooperation, democracy,
egalitarianism, and community.
As a class, at the beginning of the school year,
decide what constitutes appropriate
behaviour in general and encourage all
children to act in that manner.
Establish the ground rules for interacting and
learning with each other and discipline
students using those same standards.
Teach conflict resolution skills so that each
person is able to state the problem and how
they feel about it. Children need to learn how
to handle their anger, and they need to learn
how to give and take criticism constructively.
Teaching students the meaning of the terms
sexism and racism can make them aware of
biases in society and the need for change. To
encourage cooperative and responsible
behaviour, teachers can give children
permission and support to speak about their
feelings and about injustices.
Teach children that they have a choice and
the power to choose what is appropriate and
fair. Counterbalance any stereotypical
references to boys and girls with discussion
and awareness. Naming the problem and
searching for solutions is a valuable tool for
students to learn.
Confront the ‘isms ’ with your class::
Decide as a class what constitutes
Teach conflict resolution skills.
Discuss the meaning of the terms
sexism, racism, ageism and
need for change.
Encourage children to speak about
their feelings and about injustices.
Discuss stereotypical references to
Name the problem and search for a
VOICE OF THE STUDENTS
Breaking the silence, stating the problem, and
reporting discrimination allows students to
have a voice in their education and in their
classroom. Opportunities for students to speak, to be heard, and to learn from one another can be provided in a number of ways.
Accord every child a voice:
Experiences to choose from include:
Choice of discussion topic.
Participation in decision making
Author ’s chair.
SO, WHAT IS EQUITY ANYWAY?
One way to define equity is by outlining
what it is not. Equity is not the same as
equality, two concepts which are often
confused. Equality would mean that everyone
is treated the same. Equity does not strive for
sameness, rather it strives for fairness. Fairness
is achieved by treating everyone in a way
that recognizes who they are and what their
needs are. The search for equity tries to
create an environment that acknowledges and
values the individual uniqueness of every
member of the school community.
AN IMPORTANT ASPECT
OF EQUITY IS POWER-WHO
AND WHO DOES NOT.
For example, giving everyone in the class the
same mathematics test would seem fair at first
glance, because everyone is being treated
equally. However, giving a special needs child
a modified version of the test, or scribing the
test for a student with a physical disability is
treating them equitably. These adaptations
recognize the child ’s needs and work within
these needs to achieve the desired outcome
-in this case, assessing mathematics skills.
In the words of Roberta Jamieson, former
Ombudsman for Ontario, “Equity is not about
tolerance or being nice to people who are
different. It is not something we offer to them.
Equity is beyond acknowledging differences
and different needs, it ensures that everyone ’s
needs are met and that conditions are taken
into account ” ((Jamieson,Roberta,2000).
Another important aspect of equity is power –
who has it, and who does not. In order to
address equity in education, we need to
acknowledge who has the power and who is
being rendered silent and powerless.
By building a school and classroom
environment where all students exercise their
voice, power becomes shared. Sharing power
will alleviate some inequity as the voices who
have been silenced by systemic attitudes and
practices are heard. “The frequently used and
well-meaning phrase, ‘I treat everyone the
same ’,used by teachers and administrators to
indicate their lack of bias in a diverse
educational setting in fact masks unequal
power relationships. Similarly, educational
policies that assume that people are the
same or equal may serve to entrench existing
inequality precisely because people enter
into the educational process with different
and unequal experiences ” ((Ng,2000).
Creating an equitable learning environment
requires that we as educators, acknowledge
and examine our own biases, prejudices and
privileges, and the ways in which both our
action and our inaction has been influenced.
WHAT DOES THE RESEARCH SAY?
Equity issues are often determined by the
current political environment. In the decades
since 1970,we have moved from equity
which was centred on social class, to gender,
and then to race. Equity encompasses many
issues – gender, physical or mental challenge,
race, social class, sexual orientation, age, ability, faith, and appearance. We are now
aware that these individual identities interact.
People are not defined solely on the basis of
their race, for example. Their race intersects
with their experience as a male or female,
which intersects with their socio-economic
status, which intersects with their ability and so
If we concentrate on just one area, “We
overlook the fact that in reality, people ’s
experiences are complex and multi-
dimensional. We need an approach that
makes links across these domains of social life
– an approach that integrates race, gender,
class, and other differences in dealing with
equity ” ((Ng,2000).
Because many people confuse equity with
equality, teachers often try to be neutral, and
treat all students the same. The approach is
often described with the words, ‘a child is a
child ’.This summation implies that the race,
colour, gender, faith, age, sexuality or ability of
the child does not matter. In fact, the contrary
is true. It matters very much.
It matters because it shapes and defines their
experiences. “I suggest, then, that gender
and race neutrality is impossible and that
neutrality strategies reproduce privilege.
Strategies to increase classroom equity which
do not name openly and confront directly
such dynamics will not be successful and may
even backfire ” ((Briskin,1998).
All equity issues are related to power -who
has it, how they use it, and who does not
have it. Those in power are able to define
what is acceptable and superior. Over time,
these ideas become the norm. Practices then
evolve from the ideology, which also become
normalized over time. Unconsciously and
unintentionally or not, many practices
perpetuate a power hierarchy that includes
exclusion, silencing, subordination, and
exploitation of groups of people because it
has become normal to do so and no one
questions it (Ng,2000).
When such practices and attitudes become
normalized in a system such as education, the
problem is termed systemic (i.e. systemic
racism)because it is embedded in the policies and decision making processes and it
is perpetuated at an unconscious level.
Promoting equity in education demands,
therefore, that we examine how power
operates in the vital areas of gender, race,
class, sexual orientation, challenge, ability,
age, faith, and appearance.
Responding to inequity requires a willingness
to change the way things have always been.
Power can be shared in many ways -through
voice, action, opportunity, inclusion,
participation, and acknowledgement.
Awareness is the first part of this process, but
acknowledging the power dynamics is not
enough. As educators we must talk about
these power dynamics with our students, help
them to see and understand both the
powerful and the powerless, and work
with them to challenge inequities (Briskin,
HAVING A VOICE
WILL AFFECT THE WAY
A CHILD SEES THE WORLD.
In the Ontario Ministry of Education and
Training draft copy of Engendering Equity
(1994)we are encouraged to become
proactive rather than reactive, in order to
effect some lasting change. An excellent
resource for this purpose is Open Minds to
Equality listed in the appendix.
When we share power with our students, we
create the opportunity for them to have a
voice. Having a voice will affect the way they
see the world, their environment and their
position in it (Banks & Banks,1995).“Equity
pedagogy creates an environment in which
students can acquire, interrogate, and
produce knowledge and envision new
possibilities for the use of that knowledge for
societal change ” ((Banks &Banks,1995).
Therefore the structure of the school must
promote and value this type of knowledge
and must encourage change in accepted
social patterns. The structure of the school
includes three different learning environments
-the school, the classroom and the
playground. It must be remembered that
“… equity pedagogy is not embodied in
specific strategies. It is a process that locates
the student at the centre of schooling ” ((Banks & Banks,1995).
This resource, The School that Equity Built,
keeps these fundamentals in mind.