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Why Small Classroom Interruptions are a Big Problem

Nearly four decades ago, school reform advocate and former dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education Theodore Sizer chronicled a tremendous amount of lost learning time in classrooms in his classic study of public high schools, Horace’s Compromise. A new study of the Providence Public Schools explores whether conditions have changed. Editorial Director Phyllis W. Jordan spoke with Brown University professor and FutureEd Research Director Matthew Kraft, who co-authored the report with Manuel Monti-Nussbaum of The Behaviouralist, a London-based research firm.

You and your research team set about to determine how many times classroom learning is interrupted in a day and a school year. What did you find?

We found that interruptions are a frequent and almost expected part of the school day.

We estimate, based on the observations that we conducted, that a typical student experiences around 15 interruptions throughout the course of the school day during classroom instruction. And those add up over the course of the school year to be well over 2,000 interruptions. Estimates from teachers and students suggest similar or even higher rates of interruptions, so we're confident that we're finding a phenomenon that is a regular part of the schooling experience of students and a problem for schools.

How did you measure the frequency of interruptions?

Providence Public Schools partnered with us to explore this question and they were very generous in allowing us to add a number of questions to their district-administered school survey they give annually to teachers, students, and administrators.

We then decided, based on exploratory conversations with teachers, to focus our observations at high schools where it sounded like we might get the richest data on the range of interruptions that occurred. Our team of researchers, across two months in the spring semester of 2017, observed 10 different teachers for a total of 63 classes.

And I should be clear, our research was explicitly focused on interruptions that came from outside of the classroom into the classroom. So we weren't studying classroom management or student behavior. We were focused on things that, in large part, teachers don't have direct control over.

Is the intercom the chief culprit, or is it more complicated than that?

The most frequent type of interruption in middle schools and high schools was students who arrived late to school or a class and entered the class in a way that interrupted instruction and disrupted learning. That's not to say that everyone who arrived late was a disruption. Many students we observed quietly entered the classroom and got to work. But because in a number of schools the classroom doors were locked, students often had to knock at the door and the teacher had to stop or a student had to get up and unlock the door.

And there weren't always processes to help students seamlessly engage with the lessons, so teachers would have to spend time orienting the tardy student or inquiring about why they were late and dealing with notes and signing slips. These type of late arrival interruptions constituted 38 percent of the interruptions we observed in high schools.

The next most frequent type of interruption was visits to the classroom by other teachers, staff or administrators. Typically, these were folks who would drop by, knock on the door, ask to borrow a desk or a chair or some instructional resources, ask a question of a teacher about a student, ask for a signature on a form from a teacher or a student, or request a student to accompany them back to the office.

The third and fourth most frequent interruptions we observed were the kind of classic intercom announcements, scheduled but during classes and unscheduled, and calls to the classroom phones requesting teachers to send a student or asking them if a student was present or other kinds of one-off inquiries.

And as you wrote in your study, it wasn't always just the interruption that was a problem but also the subsequent disruption it caused.

That was a key insight for us. We were thinking about this as about interruptions—they stop instruction, distract students, and then the interruption ends, and the students go back to their work. But that was the exception to the norm. What we often saw was that the interruption opened up a window for students to engage in conversation that continued after the interruption ended. Students getting up and milling about the class or teachers performing some requested task further delayed the resumption of instruction.

What did you find were the consequences, academically or socially, of all these interruptions?

We drew upon a range of data to explore this question. First, we asked teachers and students whether interruptions interfered with learning in the classroom. About 40 percent of respondents, teachers and students alike, suggested that was the case.

We also tried to calculate the amount of lost learning time. We know from a lot of research that learning time is an important input in the educational process. More doesn't always equal better results, but we know that having less is certainly not a desired outcome. What we calculated, based on observations from our field-data collection, was that a minimum estimate of lost learning time is about 10 instructional days. Teachers estimated that approximately seven minutes of a 60-minute class were lost, on average, to interruptions. If you add that up, it’s more than 20 days of instruction.

When we looked at the correlation between schools' average achievement levels and the frequency of interruptions, we found a consistent negative relationship, such that schools with higher rates of interruptions had lower rates of achievement. That held true even when we focused on only those interruptions that were directly caused by staff and didn’t consider interruptions caused by tardy students.

None of these are definitive evidence, but they all point to a likely negative effect of interruptions on student achievement.

So it seems that some schools are doing a better job in limiting interruptions.

 That's right. Based on survey data across all 41 schools in the district, some schools had three times as many interruptions as others. And that's comparing schools of the same level, elementary schools to each other, high schools to each other. It’s encouraging in that it suggests that there are real opportunities for schools to substantially reduce the frequency of interruptions; that it's not just a necessary condition of schooling.

Are administrators aware of just how often these interruptions occur?

When we compared administrators' survey responses to those of teachers and students, we found that administrators systematically underestimate the frequency of interruptions and the consequences they had for student learning. In the high schools where we observed, administrators estimated that the daily rate of interruptions was 58 percent lower than what we counted.

What sort of strategies can administrators and teachers use to reduce interruptions?

There are a number of steps schools might take to reduce the frequency of interruptions. The first step is to ask teachers about the problem and bring the results to a faculty meeting. How often is your instruction interrupted? What are the most frequent types of interruptions? Ask teachers to keep a journal of how often and what types of interruptions occur.

One of the most inexcusable and egregious types of interruptions are those intercom announcements that have to do with an individual or a small group of students, that are broadcast across the entire school, announcements that are typically prefaced with, "Pardon the interruption, but…." We shouldn't have to be pardoning them because they shouldn't occur.

We should be limiting announcements or simply cutting the cord and transitioning to a system of communication that is more decentralized and operates through teachers in homerooms or advisory periods, systems that operate through email or texting.

There's also establishing a school culture and norms about when is it okay and when is it not okay to interrupt a class. This could be something as small as teachers posting signs on their doors saying, "Please leave a note." "Please don't interrupt my class." It's also about strong and coherent organizational practices where students are able to connect with support staff without leaving class during the middle of a period.

You mentioned tardy students. Are there approaches schools can use to turn that around?

Challenges with frequent late arrivals are not new. Research suggests that there are promising ways in which schools can help to reduce tardies. For example, we have seen evidence that letters sent home to parents updating them about the frequency of absences and their consequences for student learning have been effective.

Part of the solution is establishing routines for how students enter the school and how they enter a class when they arrive late, so perhaps there is a tray with the work of the day where they know they can quietly go to pick up their materials.

 The reopening of schools could be chaotic. What’s your message to educators?

By highlighting the importance of something as seemingly inconsequential as classroom interruptions, we can help maximize learning time and help make up for the substantial lost learning caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

[Read More: Teaching Under Quarantine: Results From a New Survey]

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.