Many teachers see zeroes as punitive, but teaching 11th Grade English has taught me that the least motivational force on the planet is a zero. Though many teachers would chaff under the prospect of a zero, many students simply shrug their shoulders, roll their eyes and say, “Whatev.” This can be very frustrating for teachers and parents, and worst of all doesn’t support the learning process. Which might suggest a new kind of no-zero policy.
Our first mistake is believing that students see zeroes the way we do, but students do not see them the way we do. As teachers we know that zeroes are bad for several reasons:
Zeroes means nothing to most students and are not a motivator for improvement.
They do not reflect the student’s ability or lack of ability.
They can make a student’s grade tank quickly.
A zero does not teach a life skill.
When reevaluating your thoughts about zeroes, you have to get into the grit of grading. What is your purpose–assessment of skill level or assessment of behavior?
If you choose to assess skill level, then you need those zeroes gone in order to get an accurate view of what the student knows and doesn’t know.
If you’re assessing for behavior, then you can keep the zeroes, because they stand in for nothing other than a failure to work—a behavior.
Ultimately, our goal is to teach our content, but zeroes often teach something else as well: that it’s okay not to do the work. I have often heard students say, “It’s okay if I get a zero on that paper, I’ll make it up elsewhere in the grade.” Clearly this strategy has worked for them in the past. When I hear this, it’s time to sit down (again) and really discuss the purpose behind the assignment. I explain that zeroes are not an option and each one comes with a consequence.
Oftentimes, teachers say they are teaching students that they can’t be late on assignments, that in the real world, if you’re late with work you get fired. For better or for worse, school is nothing like the real world. School is certainly valuable for building work ethic and education to be used in the real world, but it is a false assumption to say it’s a real-world environment. no matter how authentic we try to make it. Ultimately, we need to let go of this concept in order to work with the reality we’ve been given and deal with zeroes with a more direct approach.
We’re also undermining kids’ ‘stick-to-it-ness’ when we allow them to get zeroes. By allowing zeroes, we’re giving them the message that they don’t have to be persistent in their learning.
We’re also telling kids the assignment wasn’t that important anyway—they can get a zero on it and no one can or will do anything about it.
Is that really the message we want to send?
And more importantly, how should we design no-zero policies in light of this–if we should at all?
Image attribution flickr user wootang5