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Hack Education: The History of the School Bell

I'd wager it's the most frequently told story about ed-tech — one told with more gusto and more frequency even than "computers will revolutionize teaching" and "you can learn anything on YouTube." Indeed, someone invoked this story just the other day when chatting with me about the current shape and status of our education system: the school bell was implemented to acclimate students for life as factory workers, to train them to move and respond on command, their day broken into segments of time dictated by the machine rather than the rhythms of pre-industrial, rural life.

It's a story that seems plausible. The bell is a technology associated with behavioral conditioning, after all — Pavlov and his salivating dogs. It is a technology that organizes the school, controlling both space and time. The bell sounds out the logic of the day: it's time for math. It's time for recess. It's time for reading. Finally, thank god, around 3 o'clock or so, it's time to go home. And at the end of the school year, when "schools out completely," as Alice Cooper sings, the children cheer with joy as the final bell rings, the bell and their voices warping as the classic song fades out — freed from, as John Taylor Gatto put it, "the barren experiences of school bells in a prison of measured time." (1)

It should come as no surprise to close observers of invented histories of education that Gatto would have something to say (in almost all his books, in fact) about the tyranny of the bell. He was, after all, one of the most influential promoters of the "school-as-factory" narrative: that the origins of mass schooling are inextricably bound to the need to reshape a rebellious farming nation's sons and daughters into a docile, industrial workforce. It's a powerful, influential story, sure, but it's a pretty inaccurate history.

The bell also invokes another popular tale, often repeated by the same folks: the one in which schools haven't changed in hundreds of years. Some metal contraption still bangs in the hallways while the rest of the world has moved on to — gesturing widely — the digital. Need proof? Why, one can point to the fact that Alice Cooper's 1972 hit remains a popular, end-of-the-school-year anthem (as does "Another Brick in the Wall" which was also produced by Bob Erin who urged Pink Floyd to add a children's chorus as it was so successful in the Alice Cooper track. But I digress.) Surely this demonstrates how despicably moribund schools are, right?

Or at least, it shows how much we like stories about education that feel true — or maybe songs about education that make us feel like anti-establishment rebels.

Many institutions — not only schools and not only factories — have long used bells to mark beginnings and endings and important events. One can hardly point to the development of the mechanical clock and its connection to the strict observance of prayer times at monasteries and view the bell as a technology of liberation, no doubt. But one can perhaps reconsider citing John Taylor Gatto as your sole source of education history. (The guy called the people enslaved by Thomas Jefferson his "employees," for crying out loud.)

Bells, primarily handbells, have been a technology of school since their outset, well before "the factory" they were purportedly modeled on. They were used, as were the bells in churches, to summon students to ye old one room schoolhouse for the beginning of the day.

Architecture and Ed-Tech

The Common School movement that nineteenth century education reformer Horace Mann spearheaded (from roughly 1840-1880), advocating for the foundation of a public school system, did not just promote a common curriculum — an overt curriculum, that is, of reading, writing, and arithmetic or a covert curriculum of punctuality and obedience. It also advocated for the construction of standardized school buildings, replacing the one-room schoolhouses in urban areas. (It's worth noting that, even into the 1910s, half of the students in the US remained enrolled in the country's 212,000 one-room schools.) (2) Mann recommended that communities invest in a bell for these buildings. "Where the expense can be afforded, every schoolhouse should be provided with a bell. If not the only mode, it is probably the best one for insuring punctuality; and the importance of punctuality can hardly be overstated." (3)

The architecture of the school building informs the pedagogy that takes place therein — the same goes for the technologies that are implemented inside them. And that includes the school bell.

But bells weren't simply — or even primarily — a technology of pedagogy as much as one for announcements and alarms. Although companies like the Standard Electric Time Company (founded in Massachusetts in 1884) sold synchronized clock and bell systems to schools (and yes, factories), an early function of the latter was not to mimic the rhythm of the workplace but rather to warn occupants about fire.

(Insurance Engineering issued a widely-cited report in 1913, decrying the condition of some 250,000 schools in the US as "built to burn." "In 1911," the Moline, Illinois Dispatch worriedly detailed, "the value of school and college buildings destroyed by fire approximated $3,000,000. Estimates of the frequency of fires are as high as ten a week."(4) The story, incidentally, blames the introduction of a new piece of ed-tech for many of the blazes: the film projector.)

Bells and Platoons

The ringing of the bell to signal the beginning and end of a class period, rather than just the beginning and end of the school day is often traced to William Wirt, who became superintendent of schools in Gary, Indiana in 1908. Wirt, a student of progressive educator John Dewey, devised a system in which, when the bell rang, students would move from room to room for instruction, not only in reading, writing, and arithmetic, but in music and shop, as well as time outdoors on a playground.

