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

April 5, 2022

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,, 10.1016/j.edurev.2009.02.002.

Valentine, Matt. “What Is Zero-Sum Thinking and Could It Be Harming You?” Goalcast, 28 Mar. 2018, Accessed 4 Apr. 2022.

Screen Time and Students

March 29, 2022

Pediatricians, psychologists, and neuroscientists warn of potential negative consequences associated with constant mental stimulation from interacting with our devices. Mobile devices have the potential to provide amazing learning opportunities, but they’re also a major distraction. They can foster social interactions and help us build stronger connections in our community, or they can allow us to destroy relationships by hiding behind a screen. In reading “The Triple Focus: A New Approach to Education,” the authors describe three important skills for surviving in a society increasingly dominated by Internet-connected devices: focusing on self, tuning in to others, and understanding the world as a whole. Although the authors apply these concepts to the broader realm of social and emotional learning, these emphases also apply when we address screen time with our students and children.

Not only do we need to help our students develop the internal focus they need to know how best to navigate their interactions with their devices and the external focus of what positive use looks like, but we also need to foster our students’ ability to recognize the context in which their interactions occur-the other focus. Discussions about screen time are often about just that: the screen. However, this can prevent students from seeing how their actions fit into a broader system.

Ask students to define how their device use affects the class culture. What norms might the class establish? Can students name different contexts in which they do or don’t want to use screens? What actions could students take if they feel class norms have been violated? How can they work together to find solutions to new problems that might arise? To help students develop this different focus, teachers and parents need to encourage this kind of intelligent decision-making. By learning to see a larger system, students develop a better understanding of the impacts and consequences of their actions in the physical and digital worlds.

If we consider the skills of focusing on ourselves, relating to others, and understanding the world as a whole as a framework for our thinking, we can imagine how the discussion about screen time might shift away from how much time we spend with devices to how students can use that time to become more productive citizens in a connected and global society. What if, instead of asking our students to put away their devices, we asked them to think about how they can use those devices to better themselves and their society?

Being a PYP Parent

February 22, 2022

Let’s be honest, parenting is a hard job! There are important decisions to make and as parents, we hope the decisions we make are the right ones for our children. I can recall having to make the decision of where my youngest daughter, Rachel, and I would go first when I decided to move us abroad. Job offers from schools in China, Taiwan, Japan, and Romania were discussed,  each with its own attractive ex-pat package. In the end, Rachel and I chose the right school because of their successful IB programmes. Rachel was deeply committed to her ballet studies so we also looked at extracurricular activities offered at the school and in the city of Bucharest. Looking back, the conversations we had were important for both of us. The right school chose us and we chose the right school and community.

EARJ is currently experiencing an Admissions boom. To achieve 1260+ students during a pandemic says a lot about the school’s educational and community reputation. It also speaks to our path to become a  3 IB Programme World School in Rio de Janeiro. It’s exciting to read student applications especially when parents share what they are looking for in a new school. The reasons are varied with the common thread being a safe and nurturing environment for children to learn and develop. That is most certainly EARJ! As of today (02/22) we currently have 685 students in the Primary Years Programme (PYP), across both the Barra and Gavea campuses. That’s 54% of our student population! That means over half of our EARJ parents are also PYP parents. For the majority of our Lower School parents new to the PYP,  a common question is how to support their child/ren at home within an inquiry-based, concept-driven approach to learning. For many parents, this is an entirely different approach to how they were educated.

I recently came across a publication from the IB entitled, “5 ways a parent can support their child in the PYP.” As part of our candidacy work, parent education is a key component in building a Learning Community that understands the programme and takes an active role in supporting their child/ren’s learning experiences. Whether your child is in Nursery – Grade 5 or in one of our Upper School grades, these suggestions essentially speak to being active, being involved, and supporting what happens along the way.

1. Take an Inquiry Stance

Questioning is a key strategy in an inquiry-based approach. The following suggestions are ways parents can support Inquiry through questioning at home.

  • Meet a question with a question
  • Be prepared to inquire together
  • Ask open-ended questions
  • Be a learner yourself

2. Support Conceptual Understanding

Learning through big ideas (concepts) can lead to deeper thinking and understanding. Conceptual understanding involves a process for each child and is not solely focused on a product.

  • Value the process
  • Harness the power of key concepts

3. Prioritize Reflection

Parents who offer reflection experiences at home provide their child/ren time to think about their thinking. This supports them in learning who they are as a Learner. This is a valuable suggestion with long-term results!

  • Get them thinking about their thinking

4. Support Your Child Taking Action

Supporting student action (agency) at home and school strengthens a child’s understanding that his/her learning ultimately belongs to them.

  • Invite and involve their voice
  • Support their choices
  • Emphasize ownership

5. Give Feedback that Goes Beyond the Moment

When feedback from parents focuses on ‘what next?’, a child is given time and space to reflect and focus on how to improve or go deeper in their learning. Rather than waiting to be told what to do next, the child further builds ownership of their learning process.

  • Teach the Learner, not the Learning
  • Give specific feedback on the process

To our newest EARJ families in the PYP, welcome! We are excited to have you join us on this learning journey. In partnership together, may we continue to provide our students every opportunity to be active in their learning, be involved in taking action as a result of their learning, and feel supported by all of us every step of the way.