Noise affects learning: Better acoustic designs improve education

Jan Simonsen
January 23, 2020

Reducing the ambient, intrusive noise in our schools will lead to an improved learning experience for students, but also improve their long-term health.

Children sitting in classroom with raised hands

Call it accidental acoustics or invisible architecture, the truth is noise affects human health and negatively influences a student’s learning capabilities. Often, after prolonged exposure, people will no longer pay attention to the noise levels they experience in their daily environments. This quickly changes if they visit a desert, where it will be immediately apparent that there is a major difference when compared to living in an urban setting. The silence of a desert usually startles people who visit one for the first time.

Noise pollution in urban environments received renewed focus from the European Environmental Agency (EEA) and the World Health Organization (WHO) over the last decade. A variety of independent studies led to changes in the guidelines for community noise issued by the WHO in 2018. According to the WHO, noise levels above 35 decibels will lead to reduced cognitive abilities in schools.

Sources of noise pollution in schools

Schools may face noise pollution from both internal and external sources. A group activity in one classroom may disrupt a reading lesson in another. To compound the issue, schools may suffer from ambient noises in the surrounding environment such as heavy traffic or a nearby construction project. The higher the ambient noise, the louder teachers and students need to speak.

Sources of problematic noise vary. It could be the building’s support systems or the equipment used in the classroom. Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) systems increase ambient noise, while external factors also lead to noise intrusion in a classroom. The reverberation from the walls itself could also lead to problematic noise. Studies suggest 25 percent of the words spoken by a teacher are not intelligible to the entire class.

Adverse health effects that come from noise pollution

Humans depend on the information they gather from their senses to navigate their environments. The human auditory system constantly receives stimuli that influence the nervous system. The ability to discern the intensity of the different stimulus is vital to human perception and awareness. Excessive noise levels will reduce the ability to distinguish sounds due to habituation and adaption, which is a natural response by the human body.

It is worth mentioning that compared to adults, adolescents are more sensitive to noise. What a forty-year-old architect hears in a building is vastly different from a 14-year-old’s experience. This led Julian Treasure to ask if architects actually have ears in a TED Talk about acoustic design.

After a new school used a central atrium design, it needed upgrades totalling £600,000 to fix the acoustic problems it created for pupils. Treasure uses this example to illustrate how architects tend to focus on visual and practical considerations while ignoring the effects of noise pollution on their building’s inhabitants.

For students specifically, the adverse health effects from excessive noise may include:

  • Reduced ability to acquire speech and language.
  • Impaired concentration, which may lead to lower academic performance.
  • Elevated blood pressure and cardiovascular ailments.
  • Changes in sleeping patterns that may further influence their ability to concentrate.
  • Tinnitus or Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) in the most severe cases.

At the same time, a noisy classroom will also influence the instructor. Teachers are less likely to talk to their students, or spend less time talking, when the environment contains elevated noise levels. Even the most dedicated educators can fall victim to voice fatigue in noisy classrooms, which will reduce their ability to engage with their students.

Acoustic design considerations for schools to improve learning capabilities

The world’s urban populations will continue to grow and estimates suggest that by 2050, more than two-thirds of humans will live in urban environments. Most of these individuals will end up in noisy cities “that never sleep.” In these environments, engineering and designing for noise will be vital to ensure human health in the future.

Across Europe, 16,600 premature deaths can be traced to excessive noise exposure and noise pollution amounts, to an annual cost of €40 billion. Creating the cities of the future will depend on a holistic assessment of human health and comfort, especially in environments where humans live, learn, and recover.

When it comes to the schools of the future, there are some advice designers can follow to make these buildings for the future. Whenever a district or council decides to build a new school or renovate an existing institution, they will need to consider the acoustics.

Some of the key design considerations for noise reduction in schools include:

  • Designing the buildings to contain or control noise from external and internal sources.
  • Insulating rooms to contain noise and prevent intrusion or flanking transmission between classrooms.
  • Ensuring classrooms are conducive for carrying speech to the entire audience.
  • Considering the equipment and support systems’ effects on the inhabitants of every classroom.
  • Ensuring the separation of social spaces from studying or teaching areas.

The scientific community only recently started to understand the adverse effects of excessive noise on human populations. To ensure the health of students and provide them with an environment that is conducive to learning will require collaboration between administrators, legislators, designers, and engineers.

Designing for human health in the future

The current effects of the climate will require cities of the future to be resilient. Sustainable practices can no longer simply focus on reducing waste and recycling raw materials. As more humans make the economic decision to move to urban environments, it is vital to ensure they have access to spaces that do not negatively influence their health. Human transport systems like trains, planes, and automobiles will continue to increase the ambient noise levels of future cities.

Keep in mind that humans spend 90 percent of their time inside buildings. Using the natural properties of stone, ROCKWOOL’s products can assist building designers to reduce noise pollution from either internal or external sources at learning institutions.

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