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The cost of classroom interruptions
How many times do interruptions happen, and what is their effect on learning?
I hope you are well.
This week we are going to take a look at classroom interruptions, considering how frequently they happen, the cost to learning, and what we can do about it.
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Part 1: Once upon a time...
Recently, I was watching a Year 9 maths lesson about the equation of straight line graphs. Now, as any maths teacher will tell you, this can be a tricky topic for students, but the teacher was doing a fantastic job explaining the role of the coefficient of x and the constant term, illustrating both with carefully considered examples and diagrams. The students appeared to be listening attentively, and I was looking forward to the checks for understanding that would follow this explanation to see if they had got it.
Then there was a knock on the door.
Mid-sentence, the teacher paused, turned to the door, and beckoned the guest to come in. It was another student who had been sent to ask if Mr Jones (name changed to protect the guilty) could have three new exercise books as he had run out. The teacher went to the back of the room to get them from her cupboard, handed them to the student, and then resumed her explanation. The whole interaction lasted no more than 20 seconds. No significant harm was done, you might think.
But it was what happened next that caught my attention.
First, the teacher had forgotten where she was up to. She looked at the board to remind herself, and made the sensible decision to backtrack a few steps. But as she resumed her explanation, something was different. Her choice of words was not as good, her sentences were rushed, and there was redundancy where there had previously been concision. In short, her explanation lacked the quality it had just twenty seconds ago.
Then there were the students. Previously, they were quiet and focussed. Most had, understandably, used the handing over of the books as an opportunity to take a cognitive break. Some were chatting, some were doodling, and some were looking out of the window. When the teacher resumed her explanation, despite her clear instruction to stop what they were doing, empty their hands and watch her, the high level of focus was gone. The noise level began to creep up, some heads were turned, and some hands were busy.
So, despite the fact that the initial interruption lasted no more than 20 seconds, the effect on learning was much longer.
What is going on here?
Part 2: Interruptions leave a wake
It was Peps McCrea that got me interested in the effect of interruptions. He first wrote about it in an edition of his excellent Evidence Snacks newsletter, and then we discussed it further on my podcast.
You see, the thing about interruptions is that they leave a wake. In other words, the learning time lost to an interruption is not just the amount of time the interruption itself takes up, but the time it takes both the student and the teacher to get back to that state of thinking that they were prior to the interruption. Peps has a lovely infographic to illustrate this:
There is some research to support this. In a 2020 paper entitled The Big Problem With Little Interruptions to Classroom Learning, US researchers Kraft & Monti-Nussbaum studied the frequency, nature, duration, and consequences of external interruptions in the Providence Public School District using original data from a district-wide survey and classroom observations. Here is what they found:
A typical classroom is interrupted more than 2,000 times per year
Interruptions were most likely to occur in the first and last hours of the school day
More than 50% of the interruptions observed resulted in subsequent disruptions that extended lost learning time beyond the interruption itself
About 15% of all classroom interruptions led to disruptions that continued to visibly interfere with instruction and students’ focus for the remainder of the lesson
This is the big one... these interruptions and the disruptions they cause result in the loss of between 10 and 20 days of instructional time per student across a school year!
To get a sense of the full extent of the problem, here is the relationship between the number of interruptions per day and the maths achievement of the students in the study:
Part 3: Why are interruptions so damaging to learning?
Clearly, little to no learning takes place during the duration of the interruption. But why does that effect on learning continue after the interruption has been dealt with?
The analogy of a juggler is helpful here. Think about the students in the straight line graphs lesson. They were wrestling hard with a tricky concept. They were trying to link together their knowledge of equations, substitution, negative numbers, the concepts of a variable and a constant, and how these all tied together to explain the relationship between the equation the teacher had written down and the graph the equation produced. That is a lot of balls to try to keep in the air.
Students can only think about so much at any one time, so as soon as the interruption happens, the balls start to fall to the floor as their limited attention goes elsewhere. Once the interruption is dealt with, it takes time to pick each of those balls back up and get them to the point they were before.
And this doesn't just happen to students. Teaching is an incredibly complex art form. The teacher in the lesson needs all her attention to deliver a high-quality explanation, think hard about her words and her gestures, and adjust things such as pace and the tone of her voice based on the verbal signals she picks up from her students. Once the interruption hits, all that falls to the floor as well.
Part 4: What types of interruptions happen in classrooms?
I am now obsessed with interruptions. During my recent school visits, I have been making notes on the types of interruptions that happen in classrooms. Here are twelve things I have seen recently:
Students arriving late to class, causing the teacher, the students, or both to stop what they are doing
Poor student behaviour, both "low-level" and more visible, interrupting teacher explanations or periods of practice
The weather making its presence known outside a window: wind, rain, snow, sunshine
A winged classroom visitor: a fly, a bug, and worst of all... a wasp!
Students messing about with equipment: mini-whiteboards, compasses, ABCD cards
Students (or other teachers!) asking to borrow equipment
Another teacher (often a well-meaning member of the Senior Leadership Team) popping their head in the door to see if everything is okay, or bringing around a visitor
The teacher going off on tangents during explanations and instructions
Technology issues: interactive whiteboards not working, computers being slow to load up, websites buffering
Teachers interrupting silence with comments like: Good work everyone, keep it up, remember to underline your answers
A teacher talking to a student, causing other students to stop what they are doing to listen
A teacher stopping the class to repeat instructions, either because some students were not listening initially, or the instructions were confusing or poorly delivered
Which of these have you experienced in your classroom?
Part 5: What can we do?
The advice is simple to say, but hard to enact: we need to reduce the frequency of interruptions in our classrooms.
The reason it is hard is that some of the things on the list above are largely out of our control: technology will always let us down, some students will always be late, the four seasons will always make themselves known. But others are not. Teachers can plan their explanations in advance, have clear rules and routines in place around behaviour and equipment, and try hard to keep quiet once students are focussed. Leaders can think carefully about classroom drop-ins, behaviour policies and the protocols in place for getting equipment from another teacher mid-lesson.
We will never eliminate interruptions entirely. But by being aware of their impact - making students aware too - and making carefully considered adjustments, we might be able to reduce the damage they cause.
What do you think?
What types of interruptions do you encounter on a daily basis?
How can you combat these?
Let me know in the comments!
Three final things from Craig
I am the series editor of a brand-new set of Key Stage 3 maths books called Mossiac, published by OUP. You can sign up to receive some free sample materials here, and watch authors Jemma Sherwood and Charlotte Hawthorne showcase some of the wonderful resources they have created as part of the project here
My calendar is full up for this academic year, and September/October 2023, but I am now taking bookings for November onwards. So, if you are interested in a workshop, departmental support, or coaching, please check out this page
Have you checked out my Tips for Teachers book, with over 400 ideas to try out the very next time you step into a classroom?
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Thanks so much for taking the time to read this, and have a great week!