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Students can get to class without bells, but schools need to adapt

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school bell above a row of yellow lockers.
 (AntonioSolano/ iStock)

From phones and apps, to microwaves and doorbells, there are all kinds of chimes and alarms that tell people where to put their attention. On campus, the sound that directs students is the school bell, which can be heard twice a day or sometimes as much as twice an hour.

But during remote learning, students didn’t have that buzzer at home. So when students returned to school buildings, some administrators decided to leave them off entirely. This might seem groundbreaking, but not having a bell isn’t a new phenomenon. Most of these no-bell schools cite the same reasoning: using bells to move students from place to place has its roots in  factories or the school-to-prison pipeline. But it’s false, according to ed tech journalist Audrey Watters.

“People often say that school bells were used to sort of train students to become docile factory workers and that the ringing of the bell is Pavlovian, and it’s part of this larger effort to train students in particular ways,” she said. “And that’s simply not true. That is historically inaccurate. It’s a gross oversimplification.”

In fact, the first western school bells can be traced back to churches that often doubled as one-room schoolhouses, said Watters. Teachers would keep an eye on the time and reach for  a hand bell that they would ring to tell students that class was about to start.

Teacher in front of blackboard holding a school bell


Once schools grew from single rooms to multi-room school buildings, automatic bells became more common as students moved from the playground to math instruction to arts class. “This was really the first time that a bell was used to coordinate student movement,” said Watters.

Stories connecting the school bell to prisons persist for a reason: it feels true because schools, with their rows of desks and zero-tolerance policies, sometimes fall short of loftier ideals about education, said Watters.

“You can tell a lot about what a person thinks about school by how they describe the history and the functioning of the school bell today,” she said.

Despite their role as an educational Rorschach test, bells are actually worth reconsidering for different reasons, such as the brain.

Sounds are a “tremendously important part of how we connect with the world,” according to auditory researcher Nina Kraus, author of “Of Sound Mind.” She said most people don’t think about the effect of sound on learning because it’s invisible.

Even the sounds that get “tuned out” like the beeps from the delivery van backing up outside or the hum from a neighbor’s vacuuming take a toll on concentration. For example, in one study, kids attending New York City public schools had significantly different reading scores depending on whether they were in a classroom facing busy train tracks or learning in another classroom that was shielded from the noise. Kids in the noisier classroom lagged three to 11 months behind in reading levels.

“We should be thinking about these things because they affect the way we feel,” said Kraus about the noise that surrounds us. “They affect our psychological health in terms of how safe we feel.”

How teachers implement no-bell classrooms

After returning to in-person learning, Concord High School decided to start their school year without the school bell. “It seemed like coming off of the pandemic and distance learning was a good time to see what happens when we give kids this autonomy and tell them, ‘OK, we trust that you can be responsible for this,’” Concord High School English teacher Becca Dell told me. Concord saw no-bell policies as one way of getting students ready for real-world jobs and college.

sign that says Concord High
Concord High School in Concord, CA (Courtesy of Becca Dell)

The school is on a block schedule, so most days students have three classes with a five-minute passing period. Even with a simpler schedule, not having the bell was an adjustment for students. At first, teachers had to let students know when it was time to get moving during their passing periods.

“But I think as it’s gone on, it hasn’t really been an issue. There are the same little pockets of  kids being late to class, but that’s always a thing,” said Dell, noting that this was an issue even before the no-bell change. “There are kids being let out early from class, but that’s always a thing.”

It took teachers time to get used to no bells too.

“The pushback from some teachers is that it feels like there are more kids who are tardy or that aren’t coming to class,” said Dell. But the school’s data showed this wasn’t the case.

One adjustment to not having a buzzer to launch instruction is that teachers had to rethink how they start class. Teachers at Concord High started using a grounding activity as a buffer to start and end each class as students were rolling in and out, which has created more structure for nurturing classroom relationships. For example, a class may start with a quick-write journal entry or a similar writing warm up. Dell likes to end her class by getting in a circle and having students share one of the three As: an appreciation, apology or aha moment.

Without the bells, Becca found that the classes were a little more flexible with more time to finish up a train of thought and connect with her students. “I think not having the loudness of the bells starting and ending class makes it feel less robotic and more free flowing, even though there are still [class periods] it just makes it feel more natural,” she said.

MindShift is part of KQED, a non-profit NPR and PBS member station in San Francisco, CA. The text of this specific article is available to republish for noncommercial purposes under a Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license, thanks to support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

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