Not so long ago, education occurred uniquely in uniform square classrooms with dull painted walls and tables and chairs laid out in rows. Fast forward to the 21st century, and old ideas of learning spaces are quickly being challenged. Technology and collaborative work environments are forcing educators and architects to reassess their approach to learning spaces and influencing architectural design. But not only does the school design and learning space layout need to be adapted to accommodate new ways for teachers and students to interact, it is critical that the acoustics of these spaces are also adapted to the new requirements.

The Research on the Impact of School Facilities on Students and Teachers A Summary of Studies Published Since 2000' (21st Century School Fund 2009 p2) combined with Schneider’s Review 2002 “Do School Facilities Affect Academic Outcomes?” has provided a strong case linking learning results to learning spaces. And one important point  in the body of evidence is that  good acoustics are key for successful learning and a bad acoustic design can become a major barrier to learning.

So what does that mean for you when designing a new school or learning environment?

New learning methods and spaces ask for different acoustics

Futurist Alvin Toffler predicted some 20 years ago that “the literate of the 21st Century are not those who can read and write, but those who can learn, unlearn and relearn.

Today educators are required to teach students using technology in preparation for new and emerging work skills. This has led to learning environments being remodelled into open-plan collaborative spaces to accommodate technology and 21st Century skill development.

This new student-centered personalised learning model requires very different teaching practices, as opposed to the previous generation of teacher-centric methods. The diversity of the newer spaces, along with the diversity of students and teachers, creates numerous challenges for teachers, students and designers.

Modern school design needs to address these new challenges. 

Facing the challenges of good acoustics in school classrooms

Schools are places of learning where speaking and listening are the primary communication modes. According to a technical report by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, noise levels and reverberation times (RTs) of learning spaces should be such that speech produced by teachers, students, and others is intelligible. However, a survey of children in semi-open plan schools found that children are adversely impacted by noise which affects their ability to hear the teacher in critical learning situations.

Many learning spaces are poor listening places because of:

  • Noise from outside the building, such as from aircraft and vehicular traffic.
  • Noise generated by heating, ventilating, and air conditioning systems
  • Noise emanating from hallways, adjacent spaces and the re-emergence of open school architecture (large rooms with partitions dividing the room for multiple classes)
  • Computer and projector machine noise from inside the room
  • The presence of too many hard, reflective surfaces in the room causing excessive reverberation

Understanding and working with the challenges of  good acoustics in school auditoriums and classrooms

There is plenty of evidence making the case for good acoustic conditions in classrooms. According to a paper by the Acoustical Society of America, students and teachers need quiet learning spaces because:

  • “students under age 15 are still developing mature language and need appropriate listening environments to understand the spoken message
  • many learning spaces serve students with disabilities: learning disabilities, language learning problems, behavior problems, reduced cognitive skills, hearing loss, auditory processing disorders and chronic illnesses. These students have a special need for classrooms that allow clear listening and communication
  • teachers should be able to use a natural teaching voice free from vocal stress
  • many schools offer adult learning activities and adult learner groups can include persons with hearing loss, learning disabilities, and chronic illnesses”

American National Standards Institute proposed a Classroom Acoustics Standard, that has both performance and design criteria for appropriate learning spaces.

Educators, architects and designers can use this standard to

For more ideas and advice on Acoustic Design for Education, download the free guide here