Doctor Clueless Will See You Now (Or, Teaching Kids the Difference Between “Fair” and “Equal”)

Halloween came a little bit early in one part of my school last week.  With a little help from a parent who’s a nurse and a lab coat stolen from kindergarten dress-up, I ran a fourth grade classroom through the Clueless Doctor ability awareness lesson I learned about a few years ago from yet another brilliant teacher whose name I have utterly forgotten.

Dr. Clueless is fun with a very serious point.  First, the classroom teacher asks the kids to define “fairness”, inevitably ending out with some variation of everyone getting the same thing.  The doctor then comes in to a room full of pretend medical ailments, ranging from a slightly upset tummy to acute cardiac arrest, and gets to work.  I threw in a few wildcards, such as the kid who only went to the doctor because he heard they gave out lollipops, and a couple grotesque injuries to appeal to the audience (which was over 50% fourth grade boys).  Each kid takes a turn relating their symptoms, and then receives an identical treatment plan from our esteemed physician: take two little blue pills–I stole beads from Art Club– and go to sleep on your stomach.

By about the fourth patient, the audience is able to chant the prescription right along with Dr. Clueless.  Arm won’t stop bleeding?  Need a booster shot?  Nasty splinter?  Fever of HOW MUCH?  Yup, two little blue pills and go to sleep on your stomach.

One of the best parts of the lesson is watching little brows furrow, as the absurdity slowly takes hold.  A couple kids started shaking their heads; I heard a “What the…?” muttered in the back row.  Once 20 little blue pills had been distributed, I stopped the role play and asked what I’d done.

“You gave them medicine.”  “The same medicine.”  One kid (whose reading comprehension I may need to work on later…) offered, “They got better”, and half the class looked at him funny.  We then went through it, more explicitly–I repeated each symptom and asked every patient if two little blue pills really hit the spot.  After a couple minutes, the vote was unanimous: Dr. Clueless kind of, well, sucked at her job.  Giving everyone the exact same treatment didn’t make anyone better (especially the bleeder and the one who still wants to know when the lollipop comes in.)

I then pointed out to them that Dr. Clueless was, if nothing else, a FAIR doctor by their definition, and asked them, “Is it always a good idea to give everyone the same thing, no matter what?”

We talked then about how to make Dr. Clueless a little better at her job, and the kids were spot-on with their suggestions.  Listen to each patient.  Give them what they need.  I wrote the take-home message on the board while they talked in small groups about it: “Fair doesn’t always mean that everyone gets the same thing.  Fair means that everyone gets what they need.”  As a class, we talked about examples of this, starting with the glasses I need but they might not need, moving through wheelchairs and retainers, and touching on accommodations like number lines and extra time on tests.  The classroom teacher connected it to students leaving the class for English language support or resource specialist services; kids talked about relatives they knew who used different supports.

Richard Lavoie, a well-loved expert on learning and behavioral disabilities, has some Deep Thoughts on fairness that resonate with me:

It seems that, as parents and educators, we mold children’s values and morals. We teach them valuable lessons related to honesty, courage, integrity, loyalty and so on. Yet it seems that we allow children to dictate to us the concept of “fairness”. When asked to define “fairness,” most children respond: “Fairness means everybody gets the same.” Unfortunately, we often allow children to convince us that this indeed is the definition of that concept. As a result, we attempt to deal with all children in an identical manner. When a teacher modifies a lesson for an LD child or adjusts the course requirements for him, his classmates charge that the situation is “unfair”. Rather than respond to their complaints, the teacher should explain that the mature conceptualization of “fairness” is not equal, identical treatment; rather, “fairness” means that every student receives what he needs. Because each individual’s needs are different, “fairness” dictates that their programs and expectations will be different. Children are capable of understanding this concept if it is explained clearly and if it is observed daily in the teacher’s modeling behavior.

I remember, as a kid, benefiting tremendously from a teacher who understood that.  After my leg surgery in fourth grade, I was down for the count when it came to p.e..  Mr. Wollitz, rather than have me be an idle spectator, brought me a set of juggling balls, taught me for five minutes while the other kids did their laps, and gave me a project to do as I healed.  To this day, I can juggle.  And I always remember him when I do.

Now, I work with kids whose needs go beyond what even Mr. Wollitz might have imagined serving in a public school setting–the child whose cognitive delays are so profound that he’s learning just to circle the number “5” on the fifth grade worksheets about positive and negative decimals to the thousands place, the second grader who transferred into my program from a special day class for kids with severe autism.  I “read” with a kid who will probably never learn to read, and I teach another kid to systematically do only the odd problems because he doesn’t have the stamina to write that many numbers.   Beyond my job and under the table, as it were, I run incentive programs for general education students with challenging behaviors, allowing them to earn the prizes that everyone loves for acting just a little more like…everyone else.   Always, it amazes and gratifies me how accepting the other kids are of these myriad differences, as soon as they understand that it’s about what each kid needs.

I think sometimes we shortchange children when we avoid these kinds of conversations–when we bend our own sense of teaching (or parenting) effectively to fit the least common denominator of treating all the same.   As kids grow up, they inhabit a world that is never “equal” and rarely “fair”, and I think the pure sense of justice from which all children operate is a gift to be honed and cherished, rather than a weakness for kids to outgrow.  I look now at a political sphere in which the harshest, loudest campaigns are launched with a view of fairness rejected by my nine-year-olds: that leveling the playing field means ripping out the safety net.

In Room 15, Dr. Clueless got fired.  We’ll see how things shake out in the rest of the world.

This entry was posted in Lesson Plans. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Doctor Clueless Will See You Now (Or, Teaching Kids the Difference Between “Fair” and “Equal”)

  1. Niki Fleischman says:

    And voila, Children’s Book Number 1 is born. Dr. Clueless.

    • teacherbeth says:

      Ooh! I could totally do that! I’d feel guilty for not crediting the teacher at the Council for Exceptional Children conference who gave me the idea, but then again, she may well have stolen it herself…

  2. Linda says:

    There is no reason not to write it, AND credit it to a great idea you heard from her… I think this is fantastic. It’d be great for more kids to hear this kind of message.

    This story puts me in mind of a story from my life. I have a friend who is an emergency room doctor. When he accompanied his anthropologist partner to Bolivia while she did her fieldwork, he bravely worked in a rural Bolivian E.R. (contracting T.B. while treating one of several self-crucifixions, and seeing shocking excesses of poverty while he was there). He noticed that doctors there would administer drugs that were ineffective for the ailment of the patient — like, say, your little blue pills, or like penicillin for a bad cold. When he asked why, his fellow doctors would shrug and say, “this is what we had today.” They were counting on the placebo effect, I guess.

    It inspired him to come up with a card game — which was called “Clinica Malpractica” in its bunch-of-index-cards-in-a-box phase, but is now published. It’s really a scream. You treat the patients you get with the available treatments, hoping to help them more than hurt them — but most of all, to make the most money and go to Switzerland before the malpractice lawyers get you. Here’s the link: (or their website at– which is “Don Gusano Games”, not “dong USA no games,” for the record.)

  3. Victoria says:

    Such a good post! This is a great idea (no matter who’s it was first!) and should be required for EVERYONE. People just don’t get it these “simple” concepts.

  4. anonymous says:

    Great lesson!

  5. Laura says:

    I loved this and have told so many people I know about it. You are so phenomenal.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s