Sunday, June 3, 2012

Giving a student a zero teaches them a lesson

Here is some of the common sense around giving kids zeroes that doesn't make a lot of sense and is far too common.

Giving a kid a zero teaches them a lesson.

Yes, zeroes do teach lessons, but they are not the lessons you might be thinking. 

When we say things like "teach them a lesson" or "hold them accountable" it's important to note that these phrases mean nothing more than "punish children". Punishment teaches an important lesson
You can get your way with people who are weaker than you are by hurting them. 
One problem with this strategy is that the more you use power to control someone the less real influence you will have on their lives. As a parent and an educator, the prospect of reducing my influence with my children and students is unacceptable. 

This is why I've come to believe that children should experience their successes and failures not as reward and punishment but as information. To do this, we need to move away from a "doing things to" children mindset and move towards a "working with children" mindset. If done properly, this means that teachers are less like judges-in-waiting who have an adversarial relationship with kids to being more like a safe and caring ally.

We need to move away from thinking "when kids do something bad, we must do something bad to them" and move towards "we have a problem here; how are we going to solve it together?"

It takes courage not to punish students with zeroes, and it takes real effort to see problems as an opportunity for the teacher to teach and the student to learn. If a child doesn't know how to read, we teach them how to read, and yet when a child doesn't hand things in on time or behave, we punish them. See the difference?

To those who support the use of zeroes, I ask this: "After you've assigned all those zeroes and things are still no better, then what?"

Zeroes motivate kids.

Yes, zeroes motivate kids -- they motivate them to quit.

Assigning students zeroes to make them accountable works well on bumper stickers and it allows many teachers to look good by saying that they will not tolerate failure. But it represents a hollow promise. Far from improving education, assigning zeroes marks a major retreat from fairness, from accuracy and from quality. (I stole this from Senator Paul Wellstone)

Failing students, fails them more than they could ever fail us. When children come to school well-behaved and academically inclined, it makes a teacher's job easier; and when they don't, it makes a teacher's job more important. We can give a child a zero or we can help them learn -- but we can't do both.

When children have trouble learning this should be seen not as a problem with the child, but a problem for the curriculum to solve. The practice of assigning grades (including zeroes) prevents this from ever happening.

If a student does nothing, they should get nothing.

The children who are the hardest to like and the hardest to teach, need us the most. Those who support giving students zeroes will say that we've got a choice: Either we hold kids accountable by giving them a zero or we let them get away with bloody murder. False dichotomies make choosing easy. If these were truly our only two choices, I might even choose giving zeroes over anarchy. Thankfully, social promotion and grade retention are not our only two choices. The alternative is to properly support children so they can learn.

On the surface, all this discussion about no zeroes appears to be about grading and credit. But it's not. What we really need to talk about are the long-term goals we have for our children.

When we stop and think about our long-term goals for our children we say we want them to be caring, competent, responsible, ethical, empathetic, happy and intelligent. We also want our children to be intrinsically motivated to learn. 

Yes, we want to make sure that we have high standards for our future drivers, welders, pilots, doctors, and engineers - both for their safety and ours. But we also want drivers, welders, doctors and engineers who are passionate and caring about what they do for its own sake. 

Grades, including zeroes, are at best unhelpful and at worst harmful in pursuing our long term goals. I have as much of a problem with assigning a student a zero, as I do with assigning them any other grade, including 100%.

The case against grades may be an inconvenient truth that we can no longer ignore.

Let me explain.

You see, I could not care less how motivated my children or students are. What I care about is how they are motivated. Motivation is not this single entity that you either have a lot or little of. There are two kinds: intrinsic and extrinsic. If you are intrinsically motivated than you are doing something for its own sake; if you are extrinsically motivated, you are driven to do something or not do something based on a reward or punishment that may be waiting for you. There's a big difference between a teacher who teaches because she wants to artfully guide children to becoming better people, and the teacher who teaches for the summer holidays. And there's a big difference between a student who completes an assignment because they want to learn and a student who completes an assignment because they don't want to get a zero.

