What Did the Zero Say to the Eight?

A: Nice Belt!

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Zero.  Nothing in my career has created such passionate responses as the idea of the zero: a student misses or is late on an assignment, and therefore gets no credit.

Here is the issue.  Is a zero reflective of curriculum outcomes, or is it a reflection of work habits?  How can we motivate students?  What role does technology play in the zero?

Okay…I’m not going to lie.  I have given out zeros.  Here are some questions to ponder.   In what situations are zeroes warranted, if any?  Do you give out zeros?  What led up to the zero?  How can technology help with zero?

Let me start by saying that I have never had higher academic achievement from my students than this year.   I taught Grade 7 Mathematics, Grade 9 Information Processing, and Instrumental Music (Band) 6-9.  All subject areas saw marked improvement in term grades compared to previous years.  Does this mean that kids are becoming inherently smarter?  Does this mean that I won the Golden Teacher of the Year Award?  Not likely.  So what changed?  What was different this year than last?

This was the first time that we (my school district) initiated our on-line gradebook Grades 7 to 9.  Teachers were asked to pilot D2L grades with one class this school year.  The 2011-2012 school year will require all teachers to use the system for all grades in all subject areas.  As the Technology AISI Teacher, I piloted the gradebook with all of my courses.  This meant that all of my students, at any time, could see their grades and track their progress.  My gradebook became a living document; constantly changing and calculating.  The power of the gradebook was not that students could see their grades, but the feedback and comments they received from me.   I was able to give direct, concise, and useful feedback to students on their work.  Many times my comments ended with, “Please take some time to fix this up and resubmit.” This comment was given to any student I knew could do better.  A separate “Not complete.  Please submit an assignment.” was given to students who had not completed the task.

Comments alone are not enough to improve student achievement.  Parental support is necessary.  They have influence over their child’s completion of outcomes.   When parents are kept informed of their child’s progress, the tone of Parent/Teacher interviews changes.  The transparent gradebook takes away the element of surprise.  When parents are aware of what their child has done (or has not done) it diffuses the adversarial relationship that can develop between the teacher and the parent.  When parents are engaged in the process interviews become a conversation of the real issues; not a dissection of marks.  I will continue to develop supports for parents with our newsletter, e-mail, our school website, parent information nights, and twitter.  An ever-present reality that I face is our growing English as a Second Language population.  I will be working with my AISI cohort on strategies to address this demographic.

My idea of ‘zero’ may not work with everyone’s philosophy. It was not all that long ago that I handed them out easily.  It was what I knew.  It was part of the school paradigm I was raised (incomplete=zero).  My philosophy and knowledge of student achievement is evolving.  Today, I grant 2nd chances, even 3rd and 4th chances, and maybe enough chances until students get it right.  I strongly believe if a student is willing to put the effort in to re-doing an assignment, therefore improving their knowledge and understanding of the outcome, they should have the opportunity.   Isn’t that the purpose of teaching?  Do we not want our students to be the best learners they can be?  Do we not want them to show a higher level of mastery and competency?

As a result of this change in philosophy, and the aid of technology, student academic achievement improved in all of my classes.  Students asked questions on how they could improve. Students started to realize their peers were taking initiative to redo assignments.  I was engaged with my students on a different level than I had ever been and they were engaged with me.   Technology became a vehicle for connection and dialogue. Evaluation became more fluid and less concrete.

So at what point did I put zeros in the gradebook?  Zero to me meant that the student did not learn the outcome.  Zeros came after discussions with the student, their parents, and sometimes administration.  In the gradebook I would always leave the unfinished assignment as blank (therefore not affecting the calculated average), but when push comes to shove, and after the aforementioned attempts on my part, I changed them to zeros the day my marks were due into the office.  This was not a surprise to either parents or students as I communicated regularly with them and they understood the consequences of not completing the assignment by the end of the reporting period (the zero).  Even as I write this blog entry, I continue to struggle with zeros.  Should I have left the unmet outcomes blank (excused)?  Should I have tried harder?  Does the zero show that they have no knowledge of the outcomes (maybe if they were missing from class), or does it mean that they just have not had the opportunity to demonstrate the outcome?

Assessment is one area of teaching where I continue to evolve.  I thought it would get easier with experience, however, the further I explore the less answers and more questions I seem to have.

What are your thoughts on zeros?



4 thoughts on “What Did the Zero Say to the Eight?

  1. How great to see your growth as an educator and thoughtful teacher, Jeff. I think the most powerful observation in your post was how you’ve changed, and how you have been willing to change when you see improvements in your students!

    You made the observation that the big difference for your students wasn’t seeing their marks, but it was seeing your comments that propelled their improvement. I’m glad to hear that, as I’ve always been concerned about approaches that encourage students to focus on marks rather than learning. It’s tricky business, I know, but keeping their attention on their own growth is an important priority.

    Zeros? Meaningless. But so is a 65, an 80, and 100 for that matter. Honour rolls are even worse, in my opinion (an exercise in reduction and dividing kids into sheep and goats).

  2. Good post, Jeff. I also liked the conversation about the power of comments. In my experience what is most powerful is the opportunity to take the feedback and invest it in future learning. Comments that are left dangling in the wind because of the end of a term or a school year are almost meaningless because there is no opportunity for the student to demonstrate that they can do something with the feedback.

    Another area where I continue to explore and try to refine my practice is fostering and supporting powerful peer-feedback between learners. I have read and also see with my own eyes that the feedback is so much more relevant and useful to students when it comes from a peer that they relate to.

    I love these questions:

    Should I have left the unmet outcomes blank (excused)? Should I have tried harder? Does the zero show that they have no knowledge of the outcomes (maybe if they were missing from class), or does it mean that they just have not had the opportunity to demonstrate the outcome?

    I have asked them myself in past experience and will continue to do so in the future.

  3. It is interesting how much my personal and professional Philosophy has changed in 16 years of teaching. A zero was easy to give out and even easier to justify. My employer encouraged it. Fast forward 16 years and I find it humourous how silly it seems now. In my situation, there are so many variables as to why students did noyt do their work. It seems as if I was oblivious to their plight. Now I think I get it.
    Students didn’t care if I gave them a zero. Or some had no idea or skill to even do what I was asking. Their parents did not really trust the education system in the first place, so there was no consequence at home either. It took me too long to notice that there were so many factors at play.
    I think I get it now. In many cases there is a reason why students don’t complete work. Now I am working with students to eliminate as many variables as possible, instead of assigning a 0 and moving on.

  4. I agree with you Jeff. 2nd, 3rd, 4th chances and more is how we should be treating students. If they are willing to put in the effort to resubmit, why not relook at their outcomes. The power of D2L has made a big difference for me this year as well regarding transparency of marks and communication with parents and students. Thanks for your leadership in this area.

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