New-style classrooms demand new thinking
Open-plan classrooms are fast becoming the norm, raising a number of noise-related challenges for the modern teacher. How can these be overcome to create an environment conducive to learning and productivity?
Also see our other blog: Case study: How to manage distraction in the classroom.
Conjure an image of a typical classroom and it’s likely you’ll picture a room with four walls and 20–30 children sitting in rows facing a teacher and a whiteboard.
You’d be mistaken if you think this classroom model applies now – or will in the future.
What many people consider to be a traditional classroom is fast being superseded by open-plan and flexible spaces that prioritise collaborative learning among students. The result is classes made up of the same number of students and with one teacher, but with several classes sharing a larger classroom space.
There is evidence to suggest these new learning environments help promote levels of interaction, cooperation and understanding among students. They can also assist teachers by allowing them to model and then share good teaching practices in a space conducive to project-based, social and individual learning.
So far, so good. But are there drawbacks?
Noise as an impediment to learning
While open-plan classrooms earn a big thumbs-up for promoting collaborative learning, grouping children in one large space can cause noise levels to skyrocket.
Because classrooms are typically designed for the purpose of cleanliness and durability, they are usually full of hard surfaces that do little to prevent echoing. The problem isn’t just confined to open-plan classrooms, either. Schools in high-density urban areas often have to compete with distracting noise emanating from busy highways, train lines or planes flying overhead.
Increased noise can affect students’ ability to hear or comprehend instruction (particularly important during critical listening activities) and teachers having to raise their voices to be heard. The result can be particularly disruptive when students try to focus on an individual learning task.
A revealing Macquarie University study of 100 kindergarten students conducted in 2015 found that speech perception among students in open-plan spaces was significantly poorer than that of students in enclosed classrooms.
The study found that between half and 70% of children said they could not hear their teacher very well or at all when the other classes were doing noisy group work.
Significantly, the study revealed that children’s speech perception (their ability to hear words in sentences) was consistently high (approximately 80%) in enclosed classrooms regardless of how far they were seated from the teacher. However, in open-plan classrooms, children’s scores dropped from 75% at the front of the classroom to as little as 25% at the back.
Teachers in open-plan classrooms also reported being more distracted by noise, said Kiri Mealings of Macquarie University’s child language laboratory.
“They found speech communication significantly more difficult and thought children had more difficulty hearing them,” Mealings said. These teachers also needed to elevate their voice and experienced vocal strain and voice problems more often than the teachers in the enclosed classrooms.”
Acoustic curtains can help reduce classroom noise
The modern classroom needs to have the best of both worlds. It should be a space that is conducive to flexible and collaborative learning – and it should allow students to hear and be heard.
It should come as no surprise that one of the key conclusions of the Macquarie University study was that open-plan classrooms should be “purpose-built with proper acoustic treatment” so as to facilitate hearing and comprehension during class.
This is a consideration that educators will want to put into effect when designing a new school. But it’s also possible to mitigate noise levels in existing classrooms by retrofitting them with absorbent blinds, window curtains, wall panelling, ceiling tiles and other noise-reducing furniture. This applies as much to classrooms with hard ‘echoey’ surfaces as it does to urban schools forced to compete with high levels of external noise.
Acoustic curtains, in particular, represent an affordable and convenient solution as they can be retrofitted without the need to make modifications to wall insulation.
Recognising the importance of the classroom as an adaptable learning space, the Macquarie University study recommended that “open-plan classrooms need to be built with flexibility to become enclosed spaces by having operable walls that can be closed for critical listening activities and opened for other activities”.
Installing an acoustic curtain that can quickly and easily be drawn or retracted to change the layout of a large classroom space can form part of a simple and effective plan to improve the acoustics in any modern classroom.
Acoustic Blinds and Curtains is a provider of quality sound-absorbent products that can reduce noise levels and improve acoustics in classrooms and other open-plan spaces.