But that's not even the catchy part - the real catch is that these two kinds of motivation tend to be inversely related. When you pry on a student's extrinsic motivation by bribing them with high grades or threatening them with a zero, you run the risk of growing their extrinsic motivation while their intrinsic love for whatever it is you want them to do shrivels.

Do you want your doctor to be a grade grubber or someone who actually cares about their profession and you? What's scary is that grading can often make these two kinds of people indistinguishable. We should be truly outraged that most members of our species have come to believe that collecting As is the whole point of school.

Here's an example from my own teaching career.

I was teaching grade 8 science, and we were learning about life. We were examining animal cells, plant cells, human body systems, diseases and anything else the students felt like learning about. With my guidance, they have a lot of autonomy and choice in selecting what they want to learn.

Some students were learning about Leukaemia while others learned about the organelles that make up the cell. Sarah approached me and asked if she could do a poster project showing what she can learn about breast cancer. I said, "that's up to you."

She began her research and poster during class, and come lunch she asked me if she could work on her project during lunch hour. Again, I said, "that's up to you."

As she continued to glue new information on her poster, she turned to me and asked something very peculiar. "Mr. Bower, will I get an A on this?"

This was very odd because it was March, which means she hadn't received a grade from me on any project for six months. (Other than the report card, I never grade students)

Another student overheard Sarah's question and replied, "Why are you asking Mr. Bower that? You know nothing is for grades!"

I too looked at her in confusion and said, "Why are you asking me if your project will get an A? You know I won't grade it."

I asked, "Why are you doing this poster?"

She looked perplexed and said, "I want to get an A."

I had her to stop working on her poster and asked, "Sarah, why are you really doing this poster?"

She stopped and looked at me. She started to tear up a little, and said, "my aunty has breast cancer."

I was moved by her honesty and sincerity. It was very clear to me that she cared deeply for her aunty. I said, "Sarah, I couldn't think of a better reason for you to do this poster project. You do this poster and share it with your aunty."

Two days later, Sarah and her mom came in for student-led portfolios. I started to share this story with Sarah's mom when she started to cry. Then Sarah cried. I didn't cry, but I was close. Her mom shared with me that Sarah was reading more at home and showed more interest in learning than in past years.

Honestly, I can not think of a better reason for Sarah to learn about breast cancer. And yet, if I graded students, this whole experience might have ended when she said she was doing this poster to get an A. Another teacher might have smiled and thought to themselves good for you, Sarah. You are such a good little student.

Can you see how ultimately distracting grades can be? They run interference on our motivation and learning all the time. We owe it to our students and our own learning to abolish grading as much as we possibly can so all students can find more authentic reasons to learn.

If you give grades, and your students are uninterested or disengaged, might it be because they are searching for a more intrinsically motivating reason to give-a-shit? It's easy to blame the kids, but it takes more than a little guts to look at our own practices and make changes to how we have done things for so long.

I could use grades to artificially induce my student's learning, but to be honest, I'd rather help them find a real reason to learn. Grades seem so utterly uninspiring compared to Sarah's reasoning.

Some people might respond to this story with, "well that's nice for Sarah, but she was already coming to school and wanted to learn. I have children or students who do neither." To this I say, "you're right, but giving zeroes to students who have either mentally or physically dropped out of school won't help. If giving zeroes to the children who are the hardest to educate worked, we wouldn't be having this conversation."

Since teaching Sarah in a conventional middle school, I have moved on to teaching in a children's psychiatric assessment unit. Guess how many children come to my program with a love for school. Not many. Too many of these children find themselves on school's discard pile. They've had a steady diet of zeroes for years. 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.

Until we stop selling 'more of the same' as a daring departure from what we've always done, the status quo will continue to gain more and more momentum. Real change will require school to look a lot less like school - and to do that would require a whole lot less zeroes.


  1. Do you think we can convince colleges and universities to stop using marks to determine who gets in to programs? Because until we can do that, secondary schools are caught in quite a dilemma between what research tells us about marks and learning, and what students need to move forward in their lives.

    I would be interested to hear how others are resolving this.

