Open space learning: Let’s talk about the elephant-in-the-(class)-room. The ABC of acoustics

miss a beatI was standing in The Zone with an architect.

The hubbub of learning engagement was all around. 180 students and six teachers call this space ‘home’ at Northern Beaches Christian School. In front of us a teacher was taking a large group through a step-by-step process on a particularly technical aspect of uploading their work to the portal. This group of Year 5 and 6 students were focussed, sitting on the floor with their devices on their laps.

To our right another group were sitting at tables, their heads down, working on a pen and paper task. After a few moments this group stood as one and picked up their work to relocate for the next activity.

As we watched this happen the architect said to me, “They didn’t miss a beat, teachers tell us that open learning won’t work because the students are distracted.” He was referring to the group in front of us. While the commotion and movement of about 20 students were happening not one of them looked up or were off task.

Many people cite noise and distractions as the reasons why open learning will not work. 2013-04-20 20.26.01 Research on innovation and creativity reinforces that the best ideas come when we put our heads together. Open learning facilitates collaboration and team work. So if we really believe this to be the future of school, then the physical environment must be conducive to this. Not just rethinking the spaces, we also need to shift the mindset of the educators and students on what is actually productive work and how does it best occur. The acoustics matter.

Acoustic effectiveness is personal. What’s good for you, may not work for me. I have never been able to work or read when there is certain music in the background. If there is singing, I will listen and can’t focus.

I was talking with another visitor in The Zone a while back. He does work facilitating effective workplace design. He said to me that when there are less than five conversations within earshot we become distracted by them. However, once there are more than five, it becomes ‘white noise’, a more productive sound than silence.

Noise can be productive. 2013-04-20 20.26.19

Perhaps the most significant obstacle is mindsets – often educators and parents. People cite the so-called ‘failure’ of the ‘open learning experiment’ of the 1970s. This is not a fair comparison, in my opinion. At the time there was very little regulated curriculum and technology and its ability to open the world of learning was not yet conceived. Culturally, the 60s and 70s were an experimental era,
with little accountability.
2013-04-20 20.25.41

Today, we work differently and we learn differently. Often the complaints about the noise and the distractions come from teachers who either assume that it won’t work, or haven’t received sufficient support in changing the way the learning now needs to occur.

The ABC of good acoustics

elementWhen I walk into The Zone with visitors from other schools they are usually overwhelmed by the productive environment – 180x 10-12 year olds, actively engaged in learning. Teachers are working with groups and/or roving the space, touching base with students. I usually make the comment, “probably one of the most important elements that makes the space work is something that you don’t actually notice”. Then I point to the acoustic panels on the ceiling. When I visit schools and find that an open space is not working well, the first question I usually ask is how the sound levels are being managed.

The UK group Acoustics at Work has produced a report that simply describes the ABC of acoustic management. The focus on the office environment, but can be relevant to the open learning space.

Absorb Absorption of sound waves minimise noise reflection. The materials selected for the ceiling, the floor and the furnishings make a huge difference.

Block Temporary/movable partitions alter the sound path. This can reduce the level of sound transmitted and can facilitate individual work.

Cover Noise masking systems can artificially increase ambient noise levels to provide background (white) noise.

When I taught young children and noticed a problem with learning, my first suggestion to the parents was to check the child’s eyes and ears. It is similar with spaces we work and learn within. The key elements physical environment should be addresses first.

If we are committed to open learning, attention to the acoustic environment is essential for effectiveness of the learning and wellbeing of all.


If you would like to see The Zone in action visit us

Reference for Breakout quotes

One thought on “Open space learning: Let’s talk about the elephant-in-the-(class)-room. The ABC of acoustics

  1. Anne; i would like to talk with you in more detail about the issue of distractions in open plan spaces… this is a real issue for all learners. There is a way to create fluidity, flow and flexibility by creating fixed elements in the spaces. Spaces need to be differentiated and integrated not open in the traditional sense or what i have experienced in the USA and in Austrlaia.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: