Many architecture decisions influence how productive and healthy are schools are. Natural light, for example, can improve learning and health (Loisos, 1999). But the way that our schools sound is being ignored.
Noise in schools has been a recognised problem for over 100 years (Canning & James, 2012). Study upon study has revealed cripplingly noisy classrooms and poor acoustic conditions. Indeed, experts state that classroom acoustics is the number one overlooked problem in schools (Harmel, 2000). Noise is schools is an epidemic, and it’s hurting our children and teachers in three serious ways:
At a basic level, sound matters because pupils must be able to hear their teacher in order to learn. When noise levels are too high or classrooms are too reverberant, pupils find it hard to understand their teachers.
If education is akin to watering a garden, much of the water is evaporating before it even reaches the plants. Pupils on the back row of a traditional classroom hear just 50% of the teacher’s words (Siebein, cited in Harmel, 2000; Leavitt & Flexer, 1991). This affects young children in particular, who have great difficulty understanding speech even with low levels of noise (Elliott et al., 1979; Neuman & Hochberg, 1983).
Noise also disrupts cognition. It affects many tasks, including memory, motivation, reading, mental arithmetic, and problem solving (Cohen, Evans, Krantz, & Stokols, 1980; Evans, Hygge, & Bullinger, 1995; Jones, 2010).
As a result, children are learning less. Acoustics expert Trevor Cox played the babble of a noisy classroom to a group of teenagers. He found that it lowered their cognitive abilities by an average of three years (Cox, 2014). Likewise, a 10 decibel rise in noise level caused primary school exam results to drop by between 5-7% (B. M. Shield & Dockrell, 2003). In the UK, a 5 decibel increase in aircraft noise resulted in a 2-month reading delay for children (Stansfeld et al., 2005). Unfortunately, research suggests that children cannot habituate to noise over time (Matsui, Stansfeld, Haines, & Head, 2004). The negative effects persist.
Lastly, noise has wide-ranging, serious effects on pupils’ and teachers’ health. Numerous studies link noise in schools with hearing loss (Chen & Chen, 1993), increased blood pressure, and higher levels of adrenaline and noradrenaline (Jones, 2010). It is particularly worrying that the Environment of Health has linked chronic exposure to noise levels above 65 decibels to an increased risk of heart attack.
Mental health does not fair much better. Children exposed to chronic noise at school have higher levels of psychological stress (Evans et al., 1995), annoyance, and disruptive behaviour (Jones, 2010).
So what are the causes of these problems? Acoustics expert Gary Siebein recalls, “One of the first times I went into a classroom to observe what was going on, I noticed that the teacher had to turn the air conditioner off just to speak to the class, which is a good indication that, acoustically, something is very wrong” (Siebein, cited in Harmel, 2000). Noise from school equipment is one issue. External sources, such as aeroplanes, trains, and cars, are another. Combine this with growing class sizes and the effect is obvious.
Classroom acoustics (the way sound behaves in the space) will also minimise or maximise problematic noise. The Business Academy Bexley was a school in London for children between the ages of 3-19. The space was designed by Fosters + Partners – an award-winning British firm. But the classrooms in the school were designed with no back wall. Instead, they opened out onto a large central atrium – creating an open plan school. When the school opened in 2003, the noise was so disruptive that the local authority had to spend $850,000 on makeshift dividers between the rooms. Despite this, the build was short-listed for a prestigious Royal Institute of British Architects’ Stirling Prize.
Improved awareness of acoustics can make all the difference. On a basic level, sound energy behaves in one of three ways it hits a material: It transmits through it, it’s absorbed by it, or it reflects off it. Materials that reflect light well usually reflect sound well too. Sometimes this is desirable. Cathedral music would sound far less impactful without its reverberant qualities. But in classrooms, reverberation muddies speech and worsens noise. Unfortunately these reflective materials are often the ones that architects and designers favour – glass, concrete, polished wood…
Reducing reverberation time in classrooms is a top priority. Improving noise insulation will also help with outside noise. Bringing in an acoustician from the outset is the easiest and most cost-effective solution. Carpeted floors, reduced ceiling heights, and sound absorbent surfaces are all simple ways of improving acoustics. It’s also important to select appliances that have low noise output.
The effect of acoustic improvements is tried and tested. In Los Angeles, architectural interventions significantly improved school achievement levels (Cohen & et al, 1981). Another treated classroom saw teacher absence through illness drop from 15% to 2%.
After a brief spell of traditional design, open plan schools are back in fashion (B. Shield, Greenland, & Dockrell, 2010). Architects can change things for the better. It’s time to start designing for the ears. Architecture that integrates noise and acoustic solutions could transform the education of millions of children.
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Chen, T. J., & Chen, S. S. (1993). Effects of aircraft noise on hearing and auditory pathway function of school-age children. International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health, 65, 107–111. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00405728
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