The NSW Government is spending $8.6 billion on school infrastructure over the next four years.
Queensland is spending $1.9 billion on education infrastructure this year alone. South Australia is investing $1.4 billion. Victoria is also in the midst of a school infrastructure boom and has invested more than $12.8 billion.
Many of these new classrooms are being built as contemporary flexible learning environments that include open plan areas for collaboration, but this isn’t without controversy.
A recent investigation into the issue from the Grattan Institute has sparked strong debate on whether or not these new classrooms are beneficial for children’s learning.
Additionally, the controversy has led to the NSW Government ceasing the construction of open plan classrooms that cannot be closed off for individual classes. So why is there so much controversy and what does the research say?
In 2015, I wrote an article for The Conversation on how different classroom designs (including a range of open plan classrooms) affect Kindergarten children’s listening. This research has been published as five peer-reviewed papers in international journals.
We found most children were annoyed by the noise coming from the other classes in the open plan area. Additionally, 50-70 per cent of the children surveyed said they could not hear their teacher very well, or at all, when the other classes were doing noisy group work activities.
Finally, in the noisiest open plan classroom, children’s listening scores dropped from 75 per cent at the front (1m from the speaker) to less than 25 per cent at the back (3m from the speaker), and the children in this classroom also took significantly longer to process sentences.
These findings suggest that open plan classrooms that are unable to control the noise from adjacent classes are not appropriate listening environments for children.
Listening is important. It is one of the main ways children learn and interact with their peers, especially in the younger years. For slightly older students, research has also shown that the noise in open plan classrooms can adversely affect children’s reading fluency development which will affect learning.
More recently, we at the ECHO (ECological Hearing Outcomes) Lab and Macquarie University Hearing have been particularly interested in how the acoustic conditions of classrooms affect primary school children’s listening, learning, and wellbeing.
As a result, we have published six peer-reviewed review articles on these topics. Overall, poor classroom acoustic conditions – particularly noise – can negatively affect children’s listening comprehension, literacy skills (including reading accuracy, reading speed, reading comprehension, writing, and spelling), numeracy skills, cognition (i.e., attention and memory), behaviour, physical health (by inducing a stress response that results in asthma, fatigue, and headaches) and mental wellbeing.
Noise is problematic for all children, especially young children whose brains are still developing, and even more so for children with special educational needs.
For example, noise can increase repetitive behaviours in children on the autism spectrum. Children with ADHD are more affected by auditory and visual distractions than children without ADHD. Children with hearing loss are also more adversely affected in terms of their ability to hear and engage in the classroom. Children who are non-native speakers have poorer speech perception in noise than native speakers.
So what is the problem with open plan classrooms? The main issue is the intrusive noise from the other classes sharing the space.
This is problematic when the teacher is teaching explicitly, as the noise from the other classes affects speech intelligibility and speech processing speed. It is also problematic when the children are engaged in independent work as it can affect their reading ability and cognition.
Acoustic treatment may help reduce some of the noise, but it is walls between classes that can significantly reduce, if not eliminate, this intrusive noise. The teacher of the class then has control over the noise produced by their own class and does not have to worry about noise coming from other classes.
But it’s not just open plan classrooms that are problematic. There are so many different classroom designs that are currently being created and any classroom can have poor acoustic conditions that affect listening, learning, and wellbeing.
This really is a call to action to make sure that all classrooms are designed in a way that promotes listening, learning, and wellbeing for all children during different activities.
As these classroom designs are new, this is a new research area, so we need robust scientific research to determine the best classroom layouts and their benefits, and then make sure that governments are investing in best-practice design.
Governments are investing billions of dollars in creating new schools and upgrading old schools, but they should also be investing in the research needed to understand what the best classroom acoustic design is for promoting listening, learning, and wellbeing.
Robust scientific evidence to inform this new building revolution is vital if we want all children to thrive at school.
If you are interested in having your school involved in research, or discussing Dr Kiri Mealings' research further, contact email@example.com.