The Value of Nothing

July 4, 2016


Of all the numbers that surround us, zero has the best story.   This seemingly unimportant number has been influenced by multiple cultures, famous philosophers and centuries of economic changes.  Our modern concept of zero is relatively new.   Many civilizations did not see the need for a symbol that represents nothing, but consider how much that symbol is taken for granted in our current society.  From counting to money to time, zero is a pivotal part of our everyday lives.  Understanding where zero came from can help us better understand what it means now.


Zero is a placeholder.  The whole foundation of our base-ten number system relies on the idea that the position of a number can determine its value.  Zero plays a huge role in being able to maintain the accurate value.  Imagine how confusing it would be if we just left an empty space to represent a value of nothing.  A common misconception is that not all zeros matter.  A shallow understanding of place value will lead to many errors when working with leading and trailing zeros.  The significance of zero as a placeholder really becomes apparent when you think about receiving $4,500 or $45.  Would you rather have to wait at the doctor’s office for 10 minutes or 100 minutes?   Would you rather have to pay $2.09 or $2.90 for a gallon of gas?  In all of these situations zero means a whole lot more than nothing.


Zero is a number.  Zero is a real number.  It can be added, subtracted, multiplied and divided.  It is the number exactly in the middle of the number line.  It is a starting point for measurement and a sometimes unreachable point in calculus.  Zero is the additive identity and the result of the additive inverse property.  From basic operations to differential equations, zero is a vital part of mathematical learning.  It is hard to imagine life without zero. So, the next time you check what time it is, turn on your computer, or pay for lunch, remember the true value of nothing.



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Training Spotlight

1st-3rd grade educators worked together to learn engaging ways to develop number sense. Students will develop fact fluency while playing games that use their number sense strategies. By learning their facts in this way, students are not merely memorizing, but rather learning to work with numbers flexibly.  “Low achievers are often low achievers not because they know less but because they don’t use numbers flexibly – they have been set on the wrong path, often from an early age, of trying to memorize methods instead of interacting with numbers flexibly.” Jo Boaler,  Stanford University, 2009


April 8, 2019

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