Psychoacoustics of learning environments: A people-centred approach to noise

file_000-4As I write, it’s a rainy day. Our small apartment is on the top level of the building, located on a semi-busy road. Not a highway nor a freeway, more of a connection between suburbs. I’m quite used to the steady stream of traffic noise  and today, as it’s raining, so there is the added wet-road swoosh accompanying the sound of the cars and buses. I can work with this ambient sound. Some would probably call it noisy, and find it unproductive, but I am now used to this environment. My focus is occasionally broken by an inconsistent sound, a transient noise: a motorcycle, construction work or siren. My mind works out each of these almost subconsciously, they’re just a ‘blip’ to my work. It’s only the fairly unusual sounds that make we stop and think, “That’s a helicopter”.

Sound is an important consideration in the workplace and learning environment. This week I shared an article on LinkedIn that seemed to touch a nerve: How does noise affect productivity in the office? It had around 1700 views and more comments and likes that any other post I can recall recently. Noise is a sensitive and a personal subject.

From reading the white paper linked to this article (ref below), I began to understand the realm of noise vs sound, noise sensitivity, productivity and concentration. It is so much more than measuring decibels and meeting approved standards to achieve a productive working or learning environment. An individual’s response to noise is subjective, and the report explores how considering psychoacoustics can help designers to take into account the human elements – personalities, working styles and preferences – when designing the appropriate acoustic working environment. The report says that noise is the most significant cause of dissatisfaction in the workplace, leading to loss of productivity.

“The better we can understand the individual and take a human approach, from that perspective, the better environment we can create.”
Paige Hodsman, Saint-Gobain Ecophon. (

Obviously, as I was reading, my mind was making links to the innovative learning environment. The activity-based workplace is a helpful comparison to the innovative learning environment. Activity-based work enables choice – where to work, who to work with – depending on the nature of the task. This working environment is designed with a range of affordances, such as meeting rooms, focus rooms and quiet zones. Innovative learning environments, which some seem to consider to be large noisy open barns, can also be designed and zoned for the different kinds of work that engages the learner. Sound, and its unwanted sibling, noise, are pertinent considerations in the design of  learning environments.

“Let’s stop this madness of open plan classrooms right now, please.” said  Julian Treasure in his TED Talk  Why architects need to use their ears.

It doesn’t need to be an either/or argument. Either we have walls up and quiet classrooms, or we have no walls and sheer bedlam. Utilising the knowledge we have now, there can be a both/and solution for schools. We can have open, shared and collaborative spaces, and also allow for the noise sensitivity, the psychoacoustics need to be addressed in school.

I found this paper fascinating and will share more insight into psychoacoustics and potential considerations for schools.


Ref: Oseland, N. &  Hodsman, P (2015) Planning for Psychoacoustics: A Psychological Approach to Resolving Office Noise Distraction Prepared for: Saint-Gobain Ecophon


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