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Learning Equity

Published: October 2, 2018

What does it mean to be fair and just? There is a lot of discussion in education circles these days about equity and its importance in learning (for one example, see Leah Smiley).  To be clear, equity is not the same as equality.  Equality dictates that each student should receive the same resources and opportunities to learn, which is seemingly fair.  Equity argues, however, that each student should receive resources and opportunities in proportion to their need. 

An infographic showing equal care of a cactus, rose, and fern all receiving the same water and sun, versus equitable care with each plant receiving what they need.
(Infographic credit:

One analogy that I like involves watering plants.  Imagine you have a cactus, a rose and a fern. Equality means you give each plant the same amount of water; in this case, you will either overwater the cactus or underwater the fern, and neither is optimal.  On the other hand, equity requires you to discern how much water each plant needs and to water more or less, to best care for each plant. 

Student voice—the opportunity to share one’s experiences, perspectives and thoughts in learning situations—can be rich ground for applying principles of equity.  Here are three examples of how student—or villager—voice is cultivated at Concordia Language Villages.

Names and Identity

Villager name tags hang on a buddy board.

Upon arrival at Concordia Language Villages, each villager selects a name reflective of the cultures where the target language is spoken.  Cameron becomes Minji, and Dillon becomes Hans. The Village name might be the villager’s legal name in translation, a traditional name from the target culture, a more contemporary name or a gender-neutral name.  Regardless of the name chosen, it is the act of choosing a Village name that represents an important opportunity for the villager to shape their identity at the Village and express something about who they are (see my earlier blogpost on identity). We intentionally create the figurative space, with support, for villagers to figure out who they are, a critical need for young people that varies wildly from one individual to another. When I was in the classroom, I used a similar technique, encouraging my students to select either a Japanese or Spanish name.  It added another element of culture to our learning and assisted in keeping class in the target language.


A counselor presents vocabulary at Al-WaHa mealtime.

An important part of the day at each Village is meals, when villagers and staff come together to gain nutrition, certainly, but also to learn about the language and culture through food.  At the start of each meal, a small group of villagers (with staff assistance) introduce each dish through a skit, song or other performance, with the goal of providing everyone with the needed vocabulary in the target language to successfully navigate the meal.  Villager contributions range from simply reciting the name of a food item to narrating background or providing contextual dialogue. Each villager produces language at their differing level of proficiency, but all villagers have the powerful experience of speaking in front of the entire Village; everyone builds experience and confidence with the language but at a level that differs based on their needs. 

While meals may not be part of the traditional classroom setting, we can create other opportunities for students to speak in a variety of contexts, from simply reciting today’s date in the target language to commenting on the weather and current events to providing instructions for the next activity.  Again, it is the opportunity to produce meaningful language at one’s level that is empowering and powerful.

Voice and Choice

From sports to art, newspaper publishing to cooking classes, villagers select activities in which to participate throughout their stay at the Village. The resulting artwork, original songs, poems and portfolios are all examples of learner-driven assessment, perhaps arguably the most critical aspect of the classroom experience when we talk about equity.  In the classroom this could take the form of different options for a given project or could extend all the way to a genius hour. This focus on choice allows learners to better make meaning of their learning, internalize that learning, make connections and find ways to apply their learning in novel contexts. 

By intentionally structuring learning opportunities to recognize and, indeed, celebrate diversity in learning needs, we help students recognize their strengths and continue to grow.  By designing learning experiences with equity—rather than equality—in mind, we maximize each student’s intellectual and personal growth.  Now that’s fair!

About the Author

A headshot of author Mark Chen

Mark Chen is a group director with Concordia Language Villages. Chen holds a BA in multiple foreign languages from North Central College and an MA in foreign language education from the Ohio State University. He has taught Japanese and Spanish from kindergarten to undergraduate levels for more than 25 years. Chen has been on staff at CLV for 17 years, and is a former dean of the Japanese Language Village.

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