On June 1, 2012, ‘As It Happens’ on CBC Radio One reported on the case of Lynden Dorval, a teacher from Calgary. Dorval had been suspended by his school board for assessing his senior physics class students in a manor which was contrary to the stated policy of the Calgary School Board. He was expecting to be fired at the end of the school year after over 30 years of exemplary teaching. What was the issue? . Dorval had informed his students that they would receive a mark of ‘0’ for all assignments which were submitted late or which were not submitted at all. This was made clear to all his students at the beginning of the course. Dorval made himself available to his students before and after school and during lunch so that they would be able to come for help.
Lynden Dorval chose to stand up for his principles and his students and what he knew they are capable of doing. Kudos to Dorval for having the courage to stand up for his beliefs even if that meant he stood alone.
The argument that giving a student ‘0’ for work not submitted only discourages the student from trying is misguided. Dorval’s students were told at the beginning of the consequences for non-submission of work. His marks record over the course of each year show that giving a student ‘0’ does not discourage the student. Rather,Dorval’s students received the message that if they wanted to succeed, they needed to submit the work on time. By the end of the course, most of the students were meeting this expectation.
Over the course of my 33 years as an educator, I implemented the evaluation policy of the department in the school where I taught – a policy which was clearly explained on the first day of class. Any assignment that was late lost 10% per day for each day it was late to a maximum of 50%. Students knew there was a consequence for non-submission of work. That policy was in place until the Harris government informed teachers that they were no longer allowed to deduct marks for lateness of submission. And students who were close to passing could come in right after exams to ‘rescue’ their credit by completing extra work which the teacher created so that the student could get a few extra marks to pass. And then there was the Credit Recovery program where students would complete extra or incomplete or not-handed-in work to fulfill course expectations after the course was finished in order to ‘recover’ the lost credit.
The results of the policy of allowing students to ‘make up’ work not done are negative. Those students who work to hand in assignments on time learn that there is no benefit to them in doing so. Why bother when those who don’t do the work on time face no consequences for that choice? Students learn that their work does not matter since they will always have another chance to ‘get’er done’. There becomes no value in assessments other than tests and exams. Assignments mean nothing when the message is that they don’t have to be done. Post secondary institutions decry student work ethic – students who have come to expect that they can submit work at any time without any academic penalty. This is not the way post secondary institutions operate.
I remember a student asking me what percentage a particular assignment would be of his final grade. The implication was that if the assignment wasn’t worth a great enough portion of the final grade, then the student would choose not to do the work. I did not answer with a number. What I did tell the student was that it was his choice alone whether to do the work or not.
Another student told me that when he started being paid by an employer, then he would do the work expected. I responded by telling him that he would not have developed the habits of mind needed to do that – being fully present, giving everything his best effort, completing the work expected by the employer to the employer’s standards and on time. If he did not do that, he would soon find himself out of a job.
I have always carried with me something that my grade eight teacher told our class: “How you do anything is how you do everything.” Dorval‘s work with his students – his expectation that they will respect themselves and him by striving to meet his course expectations – drives this point home.
The purpose of education is to teach the whole child – not just course content but ways of being. Education should help students learn to consider the consequences of their choices before they make them. One of the most important things that students learn is responsibility. Students learn that they are responsible for their ultimate success or failure. Do the work or not – choose and accept what ensues from that choice. That is what students need to learn even as they are learning specific course content.