Pavlov’s Dogs; Is That What We Call Our Kids?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the messages that we send our students simply by the way we do things. Everything we do in school sends a message to our students, so we need to choose our words and actions carefully. Everything should have a purpose. This year, as the technologically savvy person in the building, I was put in charge of the bells. I was not given any control over them. Rather, I was a puppet who could fix them when things changed or did not go according to plan.
I have a confession to make. I hate bells. This year, we have tried gentle chimes, loud, grating bells, Indian flutes, acoustic guitar, Irish music, etc…. Other than confusing the students, all we have really done is condition them. When the bell rings, stop what you are doing, get up, and leave. There was one day where the bells malfunctioned about 15 minutes into a period and everyone got up and left. Only a few teachers had the wherewithal to tell their students to stay. The principal had to make an announcement to get everyone back in class and then they were riled up because penning them up again goes against what they have been conditioned to do. Like Pavlov’s dogs drooling at the sound of the bell, we have programmed our children to stop learning at the same sound.
This is so counter-intuitive to learning. When I am really engaged in learning or doing something important, I don’t stop because of a random external event. Often, I leave work and continue learning it at home, staying up most of the night to cram in as much as I can in the time that I have. Bells do not convey this sort of passionate learning to students. In fact, it conveys exactly the opposite. It is like telling students not to start anything important because we will make them stop because they can finish.
Furthermore, very few institutions operate on such a rigidly defined schedule. There are only two, actually, that I can think of: factories and prisons. Factories are dwindling and moving to developing countries. So, does that mean we are preparing our students for prison? I sincerely hope not.
I am not trying to be inflammatory (Alright, maybe I’m trying to be a little inflammatory.). I watched a TED talk by Daniel Pink on motivation this morning. He brings up 3 essential ideas that need to be in place for intrinsic motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. The bells, by their very nature, help to erode the first two. Mastery requires time, not interruption. The bells are just one more way that we take autonomy away from students and make them dependent on us, or on the institution of school.
What do you think? I value your feedback and am curious to know if you think we should retain the bell system as it is, modify it, get rid of it, or even change how students schedules/the way they change classes (I’ll be discussing that in a future blog post as well).

4 comments to Pavlov’s Dogs; Is That What We Call Our Kids?

  • My school eliminated all bells and it works great. It seemed counter intuitive when firs proposed. Students move between classes faster and more quietly. It lowers the overall stress level and students clock watch less.

    We don’t teach kids to learn on their own. With help from In conjunction with helicopter parents (see A Nation of Wimps by Marano), we provide such frequent and detailed feedback that students can’t think on their own. I’ve had to limit the number of questions students can ask during a test because the crush of questions made the classroom too noisy. This hit home on a recent trip to Washington DC with our 8th grade. It was a first class trip of exhibits, including a private meeting with our state representative on the House floor. I was stunned when the feedback was mixed. It dawned on me that no matter how much we prepare for the trip, the ultimate success is dependent upon each student’s inquisitiveness and ability to learn on their own (e.g., without a teacher in a classroom setting).

  • Jason Bedell
    Twitter: jasontbedell

    Thanks John. I am thrilled to hear that it is working on. I understand your point about the feedback. It is hard to walk the line between being constructive and being overly prescriptive. Have you explored self-assessment with your students at all?

  • Cory Roush
    Twitter: coryroush

    So true! In about 25 minutes, my class will suddenly start doing the “slow fade”. We all suddenly become focused on fitting the handouts into our folders, closing up our notebooks, and shoving everything into a bag. Why? Because at 11:55, class is over and so why not finish paying attention? Nothing could be more distracting for the professor, who is still talking, but that’s beside the point.

    This is an example of one of those elements of public education that is so traditional, so deeply embedded in the culture of school… I’ve never once considered what it says about learning and motivation.

    Getting rid of the bells seems like a good first step; the larger problem is a little more difficult to wrap my head around.
    .-= Cory Roush´s last blog ..What Drives Us, Drives Students Too =-.

  • Jason Bedell
    Twitter: jasontbedell


    The larger problem is much, much harder. I almost like the idea of an open school. No bells, no arbitrary schedule. Just give students a list of standards they need to meet and have the teachers available to help and coach as needed. I need to give a lot of serious thought to this before I open my own school (that’s not happening anytime soon, but hopefully one day).
    .-= Jason Bedell´s last blog ..It’s Never Too Late to Teach an Old Dog New Tricks! =-.

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