If students cannot hear, how can they learn? Why is sound such a difficult issue in schools?
Imagine that you are sitting in the middle of the room and all you can hear is a garbled “mash” from the teacher. You don’t know what has been said, are you being asked a question? Or, given an important piece of information? If you are reasonably extrovert, you might ask someone else. If you are at all shy, you may well keep quiet to avoid looking stupid amongst your peers.
The other day I was shown a drawing of a proposed design for a school building. This is a new installation into an existing building – a box that contains a mix of classrooms and larger open spaces including a sports court and café. Imagine the noise bouncing around that environment. The ability to fit all of these into an existing shell is never easy. However, the fatal flaw in the design; there was the gap between the tops of the classroom walls and the underside of the ceiling. In other words, a passage that would allow sound to hop over the tops of the walls just when the occupants in the adjacent rooms were engaged in some form of quiet activity.
You don’t need to be an acoustician to work out that sound travels. I am not sure whether I was more shocked with the tacit acceptance that it may be OK to saddle a school with this, or that the experienced schools designers, allowed such a proposition to be ventured.
If students cannot hear what is being said, then they will begin to disengage or at best not be able to contribute what is asked of them. As many teachers will testify, from the time that students start to disengage a point is reached very quickly where it becomes difficult for them to catch up.
A bad soundscape in schools is not a new problem a lot of teachers I know talk about it. It isn’t one that has escaped public attention either, for example Julian Treasure talked about sound and acoustics in a wonderfully engaging TED Talk. Why then do we still provide such poor school environments?
Do you know of a school that has this problem? What effects have you seen on student learning?
To stop this happening in a new building, you need to ensure that the importance of acoustics is clearly articulated in the brief, do not assume that it is obvious – it clearly isn’t. In an existing building, talk to an acoustic consultant, there may be some straightforward remedies that will help.
Those involved in creating learning environments (educationalists, policy makers, architects) must recognise that this is a critical issue. Those involved in any project must make ‘sound’ an explicit part of the brief, and set an expectation that spaces must enable students and teachers to hear and be heard.