Let's Talk About Education

Why Zero-sum Thinking in Schools Doesn’t Add Up

April 5, 2022 - By Cody Alton Director of Student Support Services - Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

Zero-sum thinking is used to describe when a person believes a situation is a matter of win-lose (Valentine). It assumes that for someone to win, someone else must also lose.

This is often in connection with competitions like a football match, or with resource scarcity. Like in the World Cup, there is only one winner, so there must be losers. With resources, if there is a limited supply of something, there is not enough for everyone. If money is considered scarce, then in order for me to make more money, someone must therefore lose more money. I win, others lose.

While we can all agree that scarcity does exist in various forms, this thinking can easily turn into a mindset where you can believe that the only way to succeed at anything, is to take things from others. Or inversely, the only way others succeed is to take things from you.

How might a zero-sum mindset translate to a school setting, like here at EARJ?

Let’s take a look at “learning,” one of our shared values at EARJ, and a key outcome for our children. Is “learning” a competition with only one winner? Is it a finite resource, where the only way someone can learn more, is if someone learns less?

If learning can be measured through the amount of hours a student is sitting at their desk or the number of individual teacher check-ins they get each lesson, then one might argue that learning could be scarce or finite. However, educators and researchers have known for a very long time that you cannot measure learning in this way.

Learning is not a finite resource that must be hoarded like toilet paper during a pandemic lockdown. In order for one student to succeed, others do not need to fail.

Often within education, we hear zero-sum thinking in discussions about inclusion. There is a concern that if one student needs more of something, then other students must be receiving less. This is flawed thinking. On the contrary, it is increasingly the case that research demonstrates that all students benefit when education is more inclusive. Students often benefit from a better sense of belonging and from greater learning outcomes (Ruijs and Peetsma). It isn’t zero-sum at all: it’s more like a win-win.

So how do we develop classrooms where all students have better learning outcomes? How do we create spaces where all students feel that they belong? A zero-sum mindset tells us that someone always has to lose, but in education, it doesn’t seem to add up.



Ruijs, Nienke M., and Thea T.D. Peetsma. “Effects of Inclusion on Students with and without Special Educational Needs Reviewed.” Educational Research Review, vol. 4, no. 2, Jan. 2009, pp. 67–79, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1747938X09000189, 10.1016/j.edurev.2009.02.002.

Valentine, Matt. “What Is Zero-Sum Thinking and Could It Be Harming You?” Goalcast, 28 Mar. 2018, www.goalcast.com/what-is-zero-sum-thinking/. Accessed 4 Apr. 2022.

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