Wednesday, January 8, 2014


In the clip below from a 1936 Little Rascals episode, we find Our Gang at recess...

Notice anything familiar? Besides Porky, Spanky, Alfalfa, and Buckwheat, I mean. In 1936 in order to get students to move from one part of the school day to another, a bell rang. To send them to lunch, to get them to move from math to reading, to call them back from recess. Ring-a-ling-a-ling. Early on it was a hand held bell like the one Buckwheat rings. Later they became automated.

Most of the schools I go into still ring a bell. Sometimes it's a buzzer, or a chime, or a soft beep, but the principle is the same. Time to move.

A high school in Montana was having problems with students coming late--late to school, late to their next class, late getting back from lunch. They gathered their student Aspirations Team and asked them what they thought should be done. "Stop ringing the bells," the students said. This was counter-intuitive for the adults. As adults, our solutions would be to ring the bell louder or longer, to put teachers in the hallways to hustle students along, to have some kind of zero-tolerance threshold at the threshold: If you are not through the door frame when the second bell stops ringing you are late! The students said: Stop ringing the bells.

The school tried it for one month to see what would happen. Not ringing the bells virtually eradicated the lateness problem. In fact, most students at that school now arrive early to class, chat with friends or the teacher, get organized, or read a book waiting for class to begin. Every one gets where they are going when they need to get there. Among the few tardies that remain, most are for legitimate reasons.

Why did this work? Because it shifted responsibility for when to get where from an outmoded system to the students and the students rose to the expectation that they should be on time, instead of finding ways to game the outmoded system.

Why is the system outmoded? In 1936 when Spanky and his friends were in school, in 1976 when me and my friends were in school, and even in 1996 when my daughters and their friends were in school, time in a building as sprawling as a school (or a factory or prison...ehem) was not synchronized. The clock in one room had one time, the clock in another another. Some were fast. Some were slow. Some didn't run at all.

Look at the clock on your computer right now. Whatever time it says is exactly that same time for everyone reading this blog right now. Take out your cell phone, what time does it have? Ask someone next to you what time it is on his or her cell phone. I shared this story in a room with 200 people in it and asked them to raise their hands if their mobile device had the same time I called out from mine. They all raised their hands. Mobile devices make time completely synchronized. Not ringing the bells worked because every student in that school had a cell phone or was with someone who did and was willing to be responsible for being on time.

Why are we still ringing the bells?

By the way, what other ideas to students have for solving problems in schools whose roots lie in outdated systems?

No comments: