The Somewhat Philosophical Argument Against Zeros in Grading

(Note: Immanuel Kant inexcusably espoused racist ideology as part of the so-called “race science” of the Enlightenment era. Some of Kant’s contributions to metaphysics and ethics are used here as analogous to the debate over teacher’s assigning zeros to student work. Nothing written here should be understood as an endorsement of Kantian philosophy.) 

There is a sharp divide in public education right now. This divide is indicative of a much larger debate involving hot button terms like anti-racism, culturally responsive teaching, critical race theory, and equity, diversity, and inclusion. Yes, the issue of grading is an equity issue and needs to be viewed through an anti-racist lens. But the divide on whether or not to assign zeros in the grade book for missing work does not fall neatly along lines of left and right, neighborhood and charter, union and non-union, or even early and late career.

Grades are not the thing. Learning is the thing.

The debate is not new, but in October, 2021, Alexis Tamony drew a line in the sand with “The Case Against Zeros in Grading.” Many hallway chats and Professional Learning Community meetings have since been dominated by the zeros debate. No doubt, Tamony’s viral article swayed many zero proponents to cross the line and embrace a different approach like “50 based” grading. But there is also no doubt that many have since dug in their heels and feel as strongly as ever that students “cannot be given something for doing nothing.”

Tamony’s case against zeros is written from a mathematical perspective. The argument here, however quirky, is somewhat philosophical in nature and not about the numbers.

18th century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, introduced transcendental idealism and the concepts of noumenon, the object of inquiry, and phenomenon, the manifestations of that object. Noumenon is closely related to what Kant called the Ding an sich or “thing-in-itself.” Kant believed that the thing-in-itself can be thought about, but what appears and what can be observed, sensed, and truly known is only a manifestation of the thing-in-itself.

Grades Are Not the Thing.

In Kantian philosophy, what we see as a student desk is not the same thing as the desk itself. But this is not about desks. This is about student learning. Though not a physical object in the way that a desk is an object, for the purposes here, learning is the Ding an sich, the thing-in-itself, the noumenon. Grades, then, at their best, are merely manifestations of the thing, learning. Grades are what we observe. Grades can be sensed and known. Grades are merely the phenomenon.

All teachers know and admit that grades and learning are not the same thing. But the transition away from zero based grading can be painful all the same, and teachers facing this difficulty may benefit from this mantra: “Grades are not the thing. Learning is the thing.”

Grades Are a Utility.

Kant had no love for the moral utilitarianism of other philosophers like David Hume. Kant believed that actions are more important than consequences. Kantian morality teaches that some actions are right or wrong regardless of the results of those actions. Many teachers continue to believe that the numbers assigned to student work necessarily correspond to some obligatory reality of what is right or wrong. In other words, many teachers believe when students receive a score other than zero for work not turned in, that somehow the moral universe is offended, unbalanced, or upended.

But grades do not correspond to some ontological moral imperative. Grades are a utility, a utility of the thing-in-itself, learning. Grades are a means to an end. The goal is always student learning. The utilitarian question that should drive this debate is, “What grading practices best support student learning?”

All elements of learning involve an active relationship between student and teacher. Educational components like classroom environment, classroom management, and pedagogy are built upon a foundation of this relationship. Though the relationship still exists in grading, the assigning of numbers to student work is largely transactional. Therefore, teachers need to be able to disregard personal feelings of what is fair and just when examining grading practices.

If grades are merely a transactional utility of student learning, then fairness between teacher and student should not be a consideration. Teachers should set boundaries in time spent grading, but student grades bear no relation to teacher effort, thus nullifying the statement, “But this is not fair to me as a teacher.”

(I am not a philosopher, nor do I teach philosophy. I once considered myself a theologian and have occasionally been called a thoughtful person. I am in my 10th year of teaching.)

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