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Sounding Out Classrooms
Noisy classrooms can be a headache for all concerned
Classrooms are a noisy place at the best of times, but a team of builders, architects and audiologists are hoping to improve things with a study into classroom acoustics. While the study is aimed at helping hearing-impaired children, any improvements will no doubt be welcomed by teachers and students alike.
The study was sparked by a surge of complaints relating to the acoustic properties of re-locatable classrooms. At least 10-20% of all classrooms in New Zealand schools are re-locatable, and both their design and the materials used have led to poor conditions for hearing-imparied students.
Audiologist Oriole Wilson, who co-ordinates the interdisciplinary classroom acoustics project team, says that the project has already raised an awareness of acoustic accessibility in schools.
The team -- including acousticians Miklin Halstead and Dr George Dodd from the Acoustics Research Centre at the University of Auckland, Joanne Valentine from Marshall Day Acoustics, Building Consultant Ken McGunnigle from Prendos, and Adviser on Deaf children Anne Hellier -- have a strong belief that good acoustics should be one of the primary design considerations for new classrooms.
Classroom listening environments were investigated using:
Some of the rooms which were identified as being acoustically poor have been modified using special acoustic ceiling tiles, and the measurements are now being repeated. Teachers and pupils have been enthusiastic about the differences already and Wilson predicts that the study's results, once widely disseminated, will lead to greater advocacy by parents and educators for improved learning environments for children.
Early test results show that the learning environment in our schools is extremely uncomfortable for those with hearing impairment, and that noise is at a level that significantly increases irritability and stress for teachers. Some classrooms tested showed noise at a level where factory workers would have to wear earmuffs.
"We have 71% of teachers reporting that noise inside the classroom is a problem," says Wilson. "With these recordings and our detailed measures of acoustics and reverberation, we are able to draw an accurate picture of today's classroom environment," she says.
The survey reveals that the traditional lecture-style has been replaced by group work and working on the mat by more than two-thirds of teachers. This has all contributed to an ever increasing noise level in average classrooms.
"Many people do not realise that teaching methods have changed dramatically. Our research reports that primary teachers are spending over 50% of their day walking around the classroom. This leaves only about a third of their time at the front of the room", says Wilson. Of the teachers surveyed 35% complianed that the level at which they needed to speak strained their voice
"Educationalists today place great importance on what children learn from each other, they call it incidental learning. We are not going to turn back the clock and have all the children sitting in rows listening to the teacher at the front of the class. It is therefore vital that classrooms are built to a standard that enables them to be comfortable places using today's teaching methods with their higher noise levels", says Wilson.
New Zealand classrooms face very different acoustical problems from European and North American schools where they all have large heating and air conditioning systems.
"Here we just open the windows in the summer and one of the early results so far has been the revelation that 86% of teachers have problems with noise generated outside the classroom. When new schools are being designed and classrooms placed on existing sites, care needs to be taken to assess what activities could go on outside that room during the school day, as in the summer those windows will be open."
Hearing-impaired children already have access to technology which can help them to hear in the high noise levels, such as FM radio aids and classroom amplification systems. However none of this technology works particuarly well in rooms that have poor acoustical characteristics, notes Wilson.
The project has been sponsored by the Oticon Foundation, a charitable trust funded by hearing technology firm Oticon NZ Ltd as part of its on-going mission to improve understanding of hearing loss and related issues.
One of the project's aims is to come up with some practical and affordable building design recommendations for making classrooms acoustically friendly. The team hopes to make these recommendations freely available to schools and the Ministry of Education. The final results of the research will be available later this year.
Vicki Hyde is the editor of New Zealand Science Monthly.
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