There is a direct correlation between learning and teaching outcomes and the physical performance of a classroom. This is a fact that has been proven time and time again.

While light, temperature and air quality are top of mind for both architects and educators alike, the acoustics of a classroom isn’t given near as much credence in the literature surrounding school learning spaces.

This is interesting considering people are quick to complain about bad acoustics in such environments, but its supporting role is rarely highlighted.

Sound affects us physiologically, psychologically, cognitively and behaviorally. The consequences of poor acoustic design in learning environments can lead to a number of problems for both educators and students alike.

“Teaching and learning is a hotly contested subject at present, with more people invested in the debate around the evolution (or not) of pedagogies,” Dr. Terry Byers, a research fellow at Melbourne University told Infolink Magazine.

“Proponents of the ongoing discussion have identified a change in a learning environment, from traditional classrooms to innovative learning environments (ILEs) as a means to support the shift.

“However, many do not contemplate how the notion of changing from conventional teacher led to student-centred learning activities, higher incidence of collaboration within and between classes affects the ‘noise profile’ of the space.

“This change, traditional to diversified teaching often leads to high noise levels, which has proven to increase distraction, stress and reduction of concentration.

“Unlike tactile and visual engagement with digital and visual technologies, furniture and physical layout, acoustic treatments are somewhat hidden -- or do not attract attention -- within the fabric of the interior.”

Acoustic solutions need to match an activity setting, he said.

How much noise is too much?

According to Byers, about 16 - 18 percent of students have some level of hearing difficulty, and a mere 10-decibel increase in noise can cause a drop in exam performance.

“As the distance of the teacher to the student increases, there is a decrease in what students can comprehend and hear.”

“In the UK, Building Bulletin 93 states that teaching spaces explicitly intended for students with special hearing and communication needs -- including autism -- should not exceed 35 decibels as a measured average over 30 minutes,” Byers commented.

“The work by Mealings, Demuth, Bucholz and Dillon in Australia found that open-plan and multiple class primary classes 00 even in quiet activity -- easily exceeded this guideline. They, like others, found that as a learning space increases in volume, student speech perception decreased.”

“Interestingly, the Association of Australian Acoustical Consultants (AAAC) Version 2 guidelines state that the internal ambient for classrooms and open-plan spaces should be around 35-40 decibels.”

The case against open plan learning environments

The open plan trend has invaded every project you can imagine; from office spaces to homes, commercial buildings to dining establishments, and now we are seeing the emergence of this trend in classrooms as well.

Which begs the question: Does this sort of layout provide the right conditions for teachers to teach and for students to learn?

Dr. Byers says there is a limited evidence base that has evaluated the impact of different environments on academic results.

However, he pointed to a study by Byers, Imms, Mahat, Liu and Knock which was “critical of the negative impact of open-plan spaces”. “Much of this research, conducted in the 1970’s suggested that primary age students in open-plan spaces performed lower on standardised testing than similar peers in conventional space. Which is surprising given the current investment in these spaces now.”

“Emerging research from the Innovative Learning Environments and Teacher Change (ILETC) project found similar results within the Australian context when looking at primary school student performance,” Byers says.

“It is only when these spaces are inhabited that sound issues appear. If we look at schools that have embraced the open-plan setting in both Australia and New Zealand, increased problems with noise is one of the most prominent complaints by teachers, students and parents.

“With a negative evidence-base, one would think that there should be a greater investigation of proponents of open-plan to justify their design agenda.”

He says that the problem we see in the current trends in the design of school spaces is the assumption that larger areas support noisy, collaborative learning. “As space -- and therefore its volume -- gets larger, the acoustic treatment and not the segmentation of volume presented by walls mediates its performance. However, acoustics treatments in these spaces are an afterthought, with the acoustician working with set design.”

The full version of this article can be found in the November_December issue of INFOLINK | BPN