Quiet please! We’re trying to learn.

If students cannot hear, how can they learn? Why is sound such a difficult issue in schools?

Quiet please

Is this an effective way of taking control of a problem that should not exist?

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.

8 thoughts on “Quiet please! We’re trying to learn.

  1. Alistair,

    Teachers and students have reported acoustic conditions resulting from missing and partial walls around learning spaces, to be a serious problem in schools, polytechnics and universities.

    It is a recurring problem for productivity and well being that we have documented in post occupancy evaluations in UK, Australia and New Zealand, Such evidence has prompted us to list such a lack of walls as an architectural risk to productivity and well being.


    • Thanks Chris for this very useful insight. Good to have comment on quantitative evidence that this is a problem. From your research to what extent have schools and so on been able to tackle the problem effectively?

      • Hi Alistair,
        Great to read your article. It comes at a very timely point in UK school design, when the speech intelligibility standards for open plan classrooms are being removed from Building Regulations and placed into School Premises Requirements, which will place responsibility for the design and educational delivery in such spaces with the School Client Body rather than Building Control.
        Therefore it is crucial that these stakeholders are made aware of their responsibilities, as there is no currently no standard procedure in place for ensuring that SPRs are thoroughly assessed and policed (which is a major concern within the acoustics industry at present).
        As an acoustic consultant with a specialist research background in open plan classroom acoustics, I have seen plenty of examples of open plan designs which have been problematic, as well as some which have been well planned and managed and have been successful. For the success of open plan school designs to become more widespread, it is essential the the design team works very closely with the Client and end users to develop a suitable activity management plan, and ensures a variety of spaces (cellular and open) are made available users to acheive true flexibility in design. And of course, to ensure that the users really want or need open plan spaces for educational reaons in the first place, not to save on cost!
        I would be pleased to discuss acoustic design issues in open plan further with you.

  2. Of course, as a consultant in acoustics I do agree with the previous posts. Part of the problem may be, that there is a wide area between good speech intelligibility (ALcons 10%) and really bad intelligibility (ALcons 50%). Even under adverse circumstances, it is often possible to understand speech, but…. It takes much effort, and students become tired, lose their interest.
    An incidental visitor (inspector?) might get the impression intelligibility is sufficient; attending lessons for some hours will show him differently.

  3. Thanks for the mention Alastair. The degree of unconsciousness about this topic is staggering. We invest almost all our time, focus and money on SENDING education (continually reassessing the curriculum, quality and motivation of teachers and assessment tools) and almost none on RECEIVING education (can the students hear and are we teaching them to listen?).

    You might be interested in the materials from the conferences I moderated a year or so ago under the banner Sound Education. They featured the Essex Study, which was a real eye (and ear) opener on this topic. You can find all this at http://www.soundeducation.tv.

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