Silence is golden? Perhaps it’s measure of good-old-fashioned teaching. But is it the measure of great learning?

This headline caught my eye: “Australia’s classrooms among world’s noisiest”

As I talk to educators and school leaders about rethinking the way we contextualise education the question of noise regularly rears its head. There is a generation of educators and parents who are under the impression that a good education (teacher-centred) can only occur in an environment of silence. I believe that great learning (student centred) requires noise.

An international study* has found 43 per cent of Australian students reported ”noise and disorder” as factors in their classrooms. One-third said they had to ”wait a long time for the students to quiet down” and 38 per cent said students ”don’t listen to what their teacher has to say”. (SMH: 8 December 2013) *Study not cited.

I believe that these are factors of teacher capacity and school culture, rather than a problem of noise. However, later in the article, the voice of reason:

But Michael Anderson, associate professor in education and social work at the University of Sydney said it was important for teachers to distinguish between productive noise and distracting noise. ”Noise can be productive when it comes out of collaborative learning opportunities that the kids are involved in,” he said.

oldschoolThe idea of working in silence, and by inference, individually, is an industrial-era paradigm of productivity. During my own teaching career, I would relish those moments when I looked around the room to see and hear the buzz of productivity as students explored, you could almost hear the learning happening. I would joke with my colleagues that we would schedule a handwriting lesson for a little bit of structured quiet – no communication, heads down.

Great learning needs connection, conversation and ‘aha’ moments.

As we walk around the open learning spaces at NBCS we ‘see’ learning accompanied by noise and productivity – yet the question from visiting educators is almost always one who asks about noise levels. They tell me about teachers’ headaches and unruly students. We need to ask ourselves, is this fear and trepidation concerning noise a question of teaching or learning?

There are two important points to make:

  • Noise levels should be planned for and managed – From an acoustic management perspective, there are ways to  manage the sound in a room. The beauty of open spaces is that there are less walls for reverberation, yet lack of attention to this and low ceilings can exacerbate the problem. (In this short video I am talking about the importance of acoustic management.)

  • Educators need to become comfortable with noise as a condition for learning – When education was teacher-centric, there would be silence for the words of the oracle to heard and digested. But today, when students are exploring and challenging concepts, when they are developing passion projects noise is necessary

SCIL Building20 years ago I wanted a classroom that buzzed with learning and exploration, but it took time to reach this. As students and teachers take time to adapt to the new culture it can be tempting to give up before this goal is reached.

In the first two years of The Zone at NBCS there was a traffic light noise system, to remind the students when the voices were too loud. As the culture of respectful and productive noise became the norm, the traffic lights were no longer necessary.

Here are my conclusions:

  • Finding the right levels of noise for learning takes time and strategy for the right culture to take hold.
  • Teachers  need to become comfortable with the idea that deep learning happens in a noisy context of many-to-many, not one-to-many
  • Learning space design requires attention to the key factors that will make noise levels positive and productive.


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