Modern classrooms are designed as open plan flexible and adaptable spaces to create collaborative learning environments. However, both teachers and students are affected by noise-related challenges, impacting the instruction and learning processes.

Open plan classrooms are fast becoming the norm, replacing the traditional classrooms and their enclosed spaces. The new classroom model is more likely to be a huge hall shared by multiple classes with their respective students and teachers. While these new learning environments may help promote levels of interaction, cooperation and understanding among students, and also allow teachers to share good teaching practices in a space conducive to project-based, social and individual learning, there are obvious drawbacks, such as noise becoming an impediment to learning.

Open plan classrooms do promote collaborative learning; however, grouping children in one large space can cause ambient noise levels to skyrocket, resulting in disruption. Classrooms are designed with hard surfaces for the purpose of cleanliness and durability; however, these surfaces also amplify noise. This problem is similar to the distracting noise experienced by schools in high-density urban areas from busy highways, train lines or planes flying overhead.

Open plan classroom

Increased noise can affect students’ ability to hear or comprehend instruction (particularly important during critical listening activities) with teachers having to raise their voices to be heard. The result can be particularly disruptive when some students try to focus on an individual learning task while others are involved in a group activity.

A revealing Macquarie University study of 100 kindergarten students conducted in 2015 found that speech perception among students in open plan spaces was significantly poorer than that of students in enclosed classrooms. Also, 50-70% of these children said they could not hear their teacher very well or at all when the other classes were doing noisy group work.

In comparison, children’s speech perception (their ability to hear words in sentences) was consistently high (approximately 80%) in enclosed classrooms regardless of how far they were seated from the teacher. In open plan classrooms, the scores dropped from 75% at the front of the classroom to as little as 25% in the back.

Teachers in open plan classrooms also reported being more distracted by noise, said Kiri Mealings of Macquarie University’s child language laboratory. Speech communication was significantly more difficult and children had more difficulty hearing them. Consequently, the teachers had to raise their voice, resulting in vocal strain and voice problems more often than teachers in enclosed classrooms.

Acoustic curtains can help reduce classroom noise

The modern classroom needs to have the best of both worlds: the flexibility and collaborative learning environment enabled by open plan spaces, and the ability to hear and be heard facilitated by enclosed classrooms.

Acoustic curtains

One of the key conclusions of the Macquarie University study was that open plan classrooms should be ‘purpose-built with proper acoustic treatment’ to facilitate hearing and comprehension during class.

While new schools planning flexible learning environments can give due consideration to this recommendation during the design phase, institutions with existing open plan classrooms can mitigate noise levels by retrofitting them with absorbent blinds, window curtains, wall panelling, ceiling tiles and other noise-reducing furniture.

The retrofit approach applies as much to open plan classrooms with hard surfaces as it does to urban schools forced to compete with high levels of external noise.

Acoustic curtains can be easily retrofitted to existing open plan classrooms without any need to make modifications to wall insulation, thereby, offering an affordable and convenient solution.

Acoustic curtains can be drawn or retracted easily

The Macquarie University study had also recommended that ‘open plan classrooms need to be built with flexibility to become enclosed spaces by having operable walls that can be closed for critical listening activities and opened for other activities’.

Acoustic curtains are ideal as they can be quickly and easily drawn to create smaller spaces with improved acoustics, or retracted to revert to the original large space, making the open plan classroom a highly adaptable learning environment.

Acoustic Blinds and Curtains is a provider of quality sound-absorbent products that can reduce noise levels and improve acoustics in classrooms and other open plan spaces.