Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Should ZERO be a part of your class?

Source: Pixabay
I was recently in a personal teacher training session regarding the use of a particular edtech tool. The purpose of the tool is to enable teachers to distribute and students to complete multimedia assignments. This is typical in my new role as an digital learning coach. The tool isn't important, but at some point during that meeting a question was posed:

What if the teacher doesn't accept late work? Is it possible for the student to access this assignment beyond the due date?

So, this would mean a student would get a zero for anything he failed to submit on time, even if he completed it a day, an hour, or a few minutes late. My immediate reaction in the moment was to respond with yet another question:

Why wouldn't a teacher accept late work? Then the student doesn't get to learn from it.

So, we chatted briefly about how different educators have different grading policies, and then moved on to continue exploring the edtech tool. But I can't help myself. I've been thinking more deeply about this question. After all, most of my posts "start with a question," right?

The Opportunity to Learn

Our students are children, and they attend school at a time in their lives in which it is developmentally appropriate, and indeed expected, for them to make mistakes. For many of them, this means making time management mistakes. During my years as a middle school teacher I spent a significant amount of time in class and after school talking about strategies and creating systems to help my students with this exact dilemma. (Dare I suggest that some of us educators are still procrastinators? Maybe? No. Not possible, right?)

So, perhaps a student makes a time management error. It is even possible that this student chronically makes this same time management error. Which is more important: teaching a lesson in time management through negative reinforcement? OR teaching the student that learning trumps mistakes, but there will be some consequences and some follow up by the adults that support him?

My hope is that you'll choose the latter. It takes more time and effort, but students will grow more as self-reliant learners because you put in that time.

Do Grades Reflect Learning?

Sometimes teachers feel pressure to assign lots of homework because their colleagues do. So they ask students to complete "review" problems or to "reread" a passage from class and answer questions. If a student does not complete this type of assignment, and earns a zero, what's the harm? Maybe the student understood the problem or passage in class. Maybe she has a lacrosse game or a play rehearsal after school, along with 5 other classes that assigned homework. Did she learn the content without the review assignment? Based on her level of understanding, does she deserve a zero averaged into her grade?

I've certainly encountered students that seem lazy at first glance, but I soon discover they are quick learners eager for a challenge. Perhaps review assignments aren't a good fit. Perhaps a zero will not teach these students the lessons we want them to learn.

I know that every student does not fit this profile. Some need the review and won't do it. But for that one that doesn't need the review. Should that strict policy apply? Should there be such a strict policy?

Does Zero Mean Worthless?

I have encountered teachers who require students to make up work for the sake of the learning, meaning the assignments are not review and are essential for understanding. But even with this requirement, a zero is averaged into the students' grade if the assignment was complete past the due date in the interest of being consistent about deadlines.

So, if grades are meant to reflect learning, should the student earn nothing for doing something? Even if that something was late?

When Kids Know There is No Zero

There are teachers and schools with "no zero" policies. Is there a benefit to student learning? Hard data is not really available just yet, but there is testimonial evidence. Some say it is a gift, especially since a zero can do damage to academic confidence, skew an overall average, or misrepresent non-graded learning that has occurred.

Others say that students realize quickly that they have a 50% even with no effort or work. It is important to note these educators are not against allowing students to earn credit for effort.

So, when kids know there is no zero possible, will they feel more free to make mistakes and engage in the learning process? Or will they feel as though they've been given permission to give minimal effort?

Be Relentless

Is it possible to have both? Can a school have a "no zero policy" and have students who are engaged, excited, and willing to make mistakes?

If grades are the only form of accountability for learning, the answer is "no." Students are not motivated by grades alone.

If class celebrations, calls home, meetings with counselors, and other forms of accountability for learning are in place... I think the answer is "yes." When students know their learning matters to the adults around them, because there is a love of learning inherent in school culture, they will be engaged. 

One teacher cannot do this alone merely because a school that has a "no zero policy." Policies do not change culture. Changes in school culture come from the way teachers treat teachers, teachers treat students, and students treat students.

Educators are a resilient bunch. We are relentlessly optimistic about the potential of our students. Let's show them this optimism by refusing to accept nothing, refusing to accept zero. If a student has nothing to turn in, talk to her, to her counselor, to her other teachers and her former teachers, to her parents, to her pastor, to anyone who cares for her. Be relentless. Her learning will never amount to zero.

Should zero be a part of your class?