The school without bells

The Value of Silence: The School without Bells

Bells have been a common feature of schools as far as I remember.

“What time does the bell go?” or “Has the bell gone yet?” must be asked as often as any other question I’ve heard repeated in schools.

Bells were a feature of my own school days. Their capacity to elicit Pavlovian conditioned responses in staff and students are without question. However like so many of our routines practices in day to day life they go under the radar of our noticing.

So often when we find ourselves immersed in new environments we can begin to notice things and practices in our day to day life that we take for granted. Sometimes our reflections create challenging questions and interesting insights.

Many people encounter this kind of experience when travelling and their focus may be on anything that they suddenly encounter as different or missing. A traveller for example, might notice the difference of the ‘public transport experience’ while travelling in Switzerland and begin to wonder why our own experience in Australia is not the same.

This year I have given myself the treat of one years’ leave from my regular teaching role and have been teaching in a variety of other schools just for this kind of experience. One of my recent teaching assignments has been in a school that might well be defined as being a school without bells and fences.

While I am sure that what we notice is usually fairly unique and even ‘the elephant in the room’ can be invisible, the experience of ‘no bells’ when you are so used to your day being punctuated by their annoying auditory interruptions is difficult to miss.

Now I am sure the usual intuitive response to a suggestion to remove bells from a typical secondary school day would be to assume that the structure of the day would fall apart and that students (and probably staff) would simply not turn up to classes on time. However this was not my experience in this school. Students were very punctual or at least as punctual as any other school I’ve taught in. So ‘why have bells’ and ‘what advantages derive from no bells’?

Bells and other social routines of a structured social environment create layered responses not unlike ritual in religious ceremonies. The bell is heard and actions follow. The conditioned response they invoke points to a movement in the locus of control from the individual to an external agent in a somewhat ‘mindless act’. In fact by ignoring a bell a student would often be assumed to be wilfully non-compliant, such is the conditioning normally expected.

However bells do ‘interrupt the silence’ and as such add to the noise of the environment and potentially to the stress of individuals. Once interrupted the noise often seems to licence more noise such as PA notices, raised voices of teachers and students. This became apparent in the relative silence of movement between periods in the absence of bells in this school. It seems that bells might potentially condition noise as much as movement.

Many catholic colleges in the Brisbane area now have a ‘silent 5 minutes’, a short period of silent meditation which has been shown to produce positive outcomes for students. There is some evidence in the literature that meditation can assist in learning or the attention required for learning, however like many ideas of this kind they have not undergone rigorous testing. However we do not need to go much further than our own experiences to understand that noise can become a significant distraction and problematic for creating the conditions for good concentration.

Another interesting observation was made by a teacher at this school who commented that when on camp or excursion students always seemed to observe the times given for meetings and assembly as they were used to functioning without bells.

I find one alarm a day enough, maybe our students do to and they probably do not assist in the outcomes of learning we seek in schools.

The term notice here is in italics in reference to :

Mason, J. 2002, Researching your own Practice: The Discipline of Noticing, Routledge, New York.

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National Professional Standards for Teachers – A Discussion

School Education Minister Peter Garrett has recently unveiled the seven national professional standards for teachers (Feb 2011). The minister maintains that these standards will help certify high-performing teachers, enable the development of a nationally consistent teacher registration scheme and assist in the accreditation of teacher education programs.

National Professional Standards for TeachersWith some 42 elaborations of the seven standards, teachers seeking successful validation for certification and career advancement would be hard pressed to validate their claim with less than several master’s degrees in education and a full ream of paper work.

The high performance bar implied by performance descriptors such as: ‘know in detail the theoretical and practical knowledge basis of how students develop literacy and numeracy..” from Standard 1 or “ design conceptually coherent learning programs using research evidence’ Standard 3 might seem to be admirable goals for teachers but ridiculously time consuming to validate. Could administrators who choose to leave the classroom claim the expertise to validate a proficient or lead teacher’s application on the basis of their expert knowledge?

A colleague who has recently returned from a teaching assignment in the UK expressed considerable concern with the UK addiction for excessive planning and supervision requirements imposed by schools administrations. Lesson plans had to be forwarded weekly to administration, and required specific details of lesson objectives differentiated for all learners. Of greater concern were staff evaluations held by supervisors based on criteria such as randomly chosen students in early primary being able to identify lesson objectives. If research demonstrated that this kind of close supervision of teacher performance could produce better learning outcomes for students, teachers might well support them. However the most obvious outcome, as noted by my colleague was the reduced capacity of teachers to develop meaningful relationships with their students and loss of spontaneity in their teaching; two factors experienced teachers value highly and research supports as important for good learning outcomes.

The Programme for International Student Assessment ( PISA)International assessment ( 2009, 2006,2003)  has consistently placed Australia well above the OECD averages in the  assessment domains of  reading and scientific literacy ( only 6/ 56 countries achieving statistically better 2009) and above average in mathematical literacy (only 12/56 countries achieving better in 2009).

What is of significance in the PISA results is that we significantly outrank both the USA and the UK but at the same time are outranked typically by those countries that have more equitable access to education and less government interference  with teacher accreditation. Finland whose students have been consistent leaders in PISA Assessment has perhaps the most equitably resourced education system in the world.

In addressing the need for professional development it is instructive to note the language of a recent Finnish Government policy statement  “…. one of the key priorities during the 2007–2011 electoral period is to improve opportunities for education personnel for consistent competence development.  “Compare this to our own ill-conceived government response that dictates performance indicators and provides absolutely no mechanism or funding for their realisation.

Policy Development and Reform PrinciplesThe World Bank report (2006) “Policy Development and Reform Principles of Basic and Secondary Education in Finland since 1968 is instructive about one countries successful education reform. Whilst every country is unique some obvious starting points should be noted:

  • The significant investment in education
  • The use of a non confrontational consensus process to arrive at reform processes
  • Significant support given to learners requiring support at critical points
  • The support of teachers

Peter Garrett how does the current government propose to support Australian teachers to enable them to achieve consistent competence development towards the new National standards? When will new monies be allocated to supporting students identified as not meeting national benchmarks in current testing regimes? Perhaps it is easier to join the accusatory bandwagon by creating impossible expectations of teachers and their schools so that they can be easily assigned the blame of some of our educational shortcomings. When will we recognise just how successful we have been, granted that we have now one of the most diverse/multicultural societies in the top ten of performing countries in the PISA something none of the other top performers have had to contend with.


1. Thompson S et al  (2009 ).The PISA 2009 Assessment of Students Reading, Mathematical  and Scientific Literacy, ACER

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