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Education | Infrastructure

Managing acoustics in learning environments

15 Jan 2019, by Amy Sarcevic

Speaking and listening in learning environments is critical and the way classrooms are designed acoustically can have a profound influence on learning outcomes.

This is particularly true among students from differing language backgrounds; and across the spectrum of disorders which may affect hearing, concentration or sensitivity to sound.

Despite a growing national focus on inclusive education, the importance of acoustics is often overlooked or lost between the design and construction phases of school buildings.

Research by Children’s Health, for example, found that all classrooms with air conditioning in their study exceeded the noise levels recommended by Australian and New Zealand Standard (AS/NZ 2107:2000).

Many experts believe the importance of acoustics is also inadequately reflected in current regulation, with only minimal guidance in place for educational settings and a lack of accountability.

Amanda Robinson of Marshall Day Acoustics says a renewed focus on acoustics is vital as we transition towards innovative learning environments (ILEs).

“A shift from discipline to autonomy in teaching is beginning to displace traditional cellular classrooms in favour of larger space configurations and flexible learning areas.

“These ILEs pose new challenges in terms of acoustics and without special consideration, they may undermine efforts to improve learning outcomes”, she told us ahead of the School Planning Design & Construction Conference.

Amanda refers to Dovey & Fisher’s notion of learning space typologies, which range from ‘A’ (egg-crate style setups) to ‘E’ (large open spaces), and says there is a growing trend towards type D learning spaces, backed by evidence that they can achieve greater levels of “deep” learning.

From an acoustics perspective this is potentially problematic, she said. “These spaces require different pedagogies. Didactic teaching, side-by-side isn’t a good way to utilise the space”.

What acoustic modifications should we be making in these types of spatial arrangements?

“Using materials with a high noise reduction coefficient and making sure they are appropriately located are the first basic steps”, said Amanda.

Reverberation is the process by which sound waves hit the walls, floor, ceiling and other surfaces and reflect back. This happens repeatedly until all of the sound waves have been totally absorbed or have dissipated.

“Materials with a high noise reduction coefficient are more efficient at minimising reverberation times”. she added.

Acoustic modifiers can be expensive. What about schools with lower budgets?

“It’s a common misconception that acoustic modifiers are expensive. Indeed, they can be, but there are plenty of low-cost or even free options”, said Amanda.

“Including an air cavity behind a pin board, for example, can almost double its efficacy as an acoustic modifier”.

“Improving teacher’s spatial literacy is another key ingredient for success when operating in ILEs.

“For example, when dividing the class into groups for practical or auto-didactic work, teachers must make sure they reassemble the class as a single cohort when giving further instructions or tuition – so that all students are in close proximity to the teacher and can easily see their face whilst they are speaking”.

How do we balance the trade-off between innovative learning environments and acoustics? Should we just stick to more traditional spatial arrangements in classrooms?

“Acoustics are incredibly important, but so too is a move towards classroom environments which accommodate modern styles of teaching – didactic encounters, collaborative peer to peer learning and one-on-one consultations, for example”, said Amanda.

“The ILETC has found that type D classrooms [from Dovey and Fisher’s learning space typologies] are the most effective way of balancing that trade-off between acoustics and ILEs”.

Amanda Robinson is the Co-CEO at Marshall Day Acoustics, one of the worlds’ largest acoustics consultancies.

Presenting at the School Planning Design & Construction Conference on the 21 – 22 May 2019 in Melbourne, Amanda will offer further expertise on acoustics in school settings.

You may download the full agenda here.

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