School Bells Interfere With Learning

I hate being interrupted in the middle of a good learning session with my students. It has happened hundreds of times in my career because of an archaic device we use in schools known as a clock. The clock itself isn’t evil, but the way we use it in schools has serious ramifications on how our students learn.

First, because we partition students into neat packages called subjects, they are implicitly taught that learning is something we do in compartments. If you try and introduce a little bit of another subject in your subject, students object, saying "This isn’t English, Mr. Wees. Teach us Mathematics." (I’ve actually had students tell me that). Where in the real world is learning sectioned off like this? Mathematics use English (and other languages) when they explain their discoveries to other people. Biologists use geography to decide where to start their research. All of what we learn is interconnected, and more of these connections need to made obvious to the students. This is not easy to do in a school with nine 45 minute separate blocks.

Next, we tell students to stop working on a particular project when the time is up. We enforce time limits on learning! While I’ll grant that real life has deadlines and limits, it very rare indeed that someone has to complete a task "within the next 15 minutes because class will be over" (I’ve said this in my classroom, so many times I can’t keep track). Maybe you have to finish something by a particular day, or by the end of today, but you are in charge of how much you work on the subject, and not the clock. It is ridiculous the number of times I’ve seen students actively engaged in learning and have it wrecked because the end of class came. Worse, I’ve filled the last 10 minutes of a class with a meaningless activity just to ensure that I use every minute I’ve got.

We also assume that each subject area needs the same amount of time each week, and try to make sure that everyone gets their equal share of the carefully apportioned time for courses. In our school I teach IB Mathematical Studies, which requires at least 150 hours of in class instructional time. My school has carefully arranged for about 160 hours, just in case I lose some to field trips, student illness, snow days, and other time sinks. Oh right. Field trips, those banes of our teaching existence which make it so hard to plan. It’s not like any REAL learning happens during field trips anyway.

Clocks are part of the systems world of a school but they have come to rule our life world. We have let ourselves become subject to fixed schedules, daily routine, and the drudgery of a factory-like system. I’m not saying that we can do without the clocks, but maybe we need to find ways for our system to be more flexible, to allow the learning to extend when necessary, and even send off kids early for another opportunity to learn, when their lesson with us is done. Maybe we should even rethink how we schedule kids, and consider other instructional models. There are schools where there are no bells, no classes like what you would see in a traditional school, just kids (and adults) learning.



  • Couldn’t agree more David. We moved to 4x75min lessons last year and both staff and students love it for the freedom it builds into their lessons, and we’ve noticed kids are more inclined to stay in their rooms than loiter round the toilets as much (a nice, if unintended perk!). The school is also much calmer, with less moving about. Our next initiative is to try flexi-days, where students can come to school to do their work, or access it electronically from home (or wherever). We’re expecting most of them to come to school (free wireless!) and will intentionally have the, working in a “bell-free” space (as if they were at home, or in an office). Interesting & exciting times.

  • Kate: Can you tell us more about your school and how you are going to make use of flexi-days? What grades? Have you seen reports from other schools that have done this?

  • I agree as well. I hate the confines of bells! I understand their practical nature, but I wish we would learn to work without them. Our district has some schools with a flex-time, where teachers can go longer or shorter as they desire and kids can choose which class to go and work in. I’ve also worked in schools with “double-blocks” – where you get 2 days a week with 2 blocks of 2.5 hours each (which can be good, but also excessive for certain subjects). I’m not sure if there is a “perfect” no-bell solution, but I would to see more schools trying to find an answer.

  • I agree with the problem, but would like to see examples of schools that have found a solution. I could see this working in small schools with easy to manage numbers of students. Do you have any examples of schools that do not teach with standardized time periods that have more than 400 students?

  • David Wees wrote:

    That’s a great question James. I do know of a schedule-less school of about 120 kids, but I don’t how well it scales up to full school sizes. The type of learning activities, and how a student’s day would be structured, I think would be quite different in these settings. Maybe it doesn’t scale well to larger schools. I’d argue though that if your school is too large to be flexible enough to make changes like these, then it is too large. I know that there are some very effective large schools out there, but I think that small schools work better, especially small schools which can work in partnerships with other schools in their area. Honestly, I just think everyone in a school should know each other and when this happens the schools are likely to be more effective, but that’s not based on any research just a gut instinct.

  • David Wees wrote:

    Here are some examples I just found out about:

  • An intermediate step to getting rid of bells is to encourage subject integration, in particular social studies and science with language and math, and then give longer blocks of time for these. Our school does two blocks of two hours, and while there is prep time that comes out of that to interrupt it, each classroom teacher gets one uninterrupted (by the schedule) two-hour block per day. It does help. Last year I was using three 120-minute blocks per week for math, plus 40 minutes on the other two days, and 200 minutes for language (120 in English and the last 40 in French.) Lessons moved fluidly into each other and I combined art and math at least half the time (Quilt blocks! Tessellations!) and language and social studies all the time. Not only did I cover the curriculum, I lost track of the number of A’s I gave in math, because I didn’t stop my kids when they got to the end of what I was supposed to teach them if they were still interested, so two-thirds of them came out with a good grasp of the curriculum for the year above mine.

  • I think you’ll find many a teacher agreeing, however, the practicality of a 19th Century educational mode is one that drives us. Smaller schools may well work for motivated students, but perhaps that will just increase the educational divide, particularly as they get more expensive due to infrastructural costs. That’s not to say to give up and not seek a solution, I like some of the ideas here and thanks for finding some examples of schools doing just that.

  • I’ve had tons of mine tell me "this isn’t English" too!! Or "this isn’t History/Science/etc." I like to combine things. I have them write essays – and yes they do get graded on proper grammar, punctuation, spelling. They use numbers to look at why things might have happened in history. We discuss science quite a bit when talking about application. And we even throw in PE, Art, and Music sometimes 🙂

  • Heather Darby wrote:

    We have no bells at the school I teach at. It’s wonderful. Yes, teachers and students watch the clock, time on their laptops etc, but there is no intrustion of that nasty bell. Lessons can go on if necessary, and no sound disturbs students engrossed in their work.


  • SortingHat wrote:

    Chances are most kids will go to an office of some sort when they work as an adult and there are no bells in offices. People there have to learn to manage their own time and know their own work pace to complete the boss’s deadline and learn to work with co workers as well as individual working.

    Having bells is a false safety net that will make it harder for kids to get used to no tones to tell them a certain time is here in the adult world.

    Colleges and Universities have no bells and it’s up to the teacher to release the kids which allows teachers to complete the last bit of lesson and students are allowed to leave the room to go potty as long as they do so quietly and not interrupt something very important the teacher is trying to get across.

    High schools at least need to be more like collage in order to get kids used to that kind of mindset so they won’t abuse it when collage actually comes.

    Call it College lite if you will.

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