The power of the zero

My great concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure.-Abraham Lincoln


As human beings, we will fail before we succeed, and sometimes we fail many, many times before we find success. If this is human nature, then I wonder…why isn’t this behavior encouraged, or sometimes even allowed inside our schools? Why do we cut off student learning in order to teach them some lesson of responsibility? Wouldn’t a better decision be to demand that they learn? We must insist that our schools become places of learning rather than houses of compliance.

The “zero” unfortunately carries a lot of power in education. Some teachers not only use it, but at times seem to enjoy doling zeroes out as the ultimate punishment. Should we allow the concept of zero to have this much power in our classrooms and schools? My answer is no. There is no room for ‘zero learning’ in a school. This is an oxymoron at best and a disservice to students at its worst.


There is no allowance for discontent with failure if we use zeroes. Students are permitted to move on to new concepts with little or no proficiency. Or worse yet…a student gets a zero but is actually quite proficient with a standard and the instructor never took the time to find out. Or the worst of all…a student is proficient, the instructor knows it, but the student did not turn in an assignment, so the zero is given.


Students need the time and space to fail, persevere, possibly fail again, and eventually find success. With curriculum guides and inventories, high stakes testing, and the factory model instructional methods we are given as teachers, no wonder some of the behaviors I previously mentioned have developed over the years. I am challenging us as an educational community to stop the madness. ‘Covering’ material and allowing students to move on without truly learning simply must cease.

I challenge you to quit using the zero. Don’t allow it any power in your learning environment. All a zero indicates is a lack of evidence, so treat it as such. Seek evidence of proficiency and when it there is room for improvement, work together with students to achieve mastery. We determine what we allow to be powerful and have control in our classrooms and schools. Let’s teach our kids to never be content with failure, but to treat it as an opportunity for growth and improvement. Learning is the most powerful force in education.