Students struggle to hear in open-plan classrooms
Students struggle to hear in open-plan classrooms


Students struggle to hear in open-plan classrooms

Recently some schools have begun converting classrooms to open plan learning spaces, with as many as 200 children in one area. While the classroom settings make group work easier and improve children’s social skills, noise can be a big problem for both students and teachers.

According to Kiri Mealings, a PhD candidate researching speech perception in open plan classrooms, noise is a real issue, particularly when a class is trying to engage in critical listening activities where it is essential that the children can hear the new concepts they are being taught.

“Our recent study of four different-sized Sydney schools found that most children were annoyed by the noise, and 50-70 per cent of children surveyed said they could not hear their teacher very well, or at all, when the other classes were doing noisy group work activities,” Ms Mealings says.

Teachers also suffer, and report being more distracted by noise, finding speech communication significantly more difficult, compared with the teachers of the enclosed classrooms.

These teachers also needed to elevate their voices and experienced vocal strain and voice problems more often than the teachers in the enclosed classrooms.

“Our findings suggest that open-plan classrooms that are unable to control the noise from adjacent classes are not appropriate learning environments,” Ms Mealings says.

“If open-plan classrooms are still strongly desired, then they need to be purpose-built as flexible learning spaces with proper acoustic treatment and, most importantly, operable walls that can be closed when a class is engaged in critical listening activities.

She says that quiet rooms are essential in these classrooms so children who have particular difficulty working in noisy conditions can quietly work away from the other students. Additionally, teachers need to be trained how to teach effectively in these environments.

“We also need to better understand how children who have special educational needs, such as attention deficits, hearing impairments, language delays and English as a second language cope in these environments as they are likely to be even more affected by the noise.”

Read more.

Comments (5)

  1. Maggie Loaney

    Having worked with auditory/ oral hearing impaired students in a range of classroom settings for many years and having an in-depth knowledge of the effects of noise on speech perception, I would whole heartedly agree with these findings. I find it absolutely ludicrous that children of any age can be expected to learn in an environment with 200 other students, even if it was a perfect acoustic environment , which I doubt would happen in a millennium.
    Maggie Loaney
    MA Deafness and Communications
    Macquarie University

  2. Edward Bridge

    I agree with the conclusions of this article, as they are reported in both the brief version above and in the fuller transcript (as accessed by the link, “read more”). I have a daughter in secondary school whose ability to learn is significantly and negatively impacted by noise in the classroom. She attends a school in which both open learning and open space learning are being trialled, and desired, for some subjects. My daughter’s issue with class noise has been recognised by the school, but they’ve done nothing about it except to provide a quiet room, which then mitigates the ideal of open learning and open plan classrooms to have her engage in teamwork/group activities. This, however raises another issue (to which I won’t sidetrack) in regards to the benefits of open plan classrooms as reported in the first few paragraphs of the fuller article in relation to students with certain recognised disabilities/conditions.
    A study like what has been done could be done in the upper primary and secondary school settings to see if the same results occur amongst older children. Studies like this could (should?) also include children who have recognised disabilities or issues (as flagged at the end of the fuller article) to see if such children’s learning are impacted negatively on both noise in open plan setting. Maybe such a study could also test the categories of children with disabilities/conditions to see if any type of or group of disabilities is more (or less) impacted by noise in the open plan setting.
    Just for the record, the Queensland government back in the 1970s was experimenting with open plan classes in primary schools. I was in one such school which, being brand new at the time, was built on open plan lines. However, I don’t know what came of this or where the Qld government is currently “at” on this matter.

  3. John D Wilson

    I am now retired. I am an assistant Scripture Teacher. I have a class of 28 enthusiastic children. The noise levels can be hard on older ears too as I have hearing loss. I would hate to be involved in a large room with three or four classes at once. I would not have been able to hear in a classroom that size in my twenties when I had excellent hearing. I pity poor children in large open plan multiple class rooms. Thank you for finding the facts.

  4. Gregg Chapman

    As a psychologist with not just years but decades of professional experience in schools I’ve said this before – and been shot down by fad chasing teaching staff who enjoyed open plan schools. My wife has a sensori-neural hearing loss that causes considerable difficulty so it’s an issue of interest to me. Surprisingly the ACT Department of Education disavows her disability and seems disinclined to accept her medical experts’ opinions and advice and believe there is no problem with her teaching in an open plan room with several teachers and classes as she struggles to teach ESL!

  5. Robert Brian

    Who would have thunk this? Anyone with half a brain cell would have seen the problems with this fad.
    This is exactly why modern education is not just failing to deliver a bang for every buck, but explains why it is failing. To self promote via the adopting of anything new – regardless of how damaging it will be on a child’s development – principals and ladder climbers scour the world to find anything that is different or hip. These leaders will then bask in the publicity (either across the school community to attract more students/parents, or the region to help further future promotion) that accompanies the adoption of such ‘revoluntionary’ programs. They can then safely move on before the proverbial hits the fan 4-7 years later: after a whole generation of kids at the school have been adversely affected. It is no different in politics when a saviour plan/catch phrase/program is rolled out to secure an election before it is tossed out a few years later to be replaced by another heroic project, sorry “strategy.” Principals in local comprehensive state schools do this to avoid the real cause of falling results and failing students – supporting teachers by removing kids who are not suited to academia that involves working and thinking for 5 hours each week day. Different types of settings need to be developed for students who will never be suited to the one size fits all McSchools of today. This is too costly an inverstment for modern politicians so principals will continue to shirk their real duties by adopting foolish policies simply to give themselves breathing space before they collect their fat super at retirement. Meanwhile thousands of teachers will suffer, hundreds of thousands of children will not reach their potential and all society will pay for decades to come. BTW How is the costly plan for a smartboard in every room and a laptop on every desk going? Doesn’t matter – the next school leader will surely find something to spend money on that will definately improve things…this time…


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