Poor classroom acoustics standards and design linked to lower skill and earning capacity

Why classroom acoustics standards are so crucial for our children

Studies have found that poor classroom acoustics and design could be linked to lower skill and therefore diminished earning capacity.

Teachers and educators who struggle to maintain students’ discipline, cooperation, motivation and engagement levels, may not realise that it has something to do with the way their classroom is designed and not adhering to classroom acoustics standards.

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 when it comes to classroom acoustics standards

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 official national regulations or classroom acoustics 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 per cent of time in class is spent in group work and for primary students about 30 per cent in mat work.

We also know that 70 per cent 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 heard loudly and clearly 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 who have additional needs due to hearing loss. ‘In Australia, three to six children in every thousand have some degree of hearing loss.’ And also for those from non English speaking backgrounds. ‘Across Australia, around 25 per cent of primary and secondary school students learn English as an additional language or dialect.’

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

Furthermore, teachers in class should be able to use a natural teaching voice, free from vocal stress to minimise long term strain and even damage since teachers are twice as likely as anyone else to have voice problems.

Where does classroom noise come from?

There are many sources and causes of noise that 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 acoustic consultants use that, if it’s high, signifies how quickly sound decays within a space. We’ve all experienced various levels of acoustic comfort in buildings – 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.

How to implement classroom acoustics standards

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

It has been shown that small and mid sized classrooms are 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 and ceilings constructed to separate school room functions and activities is advisable.

If teachers are suffering from sub optimal acoustics in the classroom then getting an acoustic engineer 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) offers classroom acoustics standards guidelines to help educate professionals on what constitutes a well designed space acoustically.

The acoustic research findings on the significant impacts

In addition to our own education acoustic research, 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 average33 per cent decrease in performance for the acoustically untreated classrooms with poor acoustics.

The research also 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.

Implementing a good acoustic environment in the classroom

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 an acoustic environment to meet guidelines is minimal 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, it could contribute to the prevention of the above mentioned potential salary loss of $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.

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

Discover more about our work with acoustic control in buildings across the education sector.

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