Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Here's what really happens when you give a zero

If a student doesn't hand in their assignment, conventional wisdom tells us to give the student a zero. After the zero is assigned there are two possibilities:
1. The student will do the assignment and hand it in for a mark other than zero. 
2. The student will not do the assignment and will keep the zero.
The threat of a zero will only extrinsically motivate the students that think they have a chance of doing well in the rest of the course -- but these students are not typically the kinds of students we are really having trouble with.

The students who are the hardest to educate and the hardest to like, are the ones that already get a steady diet of zeroes, and yet they are the ones who need us the most. For these students, they quit long before the zero was even assigned, and now the zero is doubling down on all the reasons why the assignment will never get done. For these kids, there is no such thing as a temporary zero -- zeroes are permanent. If the student had reasons to not do the assignment before, (whether they be real, perceived or excuses) the zero is the nail in the coffin.

Let's think about this for a minute.

It is very likely that dropouts are the kids we have the most trouble with in the real world, and yet they are the ones who get the most zeroes. If giving zeroes helped prepare dropouts for the real world, why is that they are the ones who have the most trouble living in the real world? Alberta does a good enough job giving kids zeroes and failing kids. About 1 in 4 kids don't graduate. Is anyone really prepared to argue that this number is too low?

I find it sadly ironic that people who support assigning zeroes to children do so by claiming it's for the children it hurts the most.


  1. We dealt with a teacher this year with a similar problem. My son went over the word count on a paper, because he wasn't sure there was one. It was over by a thousand words, which meant he did much more work than many of the other students, but the teacher took off one letter grade for each 100 words over, which meant he was so far below F- like an M or N- and it seemed punitive, especially when the paper was about the child's own learning disability. We got dispensation to re-write the paper, so the learning and the process were in place, not solely as a grade thing. I just wished the teacher had been more pro-active in the process and asked him to resubmit when it was clear he missed the point, than forcing external involvement from me and the special ed teacher and principal.

    I think as teachers, parents and students, we have to ask "Where is the learning?" When my other son was avoiding turning in a civil war project he didn't like, I worked with him to finish it, and then our "punishment" at home for the "fudging the truth" aspects involved watching all of Ken Burns Civil War series before he got his other Xbox, TV and computer privileges back. We also talked to him about why the Civil war and understanding what it was about was so important- our goal, again, was to preserve the learning and the lesson at the same time.

    This isn't always easy, but I think if we ask more questions and get to the bottom of the Zero problem- all of us will learn a lot more about the kids, how they feel, their learning styles, and our own teaching styles as well.

  2. I struggle with this one a lot. I do like "what actions is expected" POV. it might be the most justifiable way to argue for a "no-zero" policy and much better than the "trauma" or long range grade impact reasoning i have heard before.

    ultimately, I still have issues with giving credit for no work (the "no below 50" policies) movement. This year, I experimented with "ignore" symbols in the gradebook (**) rather than flipping the 0 right away. This then led to conversations with students that were individualized - some students just got a grade-drop extension, some students developed alternate means of showing those skills, some students signed off on the ZERO ("I will not be completing this assignment") -- It took a lot more time, but felt like i was being attentive to the needs of those most likely to struggle.

  3. "there is no such thing as a temporary zero -- zeroes are permanent". My school experience was one of zeroes, and I got a few in my day. And those zeroes are what made me believe that I wasn't smart enough to go to University. Those zeroes left permanent scars on my educational psyche -- something that I struggled to pin point. When I was in elementary school, my parents went through a divorce causing my family to sell our home and for us to have to change schools. During that whole process, I shut down at school and not once did anyone ask if I was okay. Instead I got zeroes for not getting stuff done and received crummy marks on quizzes I didn't care about because my world was falling apart. But here I am, a more mature version of myself, in my last year of an education degree so I can change the system that let me down. Because I know that not everyone is as lucky as me to bounce back from those experiences. So I am going to make sure that children don't have those experiences in my classroom.

    1. Thank you for sharing, and thank you for wanting to make a difference in the lives of your future students.

  4. I enjoyed this blog post and the others I have read today on your blog. It is a pleasure to learn about your teaching/learning philosophy.

  5. My kid is easily bored in the classroom, feels any assignment that is not new material *for him* is busywork and refuses to do it. If a teacher goes a few days without challenging him mentally, he decides the class is a waste of his time and quits going. Last year (he was a 16yo Junior) he quit going to first hour entirely. It was English. He was given an A. He took the ACT with systemic poison ivy flared up, and hopped up on steroids, and scored 34/36 verbal. So I pulled him out of school and put him in jr college. Guess what? He's already skipping a computer class that was required. Why can't they test him out of the requirement? He's been computer literate since he was 5.

  6. Birthblessed

    There is no verbal on the ACT. Why can't they let him out of a required course? Have him take an AP exam or CLEP. Or better yet, teach him about doing what is required even if he doesn't like it.

  7. I have argued for years that education has only a tangential relationship to content or performance. Learning is only about behaviour.Education is about modifying behaviour.I use the word, "behaviour" as a psychologist might do as reaction to stimulus.The proper focus for a teacher is alteration of behaviour of a child. In simple terms, it means that one if teaches the times tables to a child, the teacher is attempting to alter the students response to simple multiplication from incorrect answer to correct answer.
    Therefore, if a student is unable to make that change in reaction, the educator's job is to focus on what technique is required to help the child to alter this very important behaviour.
    Teaching is about mastering the art/science of altering a child's behaviour, whether that alteration affects responses to facts, opinions, gross motor skill,trained observations, and so on.
    The Principal's job is to improve instruction.In this instance, he seems to have offered his support and had it rejected. I believe that the Principal had no other option. Having failed to alter the teacher's behaviour because intransigence, the only hope to improve instruction was to replace the teacher.


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