Open plan class­rooms and other in­no­va­tive learn­ing en­vi­ron­ments are gain­ing in pop­u­lar­ity, but what im­pact do th­ese spa­ces have on acous­tics and a stu­dent’s abil­ity to learn?

The Australian Education Reporter - - FRONT PAGE - EMMA DAVIES

FLEX­I­BLE learn­ing spa­ces are in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar in schools, but can lead to poor acous­tics with the po­ten­tial to inhibit a stu­dent’s abil­ity to learn. This means schools need to be aware of the best way to utilise open plan spa­ces.

Na­tional Acous­tics Lab­o­ra­to­ries Dr Kiri Meal­ings said the class­room en­vi­ron­ment was very im­por­tant to chil­dren’s learn­ing abil­ity.

“Chil­dren spend 45 to 75 per cent of their time in the class­room lis­ten­ing and com­pre­hend­ing, so it is vi­tal that they can hear their teacher and class­mates well,” she said.

Chil­dren’s au­di­tory sys­tems are still de­vel­op­ing neu­ro­log­i­cally un­til the late teenage years, so they need favourable lis­ten­ing con­di­tions to be able to hear and learn the im­por­tant new con­cepts be­ing taught in the class­room.

Ad­di­tion­ally, be­ing able to hear well in the class­room is im­por­tant for so­cial in­ter­ac­tions be­tween stu­dents.

Dr Meal­ings said that open plan style class­rooms en­cour­age chil­dren to ac­quire their own knowl­edge and mean­ing through in­di­vid­ual and group work.

“The spa­ces are thought to bet­ter fa­cil­i­tate this teach­ing ped­a­gogy by al­low­ing for stage-based learn­ing and team-teach­ing across classes,” she said.

“How­ever, th­ese class­rooms are prone to high noise lev­els be­cause there are a larger num­ber of chil­dren en­gag­ing in dif­fer­ent ac­tiv­i­ties at the same time.”

High noise lev­els can af­fect chil­dren’s speech per­cep­tion, lis­ten­ing com­pre­hen­sion, read­ing, spelling, mem­ory, at­ten­tion, con­cen­tra­tion, mo­ti­va­tion, and per­for­mance on stan­dard­ised tests such as English, Maths, and Sci­ence.

“Con­sis­tently high noise lev­els can cause chil­dren to tune-out from be­ing over­loaded by the au­di­tory stim­uli, which can lead to learned help­less­ness,” Dr Meal­ings said.

“High noise lev­els can also af­fect teach­ers by rais­ing their blood pres­sure, stress lev­els, and caus­ing fa­tigue.

“Ad­di­tion­ally, teach­ers are at greater risk of de­vel­op­ing vo­cal prob­lems from the con­stant need to raise their voice above a com­fort­able level to be heard.”

That’s why the abil­ity to sec­tion off spa­ces is im­por­tant, so chil­dren who are par­tic­u­larly sen­si­tive to noise can draw away when needed to a qui­eter space to work in­di­vid­u­ally or in small groups.

Dr Meal­ings said it was also im­por­tant for all class­rooms to have low-noise-emit­ting equip­ment and air-con­di­tion­ing sys­tems, suf­fi­cient sound in­su­la­tion to min­imise ex­ter­nal noise such as traf­fic, and that the rooms be acous­ti­cally treated (e.g. acous­tic ceil­ing tiles, wall pan­els etc.) so that the un­oc­cu­pied noise level and re­ver­ber­a­tion time is within the rec­om­mended lim­its in the Aus­tralian/new Zealand build­ing stan­dard.

“The class­room size should al­low four square me­tres per child to al­low enough acous­tic sep­a­ra­tion to min­imise speech in­tel­li­gi­bil­ity and dis­trac­tion be­tween groups,” she said.

“Fully open plan spa­ces should be avoided; in­stead, dif­fer­ent spa­ces should be cre­ated for dif­fer­ent pur­poses, with ap­pro­pri­ate acous­tic con­di­tions to suit each pur­pose.

“Spa­ces can also in­cor­po­rate op­er­a­ble walls which can be opened or closed de­pend­ing on the ac­tiv­ity and the chil­dren us­ing the space.”


As­so­ciate Pro­fes­sor Wes­ley Imms from Univer­sity of Mel­bourne’s Grad­u­ate School of Ed­u­ca­tion echoed this sen­ti­ment.

Pro­fes­sor Imms is head of Vis­ual Art and De­sign Ed­u­ca­tion, a mem­ber of the Learn­ing En­vi­ron­ments Ap­plied Re­search Net­work (LEARN) and lead chief in­ves­ti­ga­tor of the In­no­va­tive Learn­ing En­vi­ron­ments & Teacher Change project.

This project is in­ves­ti­gat­ing how teach­ers can use the un­tapped po­ten­tial of In­no­va­tive Learn­ing En­vi­ron­ments (ILES) to im­prove learn­ing out­comes for stu­dents.

It will iden­tify whether there is a link be­tween qual­ity teach­ing and ef­fec­tive use of ILES, and de­velop prac­ti­cal tools to as­sist teach­ers to adapt their teach­ing prac­tices to max­imise deeper learn­ing.

“The aim is to help teach­ers un­der­stand the power that the phys­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment has in terms of mak­ing them even bet­ter teach­ers,” Pro­fes­sor Imms said.

