Teaching spaces have a single overriding acoustic requirement: communication between teachers and students, including recorded and virtually delivered content, must be clearly understood above background noise.
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Poor classroom acoustics can affect a student’s ability to work effectively. Too much noise in the classroom can impact their ability to hear and comprehend what’s being said, directly impacting their learning.
Younger children have a less mature auditory system and a less-well developed knowledge of language, and require a better quality acoustical environment than adults to understand speech. Additionally, students who speak a different language at home, and students with hearing loss are particularly disadvantaged by poor classroom acoustics.
Within the Australian context, classroom acoustics are particularly important when considering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students who are from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds and have a higher prevalence of hearing loss due to otitis media. And of course, poor acoustics mean raised voices for teachers, potentially leading to vocal cord strain and exhaustion.
Good classroom acoustics are vital for children in any stage of language development and help teachers create a functional space for learning. Given the impact on learning, state and territory has created performance requirements to ensure that classroom acoustics are suitable for learning.
While good acoustics are necessary in all classrooms, some learning areas will require specialist treatment. Music rooms, for example, will need to be properly acoustically balanced for students to experience sound clarity when practising. Rooms can be designed to minimise reverberation and outside interference, and replicate a professional performance space. Similarly, spaces used for audio and visual recording must be well treated acoustically to provide clear, uninterrupted sound quality. Good sound quality at the recording stage will reduce time needed to edit recordings, and result in a higher standard of output in general.
Larger venues which may be used for performance, like dance or drama studios, or school auditoriums must also offer sound acoustics. Audience enjoyment of a school presentation or performance will be hampered if they cannot hear properly.
Practically speaking, ensuring acoustic insulation of noisy plant equipment is also important. Air conditioners and water pumps which can be distracting to students and teachers should be sufficiently insulated to reduce noise. Acoustic insulation can also protect plant equipment from environmental elements, and decrease wear and tear. When insulating outdoor areas, ensure products chosen are suitable for use outside and can withstand weather conditions.
When it comes to acoustically treating spaces, best practice is to incorporate these considerations into the initial planning of an area. It is possible, though, to install or update acoustic treatment in existing spaces.
Think the acoustics in your learning and teaching areas might need updating? School News spoke to experts in the field to learn more about acoustics in schools.
Michael Turtledove from Soundblock Solutions said consideration should be given to good acoustics in all learning, meeting and recreational spaces. “Acoustic materials need to be incorporated into the design of each space, with acoustic absorption to reduce reverberation, and barrier material to reduce noise transmission or bleed. Acoustic materials with higher NRC (noise reduction coefficients), should be used on ceilings and walls to reduce reverberation. Carpet for flooring, where possible, will also assist in reducing reverberation. The more acoustic material, of requisite quality, incorporated into the design, the better the reduction will be, with better outcomes for learning, engagement, stress and wellbeing.
“Around recreational spaces, whether indoors, undercover or outdoors, acoustic materials should be incorporated too, to reduce both reverberation for the comfort of users, and transmission for the comfort of other learning areas as well as neighbours. Acoustic materials in these applications can be installed onto walls, sofits and even under outdoor shaded roof covers. Acoustic treatment should also be incorporated around mechanical plant and equipment, including air-conditioning units.”
Mr Turtledove said learning environments such as indoor pools or technical workshops can be challenging to treat acoustically because, “traditional acoustic materials are fibrous, polyester, mass based, open cell foams, which degrade acoustically over time, when exposed to liquids, moisture, chemicals, dirt, and dust. The fibres may draw in moisture over time, acoustically degrading the foam so they no longer absorb noise. Fibres may also be emitted over time, potentially becoming a health hazard.
“The solution lies in using closed cell foams in these challenging environments. Closed cell foams are fibre free, exceptionally lightweight and won’t degrade acoustically when exposed to moisture, UV, dirt and dust. As they are fibre free, they won’t end up in your student’s project.”
Rob Jones from Autex Acoustics said there are four key factors that must be considered when assessing your classroom acoustics: External noise from environmental factors, for example, transportation and weather noise; noise from the activities in other parts of the school; building services noise and; noise generated from activities in the same or adjoining spaces.
From here, Mr Jones said the next step is to determine what can be changed, and what is outside the school’s control. “While you may not be able to stop roadworks from happening outside your school or avoid a storm from causing a kerfuffle, acoustic-friendly floor plans can go a long way to helping create an optimum space for learning.
“Floor planning that minimises the impact of differing activities is a key part of achieving the best acoustic outcome and can limit the type and quantity of acoustic treatments required. For example, a highly collaborative breakout space adjoining a dedicated teaching area will necessitate a high level of acoustic engineering, whereas separating such spaces with distance and reducing direct line of sight will lower the noise intrusion and decrease the engineering needed.”
However, communal areas that are used for multiple functions can prove more difficult to treat acoustically. Mr Jones said that long and wide spaces, such as school halls can be adversely impacted by noise bounding between surfaces, and hard reflective floors can also lead to poor acoustics. In these scenarios, carpet can be used to minimise footfall noise and impact-resistant panels can be fitted on opposing walls.