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?
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.”
INNOVATIVE LEARNING ENVIRONMENTS
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.