The Tyranny of the School Bell by Joe Harrison

Imagine if you and I were to have a conversation but I just kept on interrupting you every time you start speaking. You go to make a point but I cut you off. You try to ask a question, and again…! Not much of a conversation… After a while I’d guess that you’d probably respond in one of two ways: either you fight back to make your voice heard, disrupting the established status quo, or you submit. Give in. Let me do my thing whilst offering an occasional polite nod or “Uh-huh” to make me at least think that you’re still listening!

Its not a dissimilar thing happening in many schools. Many, it must be said are fighting this too and I shall return to just how they are doing so later. But first I want to explain what I mean.

I’ve often heard it stated that on entering school at reception age, the average child asks 100 questions every day and that on entering school this declines rapidly. While sources may be hazy* my own experience suggests there is a grain of truth in this. Indeed, by the time they get to secondary school I’ve seen kids virtually paralysed by their school experience!

A key issue here is having time to care about their learning. Children and young people need to feel that their learning has purpose in their own lives and that of those around them, and that requires time.

A few years ago I worked on the Music Manifesto’s Northwest Pathfinder Partnership to develop innovative practice for teaching music in schools, which we duly did with a good degree of success. But the creativity, aspirations, purposes of the young people were always limited. One thing would always prevent an exciting educational experience turning into a really deep and purposeful educational experience. The school bell.

No sooner had an interest formed than it had to be broken. The chances of that interest still being in the forefront of the young person’s mind a week later, at exactly 10.45, and then being appropriately developed for the following 50 minutes before stopping again and doing the same for Maths or Geography or History were minimal. Indeed there is not a musician (or scientist, or economist, or architect) in the world who would work in 50 minute (or however long) blocks every Monday morning and then forgot about it until the same time the following week. And yet we ask this of our young people.

If a young person does do as every teacher wishes for and gets involved and enthusiastic about their subject, the school bell will be sure to stop it. And then we must also bare in mind that this isn’t just happening every so often, it’s happening for every subject, many times every day, for at least 12 years. What is the impact of that? What does it teach? It certainly doesn’t aid the teaching of subject knowledge, indeed, I fear that the school bell teaches that nothing is really worth caring about. Nothing is worth giving yourself over to, really caring about and taking time to discover and engage with on your own terms. Every day and for many years, the opportunity to care about your learning is cut off again and again…

And so, after a while I’d guess that you’d probably respond in one of two ways: disrupt the status quo or submit.

We need to provide time to care about learning. This isn’t just a call for longer lessons its a call for something far beyond that, and many schools are already developing it. The Innovation Unit has produced this excellent document outlining how 10 schools around the world are creating new educational models which allow students time to engage in their own learning and find their own purpose and motivation.

Last year I visited one of these schools, Matthew Moss High School in Rochdale and spoke to some of the young people. I remember one lad telling me about the ‘My World’ program, which provides extended learning opportunities and empowers the young people to control school budget. Though only 13 he explained in detail his learning journey to date, the considerable knowledge already gained, and his proposed route to becoming a aeronautical engineer! Without the confines of the school bell he had been able to discover and develop passions and become engaged in the story of his own life.


* Source no longer hazy:      Hoefferth, S. (1998) Children at Work and Play. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Institute of Social Research.

3 comments for “The Tyranny of the School Bell by Joe Harrison

  1. Maurice Holt
    April 14, 2012 at 9:43 am

    Entirely agree, Joe. The current school climate – as dictated by OFSTED – exacerbates the problem, since it emphasises good test results in as many subjects as possible. So the school day becomes a patchwork of undigested gobbets – no depth, little understanding. Just superficial coverage.

  2. Sarbjit (Sabbi) Kaur
    April 17, 2012 at 10:08 am

    Hi Joe

    I recall reading about the effect of bells in the book you introduced to me some years ago: ‘Dumbing us down by John Taylor Gatto’. The bell situation definitely ‘rings’ true in my experience too.

    “I’ve come to believe that genius is an exceedingly common human quality, probably natural to most of us… I began to wonder, reluctantly, whether it was possible that being in school itself was what was dumbing them down. Was it possible I had been hired not to enlarge children’s power, but to diminish it? That seemed crazy on the face of it, but slowly I began to realize that the bells and the confinement, the crazy sequences, the age-segregation, the lack of privacy, the constant surveillance, and all the rest of national curriculum of schooling were designed exactly as if someone had set out to *prevent* children from learning how to think and act, to coax them into addiction and dependent behavior.”

    – John Taylor Gatto

    Worth a read.

  3. Sarbjit (Sabbi) Kaur
    April 17, 2012 at 10:12 am

    By John Taylor Gatto:

    ‘The lesson of bells is that no work is worth finishing, so why care too deeply about anything? Bells are the secret logic of schooltime; their argument is inexorable; bells destroy past and future, converting every interval into a sameness, as an abstract map makes every living mountain and river the same even though they are not. Bells inoculate each undertaking with indifference’.

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