Research: Intercom Announcements & Other Interruptions Cost Up to 20 Days of School

(Image credit: Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay)

Now hear this: 

A few years ago, Matthew Kraft was meeting with school leaders in Providence to talk about ways to maximize learning time. But the meeting was not making much progress because it was continually interrupted by loudspeaker announcements. 

“After the second or third announcement, I just stepped back and said, ‘Is this regular?’” recalls Kraft, an associate professor of Education & Economics, at Brown University. 

Kraft was told it was for that time of day. He began to wonder what impact these frequent announcements and other classroom distractions, such as visits from staff, might have on students and overall learning. 

“I tried to answer that question by looking at the research literature,” he says. “There were just no good answers. There was, however, lots of anecdotal evidence and essays by teachers who were frustrated with incessant interruptions. And so it seemed as though it really was an issue, but we didn't really know how big of an issue it was.” 

Kraft and colleagues set out to quantify the problem by studying the Providence Public School District. Using original data from a district-wide survey and classroom observations conducted in 2017, the researchers found that a typical class within the public school system was interrupted more than 2,000 times per year and that these interruptions and the accompanying disruptions result in the loss of between 10 and 20 days of instructional time, enough time to consider all Providence public school students truant or even chronically absent. These findings were recently published in the AERA Open.

“This issue of interruptions is more important now than ever, given the challenges schools are facing to support students in the wake of the pandemic, and the unbelievable importance of the learning time we have with students given how much time was disrupted,” Kraft says.  “So we need to be laser-focused now on using that time well.” 

Cutting down on unnecessary classroom interactions is one of the most feasible and lowest cost ways available to maximize learning time, he says. 

What Types of Interruptions Were Observed  

“There were calls to classroom phones making requests to teachers and students, there were the typical drive-bys where a teacher or school staff member would knock on the door, and ask for a student to come with them or to request materials, or to drop off a note,” Kraft says. “All of those little interruptions would add up. And not just because of the time they took, because of the interruption, but because of the opening that they created for further disruptions to occur.” 

Another surprising and major source of disruption was students arriving late. “It need not be that the student was intending to be disruptive, but simply the act of showing up and being late and then coming in and having to distract the teacher from their lesson to get the student caught up derails the momentum of the lesson,” Kraft says. 

Disruptions caused by students who were on time were not measured for this study. “We were entirely focused on things that were external to the class that were largely outside the control of that classroom teacher,” Kraft says. 

What Can Educators Do to Cutback On Disruptions? 

The first step is understanding the scope of interruptions at your school. 

“That likely means asking teachers to keep a journal of the type and frequency of interruptions that they experience, throughout, say, a week. And then to analyze that data and ask what are the primary offenders in our school?” Kraft says. “We can also establish more formal school policies around how to disseminate information, whether that's through an advisory period or an assembly or a homeroom. It just requires more thoughtful structure to how schools are communicating.” 

He adds, “It also requires a kind of a collective norm and willingness to uphold the value of holding instructional time sacred among teachers because teachers themselves were among the biggest offenders here, stopping by other teachers' classrooms, requesting materials.” 

As for intercom announcements, Kraft says he would cut the cord on his if he was a school leader, or keep it only for emergencies. He acknowledges there may be a place for important scheduled announcements, though even these are distracting to students. 

As for unscheduled announcements or notifications that pertain to select educators or students, those should be eliminated altogether. “It's hard to justify unscheduled intercom announcements of any type in my mind, let alone unscheduled intercom announcements, or even scheduled ones, that pertain to maybe one or two kids,” Kraft says. “Yet, we're taking the time of an entire school building to announce that someone needs to come to the office, in my view, that is educational malpractice.” 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.