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The crackle of the speaker..and then the voice.
Twenty-six ninth grade brains stop working on the task at hand.
“Jane Doe report to the office.”
The 26 ninth grade students either:
A. dismiss the announcement entirely and try to get back to work;
B. snicker quietly to themselves because they know “something” you don’t know;
C. respond to the announcement audibly by speculating with other class members a myriad of reasons why Jane Doe is the subject of an announcement.
This is really not a multiple choice response; any student may use any one of these three responses on any given day in any given class. The more serious problem is that the interruption has distracted the students from the work they were trying to accomplish in class. Each of the 26 brains will need a minute or more to focus back on the task on hand. That means that 26 minutes of “education time” in class was lost. If you multiply the minimum 60 seconds of interruption by the number of other students in the building, and there is a much larger loss. For example, a school with 800 students will lose a minimum of over 33.3 hours of education in one interruption.
Consider also, that schools operate on a corollary system akin to the “If anything can go wrong, it will” adages in Murphy’s Law. In schools, “When the interruption will cause the most damage, that is when the interruption will occur.” Schools have plenty of interruptions, particularly the kid of interruptions that a teacher cannot “plan” around in a lesson. Inevitably, there will be a fire drill in the last ten minutes of Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet. Similarly, the power outage during the lunch period is unavoidable. Exacerbating the problem is the ubiquitous presence of social media. Students receive real time updates of prom dates, gossip regarding parking lot fender benders, and team captain selections throughout the school day. In short, students are bombarded during the school day with interruptions to learning.
“Interruption Science” was developed over 100 years ago in order to study the effects of interruptions on telegraph operators. Not surprisingly, frequent interruptions resulted in mistakes in text. Increasing developments in technology broadened the research. Clive Thompson reported in a NYTimes Magazine article (October 16, 2005) titled Meet the Life Hackers about recent findings in interruption science. He interviewed Gloria Mark an “interruption scientist” at the University of California at Irvine who researches interruptions in the work force in different industries. According to Thompson:
- The average knowledge worker switches tasks every three minutes, and, once distracted, a worker takes nearly a half-hour to resume the original task
- Interruptions and the requisite recovery time now consume 28 percent of a worker’s day
- Employees who are routinely interrupted and lack time to focus are more apt to feel frustrated, pressured and stressed
While the work environment is not directly comparable to the classroom, the research was clear that we are not wired for multiple activities occurring simultaneously without losing track, interruptions take our brains off-track, and we take a long time to become fully immersed in the task once interrupted.
Many schools recognize the damage of interruptions and include statements such as:
Principals shall enact guidelines that will ensure protection of instructional time and keep interruptions to an absolute minimum.
The problem that confronts administrators in the opening scenario is their need to find out what a student is doing. However, given the impact that interruptions can have on learning, there must be serious reflection before a teacher or administrator reaches for the intercom mic to address the entire student body during class. There should be a moment of mathematical hesitation that occurs before pressing the “call” key. Is getting the attention of one student worth the loss of (insert # of students in school) X minutes of educable time?