Concern about the quality and effectiveness of the schools which our children attend usually focuses on teachers, materials, and technology.
- Do they have qualified, experienced teachers?
- Are the books and materials effective and up to date?
- Do they have access to modern teaching methods, computers, and other technology?
When we ask these questions, another, just as important aspect of education is often missed:
Can each child hear and understand what is being taught in the classroom?
Why is the acoustical design of a classroom so important?
Students can have a qualified teacher, up to date materials, and access to the latest technology. But if the classroom is acoustically poor, and the student cannot hear what is being said, it can have the same end result as if the student were hearing impaired. Much of what goes on in the classroom may be missed because the acoustic design of the classroom interferes with learning.
Is unnecessary noise making it difficult for students to understand everything the teacher and other students say? Does noise from outside the classroom distract the students, making it difficult for them to concentrate? Is the teacher constantly straining to hear and be heard, due to reverberation and activity noise generated within the classroom? Does the noise from computers, printers, lights, air conditioning, heating units, and other classroom equipment force the teacher to work harder and speak more loudly in order to be heard?
What does research show about noise, listening, and learning?
We all know how hard it is to understand speech in noisy situations. A conversation in a noisy restaurant or construction noise outside the office window can make listening difficult for adults. For children, whose listening and language skills are not yet well developed, it's even more difficult. Research indicates that background noise and reverberation can adversely affect learning for young children. It is more difficult for them to hear individual sounds clearly, as when learning to read and spell, and their concentration is also compromised. Poor classroom acoustics are also an educational barrier for children who are hearing or speech impaired, have temporary hearing loss (due to colds or infection), or learning disabilities. For students whose home language is different than the teaching language, learning is also difficult in classrooms that have poor acoustics.
Research shows that all children will benefit from classrooms with low background noise and short reverberation times. Even children with hearing in normal ranges can miss as much as one-third of the words in a teacher's message when they are listening in noise. For students to understand what they are being told, the teacher needs to have a voice volume that is noticeably louder than the background noise in the room. If the room is too noisy, even the most expert teacher will have difficulty achieving sufficient loudness for good understanding.
The two most prevalent noise problems in the school setting are background noise and reverberation.
What is background noise?
There are two types of background noise, that produced outside the building and that produced within the building. Outside noise includes the sound of traffic, airplanes, construction, and playground noise heard within the building. Background noise produced within the building includes that from the HVAC and other utility systems, and noise produced in other parts of the building (students in hallways, band practice, impact noise from the room above) that is heard within the closed classroom.
What is reverberation?
Reverberation is the persistence of sound waves within a space once the original sound has ceased. It occurs in areas where hard surfaces do not absorb the sound but simply reflect it. This can cause the actual noise level to increase beyond that of the original sound. You experience this when driving through a tunnel; the traffic noise within the tunnel is much louder than outside, due to reverberation, the continuous reflection of sound waves. In the school setting, reverberation is a frequent problem in areas with hard-surfaces such as classrooms, hallways, cafeterias, and gymnasiums.
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