“Our core con­cern is kids learn­ing. We know for a fact, and all the re­search con­firms this, teach­ers are the sin­gle big­gest con­trib­u­tor to stu­dents’ good learn­ing out­comes so we tar­get teach­ers in par­tic­u­lar.

“We want teach­ers to un­der­stand that the phys­i­cal space they work within has ex­traor­di­nary ca­pac­ity to help them teach bet­ter than they al­ready teach – if they un­der­stand it and utilise it well.”

Pro­fes­sor Imms said that Aus­tralia and New Zealand are lead­ing the world in terms of in­vest­ing in new builds and dif­fer­ent types of learn­ing spa­ces. But only about 25 per cent of class­rooms are flex­i­ble and in­no­va­tive – the re­main­ing 75 per cent are still built in the tra­di­tional for­mat.

“There are a myr­iad of other types of class­rooms and learn­ing spa­ces. In our ty­pog­ra­phy the open plan is at one end and the tra­di­tional class­room is at an­other, but there are three other vari­a­tions be­tween. It’s one of those vari­a­tions prov­ing to be most ef­fec­tive – that’s the one that’s more flex­i­ble in terms of hav­ing a va­ri­ety of spa­ces,” he said.

Class­room de­sign must to be flex­i­ble so that teach­ers can be flex­i­ble. Pro­fes­sor Imms said the next step is to help teach­ers de­velop a tool­kit or path­way to us­ing a space well.

“They’re still go­ing in and teach­ing how they’ve al­ways taught,” he said.

“What they need is sup­port to show them all th­ese other ways of teach­ing and learn­ing – if you want, to move the walls or use the out­side spa­ces,” he said.

“We’ve de­vel­oped our path­way with 14 themes, which are the is­sues teach­ers have to ad­dress. Within those 14 themes we’re putting in strate­gies and tools to help other teach­ers un­der­stand what other peo­ple are do­ing.”

Dr Meal­ings thinks that teacher train­ing is ab­so­lutely es­sen­tial if flex­i­ble spa­ces are go­ing to be used suc­cess­fully.

“Teach­ers need to know what spa­ces and what acous­tic con­di­tions are best for dif­fer­ent class­room ac­tiv­i­ties and teach­ing meth­ods, and how to use or change the space when needed,” she said.

“Teach­ers also need to know how to co­or­di­nate teach­ing sched­ules and ac­tiv­i­ties across classes to min­imise dis­rup­tions, and how to mon­i­tor and man­age noise lev­els.”

Ad­di­tion­ally, teach­ers should be trained to look af­ter their vo­cal health and well­be­ing. They are 32 times more likely to ex­pe­ri­ence vo­cal prob­lems than the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion due to the need to con­stantly raise their voice above a com­fort­able level to be heard, Dr Meal­ings said.

The In­no­va­tive Learn­ing En­vi­ron­ments & Teacher Change project, in­clud­ing re­search part­ners Ecophon from Swe­den and Aus­tralia-based Mar­shall Day, built a ty­pol­ogy of acous­tics for teach­ers to un­der­stand the ba­sic prop­er­ties or how sound and noise oc­cur in the class­room.

“A lot of teach­ers don’t un­der­stand that acous­tics is ac­tu­ally a very sim­ple thing. It’s not a magic sci­ence, and you can ac­tu­ally mod­ify and change the acous­tic qual­i­ties of rooms rel­a­tively cheaply and eas­ily,” Pro­fes­sor Imms said.

“We’re work­ing with acous­tics firms, we’re do­ing a se­ries of case stud­ies, and we will be com­par­ing the sound lev­els and the re­ver­ber­a­tion lev­els and deci­bel lev­els in a tra­di­tional class­room and an open plan.

“There’s no data to say open plan class­rooms are any nois­ier than tra­di­tional class­rooms; we’ve got to build ev­i­dence around a lot of the claims so that we can move for­ward with an ev­i­dence based ap­proach,” he said.

In terms of the ex­pected out­come from the project, Pro­fes­sor Imms is hope­ful that the com­bi­na­tion of ground-break­ing de­sign and prac­tices will lead to in­no­va­tive learn­ing en­vi­ron­ments for schools.

“We ex­pect to see ev­i­dence – good solid data – that says that teach­ers who em­brace space as part of their ped­a­gog­i­cal reper­toire get im­proved learn­ing out­comes from kids,” he said.

“Then the ques­tion is how can we get teach­ers to be more ad­ven­tur­ous in the way they teach and to re­fine their teach­ing di­rected from the power that the phys­i­cal space can af­ford them.”

And if schools are not able to change the built en­vi­ron­ment, new fur­ni­ture can achieve a lot.

“We did the pi­lot test in one school where we spent $4000 on the class­room over the space of the year,” Pro­fes­sor Imms said.

“That was enough to have a sig­nif­i­cant change in the way that peo­ple were teach­ing and kids were learn­ing within the space.

“That’s with­out chang­ing any char­ac­ter­is­tics of the room. We didn’t knock holes in the walls, we sim­ply changed the fur­ni­ture and that, in turn, sparked teach­ers to think dif­fer­ently and the kids to start work­ing dif­fer­ently.”

“Fully open plan spa­ces should be avoided, in­stead, dif­fer­ent spa­ces should be cre­ated for dif­fer­ent pur­poses, with ap­pro­pri­ate acous­tic con­di­tions to suit each pur­pose.”

Pro­fes­sor Wes­ley Imms.

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