Generally, children had two ninety-minute periods or three hours a day in the basic subjects, and six thirty minute periods in special subjects the other three hours of the school day. Obviously to function effectively this scheme required a high degree of administrative planning and precision timing in the moving of children. This was particularly true if the schools were large, as they were at Gary, where some of them included all twelve grades and eventually had as many as 3,000 students." (5)

Wirt called this the "work-study-play school," and Dewey praised the model in his 1915 book (co-written with daughter Evelyn) Schools of Tomorrow:

The question [Wirt] tried to answer was this: What did the Gary children need to make them good citizens and happy and prosperous human beings, and how could the money available for educational purposes supply all these needs? The industrial features of his schools will be taken up later, but it may be well to point out in passing that they were not instituted to turn out good workers for the steel company, nor to save the factories the expense of training their own workers, but for the educational value of the work they involved. In the same way it would be a mistake to consider the Gary schools simply as an attempt to take the unpromising immi- grant child and turn him into a self-supporting immigrant, or as an attempt to meet the demand of an industrial class for a certain sort of training. (6)

That John Dewey insisted what became known as the Gary Plan wasn't designed to condition students to become factory workers should maybe count for something. Maybe? It doesn't mean, of course, that the system didn't have incredible appeal to those reformers in the early twentieth century who were determined to reshape public education into a more efficient endeavor. Indeed as Callahan argues in his classic Education and the Cult of Efficiency, the Gary Plan was often showcased as an example of scientific management applied to schooling. But note: this was not because it trained children as workers but because it enabled a more efficient usage of the school building. That schools were empty at nights and on weekends and certain classrooms unused during the day was such a waste of money to those reformers, who argued that schools needed to be run more like businesses, indeed more like factories. ("Keep the students in the buildings year round, dammit!")

While this push for reform was largely administrative — a financial endeavor — there were concerns among parents and educators at the time that this system would have pedagogical, if not broader cultural implications. In a 1924 article in the New Republic titled "The Factory System," Chicago teacher Margaret Haley decried the Gary Plan, also known as the "platoon school." (School bells as a technology training students for the military — that's a Douglas Noble argument right there.) Clearly, she argued, the Gary Plan was simply an effort to lower the cost of education by enrolling more students than classrooms could hold, "dumping" the excess onto the playground or into auditorium or cafeteria spaces, and rotating them rapidly through classrooms so that, as a result, teachers would have hundreds of pupils per day. The platoon school was "the factory system carried into the public school, which needs only the closing-time whistle to make complete its identification with the great industrial plants!" (7)

Although the "platoon school" fell out of favor after 1930, with teachers and even some administrators decrying the Taylorization of education, the influence of efficiency-based reforms remained. Moreover, the adoption of the Carnegie Unit and the standardization of curricular requirements and teachers' workloads in the early twentieth century ha led to the adoption of a school schedule that appears, at least in some way, platoon-school-like: the day divided into 45-minute class periods.

This is a Public Service Announcement

But by and large, through much of the twentieth century, schools did not ring bells to move students from class to class, from room to room. Automated school bells, along with public announcement systems, were available but were not widely adopted until after World War II. Indeed, it was well into the 1960s that many schools finally wired every classroom up to an automated PA system so that the bell, rather than the teacher with an eye on the clock, dismissed class. (And in many communities, it was the PTA that led the fundraising for this bell equipment. You know the PTA, that bastion of bourgeois values so very committed to their children being trained by bells to become factory workers.)


That the ringing of the school bell was not part of some original and sinister strategy to habituate students for a life of labor doesn't mean the bell — like all technologies in or out of schools — didn't come with and be born from certain ideologies. But the school bell has a different, more complicated history than the "factory model schools" story tells it. It's worth understanding that history because to do so helps us understand the present and design the future. Schools haven't always or everywhere been modeled on factories, despite the efforts of business-minded reformers (still) to reshape them to that end for over a century. The bell hasn't always symbolized drudgery, and when it did signal compliance — and to be sure, it did — we need to think about what that expectation meant historically, not just rhetorically as we describe or decry education today. And don't even get me started on the phrase I've heard in some ed-tech circles, "cells and bells."

The history of education technology — and my rationale for writing this series of essays on the topic — should help us see the possibility for alternatives. Those who want us to forget (or mis-remember) the past are very much committed to our give up hope. Things weren't always this way; resistance is possible. That's all there's ever been, in fact — change — even with something as seemingly old and unchanging as the school bell.

(1) John Taylor Gatto, Weapons of Mass Instruction, 2009. p. 130.

(2) Jeffrey Lackney, "New Approaches for School Design." The Sage Handbook of Educational Leadership, 2011. p. 356.

(3) Horace Mann, "Supplementary Report on the Subject of Schoolhouses." (1838). Life and Works of Horace Mann, 1891. p. 486.

(4) "Local Schools in List of Dangerous." The Dispatch, Moline, Illinois, 16 April 1913.

(5) Raymond Callahan. Education and the Cult of Efficiency, 1962. p. 129.

(6) John and Evelyn Dewey. Schools of Tomorrow, 1915. p. 176.

(7) Callahan, p. 146.

(8) Archie, February 17, 1960.


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Audrey Watters

Audrey Watters is a journalist specializing in education technology news and analysis. She has worked in the education field for the past 15 years: as a...