Once schools transitioned from single-room to multi-room school buildings, automatic bells became more common as students moved from playgrounds to math instruction to art classes. “This was the first time a bell was used to coordinate a student movement,” Waters said.
Stories linking school bells to prisons persist for a reason: They seem true because schools, with their rows of desks and zero-tolerance policies, sometimes lack higher ideals about education, Waters says.
“You can tell a lot about what a person thinks about school by how they describe the history and function of the school bell today,” he said.
Despite their role as an educational Rorschach test, bells are actually worth revisiting for a variety of reasons, like the brain.
According to hearing researcher Nina Krause, author of “Of Sound Mind,” sounds are “a very important part of how we connect with the world.” Most people don’t think about the effect of noise on learning because it’s invisible, he says.
Even “tuned out” noises like the beeping of an outside backup delivery van or humming from a neighbor’s vacuuming affect the density. For example, in one study, children attending New York City public schools had significantly different reading scores depending on whether they learned in a classroom facing busy train tracks or in another classroom shielded from noise. Children in noisy classrooms were three to 11 months behind in reading levels.
“We should think about these things because they affect how we feel,” Krause said of the noise around us. “They affect our psychological health in terms of how safe we feel.”
How Teachers Implement No-Bell Classrooms
After returning to private education, Concord High School decided to begin their school year without school bells. “It felt like coming out of the pandemic and seeing what happens with distance learning when we give kids this autonomy and tell them, ‘OK, we believe you can be responsible for this,'” Concord High School English teacher Becca Dale told me Concord sees the no-bell policy as a way to prepare students for real-world jobs and college.
The school is on a block schedule, so most days students have three classes with five-minute periods. Even with an easy schedule, not keeping bells was an adjustment for students. At first, teachers had to tell students when it was time to move when they passed.
“But I think as it went, it wasn’t really a problem. There are the same small pockets of kids who are late to class, but it’s always been a thing,” Dale said, adding that it was a problem even before the note-bell change. “There are kids getting pulled out of class early, but that’s always a thing.”
It also took time for teachers to get used to using a clock.
“The pushback from some teachers is that there seem to be more kids who are late or not coming to class,” Dale said. But school data showed it wasn’t.
One combination of not having a buzzer to start instruction is that teachers have to rethink how they start classes. Teachers at Concord High began using a grounding activity as a buffer at the beginning and end of each class as students moved in and out, creating more structure to foster classroom relationships. For example, a class might begin with a quick-write journal entry or similar writing warm-up. Dale likes to end her classes by having students come into a circle and share one of three things: a compliment, an apology or an aha moment.
Without bells, Becca found that classes were a little more flexible and allowed more time to complete trains of thought and connect with her students. “I think it feels less robotic and more free-flowing without the height of bells to start and end class, although there’s still [class periods] It just makes it feel more natural,” he said.