    1. For both myself and my son, acceptance into university largely hinged on entrance portfolios - myself through a performance audition into a music faculty and my son through an art portfolio. Granted, that was only after conditional acceptance based on marks, but it wouldn't be a stretch to imagine schools where the sole entrance requirement is readiness in the field.
      And that's where it becomes more interesting. Many will tell you that success in a university program of any sort will require marks above a certain level in all courses, or a certain range of marks in the 3 Rs. In our current grading practice, that's somewhat true.
      But recently I began to wonder about the idea of competencies as criteria for readiness. This could be an alternative to grades altogether. Certifying competencies would be an interesting challenge, but it may be a better approach.

  2. Great post!
    Here in Japan there is a saying that universities are difficult to enter, but easy to graduate from. This attitude makes the university grading system pretty much meaningless and the students often do the very minimum amount of work required for credit. I enjoy the fact that no one cares much about grades, but at first I found it a challenge to motivate them without an award/punishment system. However, now when the students do become engaged and interested and start making an effort to learn for the sake of learning, it is so much more satisfying for all of us.
    I have to admit though, for large classes where I can't possibly get to know each student, I still rely on report, quiz and test scores to help me get some idea of their abilities/progress.

  3. Thanks for this post! It is so reassuring to read blogs/comments from others who feel the same as me! I was getting very disheartened to read the comments from people regarding their support of the teacher in Edmonton and the comments that our education system has become too easy, a joke, etc.

    In response to Donna's comment, I teach at the secondary level and we have moved away from the traditional idea of grades. We assess and report using a 4 point scale. We look at progress and focus on learning. The student does not see a percentage at all during the semester. The only time they see a percentage is at the end of the semester and ONLY because the Universities and Colleges require it. It has taken some time, but most parents and students have come to accept this process. They are starting to understand that learning is the goal! We have also changed to standards based in the fact that they won't receive credit until ALL outcomes are met successfully.

  4. All true, but doesn't quite get to the heart of the matter. You are missing the context - teachers who are expected to teach upwards of 200 students. At the secondary level, I sympathize with teachers who use marks and other extrinsic motivators even though I agree with you it is wrong. But when the teacher becomes subject to unrealistic expectations due to class size and workload and cannot actually provide an environment based on relationship and attachment due to the shear numbers involved, then it is too simplistic to just ban the extrinsic motivator (zeros). A holistic change is necessary that enables teachers to create environments based on intrinsic motivation rather than punishing them with an arbitrary rule that interferes with their professional autonomy. This is, in essence, doing to the teachers what you are saying we shouldn't do to the students - using an extrinsic motivator.

  5. This is a very good article! I'm a music teacher and I hate to give zeros to band kids who don't turn in practice sheets. I want my students to practice though and I tell them that this helps them individually and the whole band. I wonder what can be in place of it?

    Also, in the world of standardized testing, how can we move away from assigning grades if the state governments are emphasizing student/school/teacher accountability through test scores?

  6. Ah, another opinion about zeros. Wait, make that a common sense view. Lovely. And, oddly enough, the mantra of a trust-busting Mike Harris, the Republic Party and today has been "co-opted across the globe to provide cover for politicians seeking to slash budgets in the name of ‘responsibility’ and ‘austerity.’" ( The trouble is, one person's 'common sense' is another person's folly. Let's take a closer look at your assertions:

    1. Punishment teaches an important lesson: You can get your way with people who are weaker than you are by hurting them.

    Consider the etymology of the word punish. From L. punire "inflict a penalty on, cause pain for some offense," Hmm, penalty and pain. I would not argue with the first part of the definition but as for seems to me to be self-inflicted. Oddly enough, when the outcome is known in advance people seem to describe that as being less-painful and dare I say, it makes sense. At least that's what kids tell me. Regardless, wait til I get pulled over for speeding the next time.....

    2. Far from improving education, assigning zeroes marks a major retreat from fairness, from accuracy and from quality.

    And the evidence is??? Funny, our world doesn't seem to have a dearth of doctors, lawyers or first-nations chiefs. It would appear that this policy--giving zeros--has only recently been as impactful as you suggest. Perhaps it's part of a larger symptom; namely, the insulation of children from all things potentially harmful including but not limited to playground equipment, chemistry sets (contains no chemicals), too much homework and more. You may find this interesting: along with a reduction in these risky affairs has come a drop in North American patents, entrepreneurship and applications to post-secondary institutions. (Sources: various but you might enjoy reading Shop Class as Soul Craft).

