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Ottawa Citizen story - Classroom dins slows learning, British study finds. (researchers John Bradley and Michel Picard comment)

Classroom din slows learning, study finds
Children easily distracted by loud noise, British researchers confirm

Patti Edgar
The Ottawa Citizen

Monday, May 06, 2021

Children are especially susceptible to noise, which is why researchers are studying its impact in classrooms. A British study showed that children's language skills are the aspect of learning that is most affected by distracting noise.

Elementary school classrooms can be as loud as shopping malls or busy intersections, worrying researchers who say the noise hurts children's performance in school.

A British study released last week is the latest study to show that 'classroom babble' -- combined with the drone of air conditioners, the hum of traffic and the roar of airplanes -- affects students' learning.

'Students sometimes don't do well, not because they didn't study hard, not because they aren't intelligent, but because they were influenced by noise levels,' said Tao Jiang, a professor at Halifax's Dalhousie University who has studied the issue.

'We always make sure you can see clearly and you have good books, but we never emphasize the importance of hearing properly.'

Researchers from two British universities studied sound levels in the classrooms of 2,000 children from ages 7 to 10 in London. Then they had the students write tests in varying noise levels.

Classroom noise affected the test results of most of the students, especially older children and children with special needs.

Tests involving language skills suffered the most. In spelling tests of 20 words, classroom noise reduced the number children got right by three or four. Noise outside the classroom also affected their concentration, slowing down their learning.

'I was surprised by the relationship between noise and the children's performance,' said Bridget Shield, a professor of acoustics at South Bank University in the Britain. 'There's a lot of anecdotal evidence that children are affected by noise and teachers believe it, but to carry out extensive testing and find the results statistically was very satisfying.'

The schools surveyed in England had average noise levels of 72 decibels Ba, a measurement that relates to how humans hear sound. That's as loud as standing next to a busy intersection. (All sound measurements are stated in decibels Ba, which are different from the more widely known regular or linear decibels.)

While Canadian researchers will begin measuring noise levels in Ottawa schools in the fall, Montreal professor Michel Picard says most schools likely have noise levels at about 55 decibels. That's equal to the noise in a shopping mall.

Both those numbers are higher than the standard set by the World Health Organization, which calls for a maximum exposure of 35 decibels in the classroom and 55 in the playground.

The noisiest classrooms are likely in portables and 'open concept' schools. Ottawa has more than 500 portables. And while school boards have added walls to a dozen open concept schools, they are a fad left over from a 1960s that one Ottawa researcher calls 'acoustical stupidity.'

John Bradley, a senior research officer at the National Research Council, says noise in the classroom is a major concern of the NRC. Researchers will be heading into 60 classrooms this fall to measure how noisy classrooms are and to come up with an ideal noise level.

'There needs to be more convincing evidence to get people to pay attention to the problem,' said Bradley. 'Obviously schools don't have much money. If you want to spend money on quieting their ventilation systems, they are going to have to save on books, computers or something. So you need a strong argument.'

Children are especially susceptible to noise. For the past two decades, scientists have known that loud areas, such as airports and industrial sites, stress children. Young students are also easily distracted.

'Little kids are still growing language-wise,' said Jiang. 'Adults don't have to hear the whole sentence, they only need to catch the important words. But kids need to hear the whole thing or they don't understand it.'

While the noise in classrooms won't damage children's ears, Jiang's 1996 research shows that noise in Quebec gymnasiums can reach almost 100 decibels. That's as loud as the sound of jackhammers, leading to hearing loss in physical education teachers.

Researchers say noise in classrooms also leads to 'teacher syndrome' -- strained vocal cords from trying to teach above the din.

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