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An Edmonton teacher feels so strongly about the importance of giving zeroes to students who don’t complete work, that he is putting his job on the line.

The “Hero of Zero” is 35 year veteran physics teacher, Lynden Dorval.  [Read more]  The public is behind him. The CTV news poll on the webpage carrying the story revealed that 93% of readers answered the question, “Should students who don’t complete their schoolwork be given zeros?” in the affirmative.  The reasons behind the 93% are perhaps represented in the comments.

Not Giving Zeros Makes Students Weak

Many felt that to not give a zero was coddling people who ought to have a good hard dose of reality.  Janet B. says,

“if <sic> the prevailing attitude were <sic> education over self-esteem we’d actually have some winners joining our workforce. instead <sic> we get these snivelling <sic>, whining, self-absorbed, loathsome creatures that demand equal pay for inferior work.”

Most of the many comments assumed that to not give a zero meant giving points for work not turned in.  They thought this was absurd—and it is.  Here’s Ted:

Zero work equals Zero mark. What’s the problem? It’s so simple (almost) any idiot could figure it out.

What is a No Zero Policy?

I don’t have all the information regarding the EPS’s no-zero policy, but I understand why we don’t give zeroes at my school. I suspect the reasons are the same.  Almost every comment on the CTV piece indicates a complete misunderstanding of the reasoning behind not giving zeroes.

Fundamentally, the no-zero policy means that students are not allowed to decide they won’t do the work.  And it means that teachers are not allowed to let children get away with deciding not to do the work.  But it’s more than that as well.

[click_to_tweet tweet=”A no-zero policy means that students are not allowed to decide they won’t do the work.  And it means that teachers are not allowed to let children get away with deciding not to do the work. #NoZeroPolicy” quote=”A no-zero policy means that students are not allowed to decide they won’t do the work.  And it means that teachers are not allowed to let children get away with deciding not to do the work.”]

It all comes down to what the marks mean.

What do you want the marks to mean?

Do parents want the physics teacher to give a mark that tells us the percentage of assignment turned in?  It wouldn’t matter if you understood a thing, if the assignment was in you get a 100% and if you don’t turn it in you get a zero.  Only under this scheme do zeroes make sense.

This is not what marks mean.  Marks are supposed to reflect the knowledge/skills/abilities of a student in a specific class. If this is what you are measuring, what does a zero mean?  It means that the student has no knowledge, no skill, and no ability.

But this is not true, or it’s likely not true.  We have no idea, actually, because the kid didn’t turn in the assignment.  We don’t have the necessary data, the data we need is in the missing assignment, so we cannot generate a mark–we cannot give a zero; we cannot give any mark.

The problem is that we’ve been measuring both the quantity and the quality of student work on the on the same scale.  Measuring two different things on the same scale gives us useless information.  And that’s not the worst of it.  Some teachers measure a lot more than two things on the same scale.

Along with measuring knowledge/skills/abilities, marks have also included:

  • attitude (which often translates into,
  • “teacher’s-pet” bonuses,
  • participation (this makes sense in some courses, but to arbitrarily reward extroverts isn’t supportable,
  • the skills and abilities of other students (remember how unfair those shared mark for “group work” were),
  • extra-credit (so we didn’t measure just what the student knows, but how many times they tell us what they know),
  • neatness,
  • practice assignments (does it make sense to include marks for practice assignments in a final mark),
  • attendance,
  • and of course lateness (deduction of 3% per day late) and zeroes for assignments not turned in at all.

For the mark to mean anything, all these things must be removed so that it indicates only what the student knows and what she can do at the time of the assessment or the test is given.

This is not to say that turning ones work in on time (or anything else on the list) is not important, but only that it not be included in the mark.

Theoretically, zeroes can be used under the no-zero policy if it is an accurate representation of what the student knows.  But, it is highly unlikely that the student knows absolutely nothing.

No Zeroes!

The teacher is expected to assess what the student knows or what she can do.  Without data, this is impossible.  The teacher must get the data.  No data, no mark.  Not a zero,  NO MARK!  No mark means no credit. Thanks for coming.  Try next semester.  Try summer school.

Many of the comments scoffed at the official line: “missing assignments are a behavioural issue.”

Those commenting seemed to interpret this line as letting the students getting away with something.  This isn’t the case at all.  The missing assignment is a behavioural issue.  It is unacceptable behaviour and needs to be dealt with like all other unacceptable behaviors: like bullying, vandalism or littering.  We don’t take off marks for littering.  To take marks off for late or missing assignments would amount to the same thing as deducting points for dress code violations.  These are not academic issues, but behavioural ones.

Real World Consequences

A No-Zero Policy is more “real world” than giving zeroes.

If I’m lazy my job at the grocery store, my boss will not deduct from my wages for neglecting to stack the cans of peaches.  He will not smile and suggest I try stacking bananas instead.  He will make me do the peaches, with some additional instruction if necessary, or he will fire me!  A No Zero Policy is like firing a negligent worker.

Those who oppose the No-Zero Policy want to allow children to get away with not doing the work?  Do they think it’s OK for a kid to just decide to skip the assignment, take the zero and pass the class with a 61% instead of 66%?

Is this real world?  Is this teaching consequences?

If a student doesn’t complete the assignments I need in order to assess her learning, she receives no credit for the course.  They are disciplined–which can include detentions, suspensions, and expulsions.  That’s real life.  And it’s much harsher than a little old zero.

One of the main reasons I am in favour of the no-zero policy is how it motivates students.  I have been a teacher for 30 years and I have never seen students more motivated than when all the things that distorted the marks were removed and student understood what the marks meant and what specifically they could do about it.