The mystery of the silent school bell
In a High School I worked with, I saw the negative impact that not setting clear expectations and providing support to meet those expectations had on a whole school group, and what could have been done to rectify it.
A decision was made at the start of a new school year to stop ringing the school bell at the beginning and end of each period and each break. The reasons for this decision were well intended, to try and move away from the industrialised nature of the school environment, believing this was a way of treating students more respectfully. That was the intention, but it didn’t work out as well as was hoped.
The start of a new year
As always happens in a High School, at the start of a new school year, a new cohort of Year 7 students had just arrived, unfamiliar with all the systems and procedures of that particular school. In Australian Primary schools, most students stay in the one classroom for a full year and only move from that classroom for breaks. This happens for the first six years of their education. In High School, all that changes, and students have to familiarise themselves with a school environment that is completely different. The first thing they have to get their head around is the physical landscape of a new school, and the second thing they have to get their head around is figuring out timetables and the fact they would need to change classrooms for new lessons at the end of each timetable period.
Timetables are difficult enough to understand, but the problem in this school was compounded by the fact that lesson periods were 38 minutes long. Some periods were joined together to make double periods which made them 64 minutes long. There were three breaks: the first was 12 minutes long, the second 28 minutes long and the last 10 minutes long. Timetabled periods were grouped into sets of two periods and then a break, except for sports days. On sport days, there was an assembly, followed by a break of 18 minutes, then three periods, followed by a break of 32 minutes and then sport which went on for 90 minutes.
As if timetables weren’t difficult enough, then there was the school architecture. The school was an asymmetrical design, typical of the era in which it was built. Four double storey buildings, each a different shape and floor plan were spread out over a large campus, and the room numbers did not follow a predictable and logical pattern.
The school had no signs on external walls displaying maps or period times, or classroom numbers for each building. The only clocks on display were in the classrooms, many students did not wear a watch, and mobile phones and smart watches were banned.
Imagine the confusion those Year 7 students must have felt in their first weeks.
Not surprisingly, a great many Year 7 students were arriving late to classes. Disappointingly, a great many Year 7 students were regularly sent to lunchtime detention for being late to class.
Year 7 students were being penalised for arriving late to class, despite the fact they were given no support to understand when, where and how to get to class on time. Some were even given additional detentions for not attending the first detention because they didn’t know where to go.
The difficulty with putting Year 7 students on detention for being late to class was that it didn’t get to the heart of the matter, and it didn’t fix the problem. It was clear to me that students arriving late to class had more to do with the school environment than on the character of the Year 7 students themselves
The first problem lay with the expectation that students needed to come to class on time. Arriving on time is a common expectation in many settings, but it is often an unspoken expectation and assumed that everyone knows and understands. Students could have been better supported by having that expectation of the need to arrive to class on time explicitly taught and explained to them on a regular basis.
The second problem lay with actual times students were expected to arrive on time. Period times and break times were not set in clear increments of 15, 30 or 60 minutes, so it made it difficult to remember what was the correct time to return back to class. For example, people were expected to return to class after the first break at 10:28, not 10:30, and from the second break at 12:12 not 12:15 or 12:30. Simply adjusting the period and break times into clearer blocks of 10 or 15 minutes would have made it easier to remember the times to return to class.
The third problem was with the lack of support to help the students get to class on time. There could have been two ways to provide that support: the first would have been environmental support with large easy to read signs in playgrounds and corridors that outlined period and break times, and maps of the school to help students find their classroom, and clocks in those same areas to help students.
The second support could have come from the teachers themselves. Teachers could remind students just before they went on their break, the next classroom they needed to go to, and what time they needed to be there. Teachers on playground duty could prompt students a few minutes before the end of the break that they needed to get ready to move to the next class. I am happy to say there were teachers who did provide this support to their young charges, but it was not practiced throughout the whole school.
After much disruption and frustration that year, eventually the school made the decision to bring the school bell back at the start of the following year, and late attendance to class did decrease. I was disappointed though, to see that the suggestion to prominently display period times and school maps in corridors and playground walls, or even putting clearly visible clocks in the playground was not taken up.
It is important to remember that problematic student behaviour often does not happen in isolation. Behaviour occurs as a result of a combination of interactions between the students themselves and the physical environment as well as teacher responses and the curriculum and resources or lack of them. (Sullivan, Lucas, Owens, & Conway, 2014, p.46)
If we have the expectation that students will arrive to class on time, we must provide the support they need in the school ecology (Conway in Sullivan et al 2014, p.46) to ensure those expectations are met. Ecological support includes: the physical environment with signs, clocks, explicit and regular teaching of expectations, and reassessment of difficult to understand period and break times.
Change the environment first and provide the necessary support, and you may find the problem behaviour will change itself.
Sullivan, A.M., Johnson, B., Owens,L., Conway, R. (2014) Punish them or Engage them? Teachers’ Views of Unproductive Student Behaviours in the Classroom Australian Journal of Education, 39 (6) pp.43-56 http://dx.doi.org/10.14221/ajte.2014v39n6.6