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aural learning environments
It is probably ironic that I've started writing this beachside in Holdfast Bay, Glenelg, South Australia. It is a windy day, the surf is crashing onto the foreshore - the white noise of this background is significant and lovely...
...which brings us directly to the question: what does background noise contribute to learning, if anything. Can noise help, or hinder learning. And how can we control it in learning spaces that are already built, when it is too late to model the aural environment at a design stage?
WHAT DO WE KNOW SO FAR ?
As with so much in learning, it is complex, but no part is particularly hard to understand. Research is considerble in areas like industrial aural environments - where concentration = safety, or where "too loud" long term might = hearing impairment.
Similalrly, there is (but why did it take so long?) now good research about driving concentration and muisc levels. Compared to these safety focussed research areas, education is woefully under researched. But we can glean a lot from studies elsewhere. Here is what we know from research in other areas:
- Loud is not usually helpful - "a Canadian study found people took up to 20% longer to perform physical and mental tasks to loud music" see this BBC summary report. "Loud" by the way, was 95 decibels. Although the summary might be that "Researchers found reactions to be significantly decreased at higher noise levels for both physical and mental work", there were some less obvious findings too about beats per minute "In general, if music is above 60 beats per minute, listeners experience a faster heart rate and increased blood pressure" which in driving and concentration is less than helpful, as you would expect.
- Not all sound research is, at first reading, relevant to learning - this study - commissioned by bubble bath and shower gel firm Radox Spa, so maybe take it with a pinch of (bath) salt - was to create the 'most relaxing tune ever'. Its "carefully arranged harmonies, rhythms and bass lines help to slow the heart rate, reduce blood pressure and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol" - hmm, but it does raise the sensible prospect of sounds reducing examination & test stress, or other stressful learning moments, in a positive way.
Certainly in the tests I've been involved with over the years three simple tenets emerge consistently:
- if the music has a lyric in the language of the listeners, then it is harder to write - you might hypothesise that the bit of your brain that does text also overlaps, maybe, the area that processes speech.
- secondly abolute quiet was usually worse than gentle background sounds - again the hypothesis might be that in silence evolution has cued us up to listen harder for significant sounds however small, so that silence is curiously distracting;
- and we always found that "loud" wasn't helpful - although people's "too loud" certainly varied.
But of course schools are all different - whole classes jumping up to sing in Maori schools I visited, huge noise from Heathrow Airport planes overhead in others; so, as ever, there is no "one size fits all" (is there ever?) and you will need to try things yourself.
LEARNER LED EXPLORATION
For a look at students researching their own aural environments - see this page on learner led research elsewhere on the heppell.net server.
One thing is reasonably certain: sound plays a significant part in making learning better.
Your students are best placed, and best motivated, to explore this.
page last updated by Stephen Heppell - Thursday, June 20, 2013 10:19 AM