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Want to Maximize Student Learning When Schools Reopen? Minimize Classroom Interruptions

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During even the most normal school year, there are a lot of little interruptions to teaching and learning each day—a tardy student walking into class, an announcement over the loudspeaker, a call to the classroom phone. 

Those interruptions can add up to the loss of between 10 and 20 days of instructional time, a new study finds. And as schools across the country prepare to welcome back students in the fall after a disrupted spring, they will need to address what is expected to be significant learning loss. Reducing external interruptions in the classroom could be one way to do that, researchers say. 

"As educators and humans, we dismiss things when we can't conceptualize the sum total, when each individual instance is very small," said Matthew Kraft, an associate professor of education and economics at Brown University and an author of the working paper. "Oh, an interruption takes 20 seconds—given the huge challenges our education system is facing, why would we focus on that? We, for the first time, provide a more precise accounting of the frequency of these interruptions, the nature of these interruptions, ... and the duration of these interuptions and the disruptions that they cause." 

To better understand classroom interruptions, researchers surveyed 13,800 students, 1,500 teachers, and 70 administrators in the Providence, R.I., school district. They also conducted 63 classroom observations in five high schools in the district to time and catalogue the interruptions and the disruptions that followed. These observations happened in spring 2017. 

They found that the most common outside interruption—amounting to 38 percent of all observed interruptions—was students arriving late to class. A tardy student would knock on the door, causing the teacher or another student to stop what they were doing and let them in. The teacher would then have to pause instruction to get the tardy student situated, which would often distract other students from the task at hand. 

The second most common kind of interruption—17 percent—was visits by other teachers, administrators, and school staff. These interruptions were not observations or evaluations, Kraft said. Instead, visitors would knock on classroom doors to borrow materials, pull a student out of class, or get a teacher's signature. 

Announcements over the loudspeaker—about sporting events, field trips, and upcoming testing, or calls for specific students to come to the office—made up 14 percent of interruptions. More than half of the announcements researchers heard were not relevant for the students or teachers in the classes they observed. 

Other common interruptions were calls to classroom phones, visits by students who were not members of the class, and students returning to class after going to the office or the bathroom. 


See also: How Unexpected Interruptions Hurt Student Learning (Opinion)


But the interruptions were only half the problem. Researchers noted that they often led to longer disruptions: Students would get off task and start talking about non-academic topics, including about the interruptions themselves. About 15 percent of all classroom interruptions led to disruptions that intefered with learning for the rest of the class period—students would disengage with the lesson, distract each other, or have to leave class, or the teacher would not be able to finish the lesson. 

On average, the observed interruptions lasted 44 seconds, and subsequent disruptions lasted another 57 seconds. Since not every interruption resulted in a disruption, the average length of time lost was 78 seconds. Across a school year, that amounts to 54.5 hours of lost instructional time, or 10 days. Even if researchers subtracted the interruptions caused by tardy students and focus on only interruptions that are under the control of school leaders, that's still 6.7 days of lost instructional time. 

Since researchers only observed classes during the spring, and only in a select five schools, they asked teachers across the district to estimate how many minutes in a typical hour-long class were lost because of external interruptions. According to their responses, an average of about seven minutes are lost in each class—up to 20.7 days of lost instructional time across the school year. Researchers estimate that a typical high school classroom in the Providence school district is interrupted 2,000 times per year.

While this study was centered in one school district, past research has confirmed that classroom interruptions are common. A 2000 study that compared videos of 8th grade math instruction in the United States and Japan found that outside interruptions occurred in about 30 percent of the U.S. lessons, but never occurred once in Japanese lessons. 

"These results are not characteristic of every school out there, but I do think they highlight the challenge that a lot of teachers face in ... trying to maintain students' focus and attention," Kraft said of his study. 

And minimizing these interruptions can be "a surprisingly feasible and low-cost way to recoup lost instructional time," he said, especially as schools are grappling with what will likely be a significant "COVID-19 slide." 

He recommends that school leaders ask their teachers to record every class interruption for a week and then examine the data. One easy solution, Kraft said, would be turning off the intercom system and only making schoolwide announcements during advisory periods or homeroom. Another way would be to email or text teachers with requests instead of calling them on the classroom phone, he said. 

Teachers could also put a sign on their door asking visitors to leave a note instead of knocking, or designate one student to help acclimate any tardy students, the paper says. 

"Some interruptions are necessary and likely important," Kraft said. "We need to do fire drills, we need to [provide students with] specialized services, we need to promote a school culture of openness and provide formative feedback. From our experience, very few of the interruptions were those types."

And the constant interruptions are frustrating for both students and teachers, he said.

"We are implicitly saying, 'We don't value your work or your time,' when we ask teachers to work in an environment where we are constantly interrupting their practice with what are often, but not always, quite trivial interruptions," he said.

Image via Getty

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