Sunday, July 3, 2011

It might get loud in here

Ok so the title’s not an original, in fact borrowed from a gem of a documentary screened on Rialto the other night. But not to be flippant, it’s a sentiment shared by teachers and parents alike. And certainly in an open plan space with upwards of 120 children in it noise could most certainly be an issue. It came up in the recent PLG meeting. Parents, when entering a new open learning space for the first time asked, “How are my children going to learn with the noise level?” The children in question had come from a traditional ‘single cell’ classroom setting and the assumption was that given the space and the quantity of children in it, that it would most certainly be a loud one. It’s certainly a question worth addressing.

A first foray into the research brings up a fairy new read. Pamela Woolner in The Design of Learning Spaces draws attention to the concerns of poor acoustics in schools and the interference of noise. She refers to a number of studies, some focused on internal noise and others on external, with both laboratory and field based research. In looking at schools with a lot of external noise, for example those in close proximity to motorways or on a flight path, the detrimental effect it can have on children’s memory (Hygge, 2003) and cognitive functioning (Lercher et al, 2003), certainly seems tangible. One study suggested that in the situation when teachers have to pause due to bursts of external noise, the loss in teaching time could be as high as 11% (Rivlin & Weinstein, 1984).

In terms of open learning spaces it’s more likely the noise within that is of primary concern as it was for some of the parents walking through the door of my colleague’s brand new open space. Woolner (2010) cites research suggesting that for children in noisy environments, reading, speech perception and language acquisition can be impaired by noisy surroundings (Evans & Maxwell, 1997). ‘Noise annoyance’ and links to people’s mood is also raised as a concern (Boman & Enmarker, 2004).

It’s not only in classrooms that it’s a concern either. The Daily Mail ran a story in March 2010 reporting that excessive noise, constant distractions and lack of privacy was contributing to a 20% drop in productivity in poorly designed open plan office spaces. Yet a recent walk I took around a downtown Auckland bank’s new open office space suggested that it was the ability to ‘hot seat’, to interact and to collaborate with colleagues that made the space such a success. When asked about noise the message was clear; when you’re working in an open office environment people self-moderate their talking and the noise they’re making. Do children have the same self awareness in a classroom space?
Excessive noise then, according to Woolner’s review certainly does have a detrimental effect on learning, whether it’s external or internal, whether it’s directly effecting thinking or just being plain annoying or distracting.

For me there are obvious implications in terms of the design and acoustic design process when planning a new open learning space.  I wonder too though if we need to think in terms of the cultural norms that are set up within them. What are the expectations of noise in functioning open learning spaces? Do children learning in them self-moderate their own noise level?

I’m interested in how teachers working in open learning spaces have addressed the noise issue. Are parental and teacher concerns about noise levels really warranted? Does it really get loud in here?


Boman, E & Enmarker, I. (2004). ‘Factors affecting pupils’ noise annoyance in schools: the building and testing of models. Environment and Behavior, 36(2), 207-228
Hygge, S. (2003) Classroom experiments on the effects of different noise sources and sound levels on long-term recall and recognition in children. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 17, 895-914
Lercher, P., Evans, G.W. and Meis, M (2003) Ambient noise and cognitoev process among primary schoolchildren. Environment and Behavior, 35(6), 725-735
Rivlin, L.G. and Weinstein, C.S. (1984) Educational issues, school settings, and environmental psychology. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 4, 347-364
Woolner, P (2010). The design of Learning Spaces. London: Continuum

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