Creating Less Barriers for Learning – Acoustics

Many factors make teaching and learning more challenging. As architects, our goal is to create spaces that enhance the teaching experience and not be an impediment to a student’s ability to learn. Indoor environmental quality[1] includes air quality, thermal comfort, lighting quality, acoustical quality, and ergonomics. Good indoor environmental quality enhances learning; poor IEQ is a barrier.

Granted acoustics is just a part of a range of factors affecting students’ ability to learn, but poor acoustics can amplify the challenges children face. Students come to school with a variety of special needs and conditions. These can range from temporary hearing loss from colds or ear infections, to learning disabilities such as ADHD or Asperger’s Syndrome. Even cultural barriers such as English as a second language can be amplified by poor acoustics. When a child fails to learn for whatever reason, education has failed that child. The physical classroom environment should not be a reason why a child does not learn.

How then does acoustics affect indoor environmental quality? At the simplest level, acoustics is the movement of sound from a source to a receiver. In a classroom we want the predominant sound source to be the teacher speaking and we want the receiver to be an attentive student. But many things get in the way of that ideal acoustic situation.

Sometimes you just can’t hear what the teacher is saying. The image below[2] gives you an indication of how sound travels in a classroom setting. Sound levels drop off quickly the further you are from the source. At a certain point the loudness of the teacher’s voice becomes less than the loudness of background noise, and Tomas can’t comprehend what the teacher is saying. When this happens, the classroom environment becomes a barrier to learning.


[1] Center for Disease Control and Prevention definition for IEQ; Indoor environmental quality (IEQ) is the quality of a building’s environment in relation to the health and wellbeing of those who occupy space within it.

[2] Image courtesy of the Institute for Enhanced Classroom Hearing;

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