An equitable classroom environment

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Excerpt from "The School That Equity Built"

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

unbiased way.
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

be removed.
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



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

class time?

  • 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

heavy materials?

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

intended meaning?

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

foster collaboration.
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

diverse backgrounds?

  • 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

learning environment.
Give your students opportunities to:

  • Ask questions.

  • Voice their feelings.

  • Explain their opinions.

  • Share personal experiences.

  • Discuss their concerns in a just, fair, safe and supportive classroom environment.


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

acceptable behaviour.

  • 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

diverse groups.

  • Name the problem and search for a



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:

  • Journal writing.

  • Artistic posters.

  • Recorded projects.

  • Drama presentations.

  • Role playing.

  • Reading responses.

  • Debate.

  • Choice of discussion topic.

  • Participation in decision making


  • Suggestion box.

  • Author ’s chair.

  • School announcements.

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.





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.

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,





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.

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