What behavior is reinforced 16,000 times by high school graduation?

Listening to the beginning of Jerrey Michalski’s 2012 TEDxCopenhangen talk, I realized something about a typical kindergarten through twelfth grade student experience.  If a school year includes 180 days of class and each day has 6-8 bell rings, then that adds up to over 16,000 rings by the time a student graduates from high school. It is the first time that I realized what this means about the curriculum of most schools in the United States. It means that responding to bells is one of the more reinforced and near universal lessons in a school experience.

My wife, who was a model high school student, once got a referral when she was late for lunch because she was helping a girl on crutches get her lunch to the cafeteria.  She was twenty feet away from the cafeteria doors when the bell rang.  So, she needed a conference with the principal and got three after-school detentions.  Also consider that it was a licensed and publicly funded educator’s job to stand at the door of the lunch room and disseminate such punishments. This is hopefully an extreme and unusual occurrence in schools around the world, but it is an amplified version of what happens all the time. The fact that it happened is a cause for pause and reflection about the system that we designed for our young people.

Image of Pavlov's dog, where they trained the dog to salivate in response to a bell, even in the absence of food.

This is an mage of one of Pavlov’s dogs. They trained the dog to salivate in response to a bell, even in the absence of food.

While I’ve yet to see “adapt behaviors in response to bells” as a documented learning objective, it is an institutionalized but unwritten objective in thousands of schools. It is one of the more reinforced lessons in many student’s entire schooling experience. It tells us when the school day begins and ends, when classes start and end, when we are supposed to stop focusing on an engaging reading or project, when we can go to the bathroom, and when we can eat.

Returning to my simple but persistent question, what are the affordances and limitations of this bell schedule that is so deeply ingrained in the institutional values of schools around the world? I’ve listed a few below, but I welcome your thoughts as well.


  • It helps with crowd control.
  • It is organized.
  • It allows for a standard and scalable system.
  • It promotes standardization of time devoted to different topics and activities.
  • It teaches conformity.


  • It teaches conformity.
  • It inhibits flow and deep learning that often doesn’t fit nicely in 45-60 minute class time slots.
  • It elevates strict scheduled time slots above almost any other activity, including reading, writing, collaborating on projects, helping another person, or getting lost in a learning experience.
  • It highlights compliance and conformity to the schedule above many of the values that we most want our students to develop.
  • It inhibits opportunities for students to cultivate more real world time management skills.
  • It doesn’t represent life in any other part of a person’s life, unless they end up working in a school or maybe certain factories.
  • It makes the school day technology-directed, which as the potential to de-personalize the school experience.
  • It makes personalization and customization an exception and not the norm. If a student needs to work on something for 80 minutes instead of the 60-minute class period, then the student is treated as abnormal or non-standard; addressing it by working before school, after school, during recess, or by making an exception to the bell schedule rules.

How can schools function without bells?  There are plenty of examples. I’m particularly intrigued by this 2006 article about a school that made the shift. Initially, it was a bit rough, as people needed to re-learn time management (and some how to tell time). However, over time it became comfortable, and the author reports many benefits to the bell-less school. For a few more examples and perspectives, see the short list of articles below.

Posted in blog, education, education reform, educational design

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.

4 Replies to “What behavior is reinforced 16,000 times by high school graduation?”

  1. Khalid kafeel Khan

    I agree with you because bell system reminds me an event happened in Japan some decades ago when a girl student was crushed between the two panels of the school main gate.Khalid Khan

    • Ralph Sherman

      I will be glad to share it with you. I am making it on an online whiteboard called realtimeboard and will share it with you via an invitation to collaborate. I am not sure how to contact you though, I will need your email address. As an alternative, I could post it here but I don’t see how to add graphics to the posts. Yet another way would be to post it on Google+ but you might miss it there. Please let me know the best way to share this infographic with you. By the way happy holidays Bernard.

  2. Ralph Sherman

    Thank you for this post. I agree with you comments. I am developing an infographic that details the relationship between the perceptions of time administrators have and how that effects the their students. Your comments add another level of proof that the educational system, as we know it today in the USA, is more “monchronous” than “polychronous”.

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