    Con't below.

    1. Oooops, make that applications to post-secondary institution Science programs.

  7. 3. The children who are the hardest to like and the hardest to teach, need us the most. Those who support giving students zeroes will say that we've got a choice.

    If you're suggesting that those who need teachers the most aren't getting the attention they need, I would suggest that this 5 percent or so get far and away most of the teacher's time. This is usually due to a refusal to think for one's self. See 2. above (spoon-feeding parents). And should you care to, ask the VPs and they'll concur. Sad, huh? And as for choices, your daemonization of teachers is nonsense. The ones I know call home, keep kids in at lunch, often provide alternatives (sadly), vary assignments to appeal all forms of learning, send credits to 'credit recovery' long before giving zeros. The sad reality of the 'credit recovery' approach is that far too many (source: interviews with credit recovery teachers) kids who find themselves in this position do NOT complete the work. Period. Now add to this the absence of a caring teacher and it's even less likely to result in an earned credit. The answer? Give zeros and if the final mark is a pass, the kid passes. Do you know what? Kids tell me that they prefer the latter. Parents too.

    4. What I care about is how they are motivated. Motivation is not this single entity that you either have a lot or little of. There are two kinds: intrinsic and extrinsic. If you are intrinsically motivated than you are doing something for its own sake.

    I'm with you but, good luck with this one. Remember, these are children we are talking about. that aside, you might wish to read about intrinsic motivation and math. Even the most math-loving people still find it difficult to get intrinsically motivated to crunch numbers. (Source: a great book that I can't put my hands on. Dang.)

    Anyways, if you really want to know what the impact of zeros are, just walk a mile in teacher's shoes. And it had better be more than zero.


    Roger Curtis

    1. Found it! The research became the foundation for a book titled: Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, Kevin Rathunde, Samuel Whalen Talented Teenagers: The Roots of Success and Failure. Cambridge University press, 1996.

    2. Post Post Script. Please forgive the spelling and grammar errors. Yes, I know that than sould have been then. And I am missing an and or two. I keyed this before dashing out the door to (just) make the bus!!!

  8. Excellent Joe, I have been one of those pushing my own kid to care about the grades, but it is hard not to think about how things are after high school. However, to get the kids the opportunity to find a reason by themself to learn what they are passionate about is priceless.
    I am right now in a task of challenging the "status quo" of two of the most important things I grew up with (and probably many if not all of us did), the way we feed ourselves and the religions we were taught to believe in. And, now this is another topic that I definitely support and actively challenge. Don't get me wrong I believe our parents did the best to raise us healthy and positive contributors to our societies, but the amount of collective knowledge we have right now should help us understand that even though they did their best with the knowledge they had (or they wanted to have), it doesn't necessarily means that they were right. We are evolving so I invite everyone to question the way we do and believe in things with an open mind, always looking at the bigger picture…A better future to our kids and to this beautiful and small blue planet.

    Pedro Gonzalez

  9. I haven't given a zero (or any other number) for an assignment in four years. Students are given feedback and their work is revised and improved until it is "fully meeting" or "exceeding" expectations. I conference with students prior to reporting out twice a semester and we agree on a number (still mandatory in BC) that represents their overall learning. Yes, I often give the same feedback several times before it takes and assignments often come in on their timelines rather than mine, but overall I get far more out of the students and I am sure they learn more. When the door stays open, it is amazing who will walk through.

  10. While I definitely see some merit in your proposals, the way the academic world works right now, it’s geared around marks. So let me ask you this. If I’m trying to get into University, and on my first assignment in a Grade 12 class I get a 9 out of 10, I’ve got 90%. Certainly, someone like myself, who values learning and better understanding the world around them, would continue to study and learn, and probably hand in assignments – but someone else who perhaps just has the end goal in mind, might think differently, and neither hand in assignments or take tests. Why mess up a 90%, after all.

