Poor classroom design linked to lower skill

If you’re feeling like you’re struggling to maintain discipline and cooperation and your students’ motivation and engagement levels are lacking, it may have something to do with the way your classroom is designed.

Classrooms with bad acoustics can make the hearing and understanding of speech very difficult for children, whom owing to their neurological immaturity and lack of experience in predicting a message from context, are inefficient listeners.

Those children who continually miss key words, phrases and concepts in class will be significantly disadvantaged, with research proving that poor classroom acoustics has an adverse impact on skill levels and future earning capacity (James, Stead, Clifton-Brown & Scott 2012).

Where Australia sits globally

Much of what is learnt in schools across the country is via extended periods of hearing and listening, with school children typically spending an average of four to five hours per day in classrooms.

In Australia there are currently no Australia-wide regulations or standards that encompass all aspects of the acoustical qualities in primary and secondary schools, unlike in the UK, the USA, New Zealand and Sweden where the importance of acoustics has resulted in the development of acoustic criteria for educational facilities.

The dynamics of the modern-day classroom

Over the past decade we’ve seen a radical shift in teaching styles, with the traditional lecture style of class being replaced so that, depending on the class level, about 40% of time in class is spent in group work and for primary students about 30% in mat work.

We also know that 70% of teachers now act dynamically in class, walking around and talking to students from numerous positions within the room. This has changed the way information is delivered to, and received by, students.

There is also a more recent trend for larger and more open-plan classrooms which can also impact ambient noise levels.

New classrooms and school facilities must be designed to accommodate these changes in teaching and the need to provide the best possible conditions for learning. Students, in particular young children, require good listening conditions.

The teacher’s voice needs to be loud and clear above the background noise environment which may include traffic, other school related activities; eg, on sports fields and in corridors, or even air-conditioning noise.

The clear-communication requirement is particularly important for those students with hearing impairment or those from non-English speaking backgrounds, two groups who can make up 25-30% of students in primary school classes.

Acoustical considerations must not restrict teaching styles, but should complement the wide variety of teaching methods used by teachers as well as the ability and the age of the students.

Further, teachers in class should be able to use a natural teaching voice, free from vocal stress to minimise long term strain and even damage.

Where does noise come from?

There are many sources and causes of noise which may be impacting the way teachers deliver their lessons.

From noisy air conditioners and general building noises to external noises from roads and other school activities, these internal and external noises can cause detrimental effects on learning when classrooms don’t have optimal design.

In multistorey educational establishments floor impact noise can be an issue and will arise from walking, chair-scraping and other activities on a hard floor surface in one room transmitting into rooms adjacent and beneath.

Reverberation time is another indicator that acoustic consultants use that, if its high, signifies how quickly sound decays within a space. We’ve all experienced spaces – which may have more glass or concrete – that may have more of an ‘echo’ and can be tough to hear and listen to content when residing in these spaces.

What can be done

When an educational facility is being designed and constructed, the layout of the rooms and use of materials which reduce the disruption of external noise should always be considered. 

It has been shown that small and mid-sized classrooms can often be preferable to larger classrooms and will not degrade speech intelligibility excessively as long as speech levels are greater than background noise

Also, the use of internal walls/ceilings constructed to separate school room functions and activities is advisable.

If teachers are suffering from sub-optimal acoustics then getting an acoustical consultant in to assess the space is a good idea.

Once a room is constructed there are simple ways to acoustically treat noisy spaces which can be simple and not particularly costly.

For engineers, architects and anyone interested in best practice when it comes to good acoustical design the Association of Australasian Acoustical Consultants (AAAC) does have a guideline which has been written to help educate professionals on what constitutes a well designed space acoustically.

Our findings

Research by Shield & Dockrell (2003) showed that chronic exposure to both external and internal noise has a detrimental impact upon the academic performance and attainments of primary school children.

Poor classroom acoustics are known to negatively impact on the learning and teaching process. This paper has shown that this impact may lead to a lower skill level compared to an individual who benefited from an acoustically treated classroom. A lower skill level can then result in a diminished earning capacity and salary.

A linear regression model done by the pair in 2008 showed that there was potentially an average 33 per cent decrease in performance for the acoustically untreated classrooms with poor acoustics.

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Research showed that the potential overall loss in salary based on average hourly rates (over a 39 year working period) as a result of poor classroom acoustics may be as high as $500,000.

So, what now?

The results of social surveys show a clear correlation between noise levels and performance in schools. The need for an appropriate set of consistent Australia-wide acoustical criteria has arisen. The cost of providing a quality acoustic environment is not significant compared to the potential ongoing economic loss suffered by a student. In fact, for an initial outlay of an additional $254 per child during their schooling period this could result in a life salary loss as high as $500,000.

A good acoustic environment within educational facilities should not be compromised by the initial higher cost of construction as this is far outweighed by the immediate and long-term benefits to students.

This article was originally published in Education Review.

Based on research paper, James, D., Stead, M., Clifton-Brown, D., & Scott, D. (2012). A cost benefit analysis of providing a ‘sound’ environment in educational facilities.

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