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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