    That would be my biggest beef about not giving zeroes – while your strategy may motivate more of the less-interested students to continue, it, in my opinion, does the opposite with the high achievers, it seems unfair to them that they have to do all this work to continue getting a really good grade, while others do little or nothing and get decent grades.

    And I’ve always said that nobody cares about your grades after you’ve graduated University, or completed some sort of professional designation, but to get into those programs, the marks have to be there, because that is one of their main barriers. And until that changes, I’m not sure I could ever agree with not giving zeroes.

  11. Very interesting post, thank you for sharing it.

    By far the best argument I've heard in favour of a no-zero policy. I agree that the answer is not as simple as some of us watching from the sidelines make it seem.

    I've heard that other countries, like Finland for instance, often don't grade students until they get well into older grades. And then, probably only because of university entrance requirements.

    I'd be curious to know how you grade report cards objectively without marks from throughout the year/semester. Do you have small enough classes that it's manageable? And do you run into much difficulty with parents challenging the grades you give their children?

  12. I really enjoyed your post! Equally interesting are the comments it garnered ;) Makes me miss the classroom and the opportunity to be much more holistic in approaching assessment. We have a loose 'no-zero' policy in our English department at ADLC, but it is (I think) probably a lot more streamlined and personally effective for us, simply by the way we operate (i.e. I can deal with all of my students on an individual basis and give them as much attention as they need in areas/assignments they struggle in). Sorry, that probably sounds like a plug, but assessment for learning is a great companion of DL.

  13. Unfortunately not all children care about getting an education and they learn to play the system. The no zero policy does not guarantee that kids think "Wow, I can learn and don't have to worry about getting a zero." For some kids it becomes, "Wow, I don't have to do this assignment. That's great." There has to be a balance between reality and idealism. My son went through the no zero policy and it did not encourage him to be a better student. It encouraged him to be lazy because if he didn't get the assignment done, then it didn't matter. Now, he has been fired from three jobs because he doesn't think he needs to do the best, just enough to get by and he is NOT getting by - he is getting fired. We need to lead by example. If you don't do the assignment, you will receive a consequence and if that is a zero, then that is the consequence. As parents we hired tutors and did everything we could to get our son to get his work done. He has struggled with the realities of life ever since graduating from high school. I don't blame all his problems on the no zero policy, but it is one of the contributing factors in his difficulties.

  14. Letter grades are as deeply motivating and rewarding as emoticons. A good high school friend, now Dr. Ed. Paul Skilton Sylvester, stopped looking at his grades early on by asking teachers to omit them from returned work and by leaving his report cards sealed. I believe he would agree with this post regarding the negative impact of zeros on struggling learners, but also note the limiting effect of the "A" ceiling. His "Sweet Cakes Town" elementary school learning model is about real world motivations not grades (Harvard Ed Review). Also, check out his Hellomundo concept to provide Skyped interactions with knowledgeable speakers from around the world. (Indiegogo) Such new tools will provide the deep motivation that letter grades never have and never will.

  15. Good thoughts and links.

    When I consult, I ask this question: Does the grade you're assigning reflect knowledge and skills - or does it reflect something else? If it reflects "something else", what does it reflect?

    I'm a big believer in communicating subject-matter grades based on student knowledge and skills. If you want to grade responsibility or work habits, put those comments/marks in a different part of the report card.

  16. Any thoughts on detention for not having submitted/completed work? Personally, it makes me cringe...but it is a policy in our building.

  17. That's exactly the junk I had to throw out when I moved my desk out of the classroom.Apple passbook I looked at the contents of the desk and asked myself "Why did I ever need all that stuff?"

  18. Really enjoyed this and couldn't agree more!

  19. The main part of work is going to be about posting top-quality articles in your blogging webpage, in any case, you likewise need to figure out some showcasing systems with a specific end goal to bring essays for money gone for your web. With such a variety of individuals on-line today, your rival is getting harder you'll likewise find to attempt and do substantially more work to get took note.

  20. Excellent post, went ahead and bookmarked your site. I can’t wait to read more from you.