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ILEs: it all sounds great, but sound is the problem!

Across Australia, classrooms are being transformed into engaging, vibrant spaces that facilitate collaboration, creativity, innovation and independent learning.

Teachers are being introduced to multiple new pedagogies as we prepare our schools to educate our children for jobs of the future.

Education environments have changed and an ‘Open-Plan’ design now leads the way with zones and nooks and new approaches to seating and organization. They are appearing because they make better spaces and places for engaging learning from a new generation of learners. It sounds great except the sound is the problem.

A larger classroom, more students and multiple activities will naturally lead to an increase in noise and when the room is open-plan, the noise is harder to control. Noise is not just distracting, it can have a negative impact on learning outcomes and health.

It is for this reason that noise in the classroom is becoming a much-discussed topic among researchers, teachers, designers and architects.  Poor acoustics in the classroom can have a significantly negative impact on speech intelligibility. Students must be able to hear and understand what is being said for learning to occur.

To fulfil the role of a learning environment, classrooms should have acoustic properties that allow for at least 90% of the useful information leaving a talker’s mouth to reach listeners ears. ‘With specific regard to children and education, Flexer (2005) reported hearing is of paramount concern. She stated that when a child cannot clearly and easily hear spoken instruction (from teacher e.g.), “the entire premise of the educational system is undermined”’. (Handbook of Acoustic Accessibility, J. Smaldino, C. Flexer)

Not only is poor acoustics in the classroom related to poorer learning outcomes but it is also a leading contributor to vocal strain amongst teachers who are constantly raising their voices to be heard. A survey undertaken by London South Bank University indicated that over 65% of the teachers which they surveyed had experienced vocal strain during their career. This fact supports other studies which have suggested teachers have significantly higher rate of voice problems than the general population. (Comins, D. Survey of UK Voice clinics 2001/2. Voice Care Network; 2002)

It goes without saying that If a teacher must increase the volume of his or her voice to be understood, there is an acoustic issue that needs to be addressed. The classroom needs to be a hive of activity however without the stress and anxiety that unnecessary noise brings.  There have been several articles in the Sydney Morning Herald lately about teachers leaving the profession due to stress, poor pay and underappreciation. It is a well-known fact that there is a direct correlation between level of noise, unwanted sound and stress. It’s in everyone’s interest to restore calm to the classroom.

Currently there are no mandatory acoustic standards for the classroom and very little local data on how the open plan classrooms are performing acoustically when occupied and engaged in different types of activities relative to modern pedagogies which are driving the change in classroom design.

It is due to this that insufficient emphasis is placed on the acoustics of the classroom at design and building phase and it’s often only once the classroom is in use that the issue of poor acoustics becomes apparent for both mainstream students as well as those students who require additional assistance in “all-inclusive” classrooms. Unfortunately for many schools this is also after the budget has been spent.

I believe things are, however set to change. As more and more classrooms are transformed it is becoming harder to ignore the elephant in the room so to speak. 2019 promises to shed more light on the actual state of acoustics in the classroom. The University of Melbourne’s learning spaces research group which is running ILETC is collaborating with NAL (the Federal Government’s National Acoustics Laboratories) on a focused study into effect of acoustics on student outcomes. They are currently looking for schools located in NSW to participate in their research to build solid evidence around the issue.

After discussing the project briefly with the principal researcher, Dr Kiri Mealings from NAL, I’m feeling optimistic about the future of “Future Learning”. This research does not set out to challenge the new design of classrooms or associated pedagogies but rather sets out to support it. This data will enable industry professionals to design the most effective acoustic solutions for learning environments whether it be product based, teaching techniques or both and with a little luck a set of mandatory acoustic standards for the 21st Century Classroom in Australia.

Jacqui Hawksworth

The director at Mumble By Design, Jacqui is a proud mum of two primary school students and passionate advocate for better classroom acoustic standards.

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