Struggling students deserve more than automatic grades

The story of Diane Tirado, a teacher in Florida, has made me sad and more than a little cross.

In case you’ve not come across it Diane Tirado was reportedly sacked from her school for refusing to give 50% to students who failed to hand in their work. It seems the school has a policy of never giving a mark of zero, even if children do not do the work.


Their aim as I understand it, is to never write a child off as a failure, and to prevent the loss of engagement and motivation that receiving a number of zero grades could cause. I absolutely applaud their intentions. I believe passionately that school is there to raise children’s horizons and ambitions, not to lower their confidence or esteem. I’m just not sure this is the way to achieve it.


I’m a member of the International Positive Education Network (IPEN) and I believe there are many ways to inspire, support, encourage and lead children to greater accomplishment in many different areas of school, from academic to sports and the arts, not forgetting important skills such as teamwork, kindness and citizenship. Giving passing grades for no work done is just not one of them.


Many schools I work with are looking at innovative and sometimes surprising ways to help children reach their potential. The term growth mindset is used everywhere, but according to its originator Carol Dweck, not always used correctly, or at least not put into practise correctly.


Perhaps that is what has happened in Florida. For me one of the most important aspects of teaching grit, determination and perseverance (which I believe are pivotal aspects of growth mindset) is understanding that failure does not define you. It’s not nice, we’d all like to succeed first time, every time, but the truth is we don’t. I work hard on helping children understand that making mistakes, getting things wrong, and sometimes even looking a bit foolish for trying are all part and parcel of both life and the journey to success. When failing is not something to be feared but a momentary setback from which you can, and will, recover, then it loses its power.


When pupils realise that if Plan A does not work there are plenty more plans to go, they are less likely to give up. When their view of success is founded on their ability to keep going, rather than on a single moment of “getting there” amazing things can happen. When working with classes of 8 to 10-year olds, I have set them frustrating and difficult tasks to do, knowing the majority of them will not succeed. It is great to hear shouts of: “Grit, not quit”, a mantra I encourage them to adopt. But it is not pithy phrases that keep them going, it is a belief that failure is temporary. There are few times in life where we cannot make adjustments and improvements after a mistake.


I was speaking to a headteacher recently who is toying with the idea of giving pupils the chance to review and correct their work after they take a classroom maths or spelling test. I hope she does it, as I think it is inspired. What a wonderful way for children to learn from their mistakes and correct them, as well as notice where their inattention or lack of preparation may have let them down and have the opportunity to improve that for future occasions.


Would automatically giving them 50% regardless of what they wrote, do the same thing? I doubt it very much. It would send out a message that not trying is fine, something that does not inspire those who are disengaged and could well take away the motivation of those who try hard. On the other hand, understanding that their first grade may not be their final grade is a wonderful move and one perhaps the Florida school would do well to emulate.


I don’t know Dweck’s assessment of the Florida situation. I’m hoping to get the chance to ask her when she speaks in London in September. If so, I’ll let you know.

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