Make learning environments a priority now
Census projections indicate 400,000 additional students will enter our schools each year for the next 50 years. This means 16,000 new classrooms will be needed each year.
The negative effect of noise on students and teachers is well documented. Now is the time to design for our ears as well as our eyes. Now is the time, to make our students learning environments a priority, and give them the advantages we know exist in an acoustically well designed learning environment. Now is the time to avoid costly renovations by doing it right in the first place.
How hearing works
When sound travels down the ear canal it stimulates hairs that convert the sounds into electrical signals. The brain receives these electrical signals and separates them so we can interpret them as sounds.
Why noise affects learning
It takes cognitive power from the brain to separate sounds so we can interpret them. There are different theories on why noise effects learning but generally it can be thought of as an extra load on the brain.
When noise exists in a learning environment, the brain has to shift attention among the various sounds, and separate them, so we can determine what should get most of our attention. The cognitive power it takes to suppress the noise makes learning more difficult.
"Children in noisy environments have poor school performance, which leads to stress and misbehavior." – Environmental Health Perspectives (1)
Sources of noise in learning environments
Noise can enter a learning environment from the outside world. It could be children playing in a playground, traffic from vehicles, trains or planes.
Noise can be generated from within the building by heating and cooling systems, plumbing systems, teachers and students walking in the hallway, opening and closing doors, teacher's voices and audio from media sources.
Noise can also be generated within a classroom by students talking to each other, or by the acoustic effects of a teacher's voice.
What needs to be done
The average cost of acoustically treating a classroom is less than $5,000. The average class size in the US is 20 students(2) . A onetime investment of less than $250 per student is all that is needed to provide a good acoustic learning environment. Our children's education and their competitive place in the world are worth the investment.
Within a classroom, good acoustics are needed to reduce the echoing effects of reverberation. A long reverberation can cause words to run over top of each other, and make it difficult for students to distinguish what is being said. The correct amount of absorption is needed to control the reverberation time, without overdoing it.
Some reflection is needed within a classroom to help the teacher's voice project. Speech intelligibility is actually improved by a slight echo. An echo of less than 30 milliseconds can help a teacher's voice sound fuller without changing the perceived direction and becoming a distraction.
In a noisy environment like a cafeteria where many people may be talking, noise levels can cause heart rates to increase. These environments can be uncomfortable and cause stress, on both the teachers and the students.
The location of schools is also an important consideration. Sound studies during site location can help identify external sources of noise than can effect learning.
Architects can't be masters of every technology that goes into building a structure. Acoustical consultants must be included in the design and building of a school to ensure desired results.
Who is effected by poor acoustics?
A study in Florida revealed that students in the 4th row, were loosing every other word a teacher said because of poor acoustics. They could fill in the blanks but this made the learning process more difficult.
Many students have minor hearing problems caused by colds and allergies. Studies show that these conditions make the problem much worse.
Students with permanent hearing loss and learning disabilities are even more effected and their learning is even more significantly impacted.
Teachers experience throat and vocal problems(3) that require medical attention from speaking over the noise of a classroom. Studies reveal concerns about noise induced stress and increased risk of cardiac events as well (4).
Younger students, ages 14 and under, who have not fully developed their ability to block out noise are more effected by noise.
What are the barriers to getting it done?
As adults, we have become very effective at blocking out noise, much more so than young children. We need to address the problem from their perspective not ours.
We need politicians, administrator and teachers to stand up for students and insist that acoustics are a priority. We need our architects and contractors to make it their priority as well.
Oftentimes acoustic treatments are the first thing to be cut when budget problems exist. As a finishing product and one of the last things to be done, there are often not many other things that can be cut. Commitments must be made early to maintain acoustic treatments through project completion.
The negative effects of eliminating acoustic treatments won't be noticed until the construction crews are gone and the building is in use by teachers and students.
Sound studies should be conducted upon building completion to ensure design parameters are met, and to improve designs and results in the future.
(1) Environment Health Perspectives , Volume 122, Number 2, February 2014
(2) Teacher trends – Fast Facts – US Department of Education http://neces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=28
(3) Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, Vol 47, 542-551
(4) Noise burden and the risk of myocardial infarction. Eurpean Heart Journal, Feb 2006 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16308324
(5) Prof. Trevor Cox, Professor of Acoustic Engineering, Sound Education 2012
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