A few years ago, my parents purchased the ultimate HGTV-style home, replete with vaulted ceilings, granite countertops, and an open floorplan. This was the dream space for entertaining. People could seamlessly move from the kitchen to the dining room to the family room – which is, in reality, simply one large room. No more ugly carpet to turn raggedy and stained. If someone spilled on the hard floors, you could simply wipe it away.
It was perfect for large gatherings.
Until it wasn’t. True, people mingled around the large island and moved freely from space to space without bumping into each other. However, once a larger crowd gathered, the volume crept from quiet to ear-splitting. I found myself shouting at the person next to me and leaning in awkwardly to listen until I had become the dreaded close-talker. We gestured emphatically. This has continued year after year. Now, each time we visit, I take frequent breaks to stand outside, away from the noise. Each time, that release from the sound feels almost restorative. I’ll step out into the cool desert landscape and listen to the silence.
I get it. I’m an introvert. I’m also highly sensitive to noise. However, I’ve noticed a trend in architecture and design. In the emphasis on visual-spatial form and function, designers tend to treat noise as an afterthought. I see it in trendy restaurants with stained concrete floors and high, exposed ceilings. It looks cool but it can be nearly impossible to carry on a conversation over a meal. We see a similar trend with open office floorplans. They look amazing and they allow for open movement. But what happens when you want to sit down and focus on your work? What happens when you need to make a phone call? I have friends who work in expensive open offices who end up spending an hour in their car just to get work done.
There’s a fascinating recent podcast episode from 99% Invisible, where they delve into the relationship between noise and health in hospitals. One of the key takeaways for me was that it’s not just the decibel level that matters. It’s also the type of noise, the repetition of the noise, the frequency, and the pitch of the noise. And yet, almost by default, sound is an afterthought in design. We focus on the visual-spatial elements first and forget that people inhabit spaces using all five of our senses.
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Too much noise?
Lately, researchers have pushed back against cluttered classrooms with too many colors and a barrage of visual stimulus. These classrooms are “too noisy,” making it challenging to focus. But what about actual noise? What about the barrage of sound that can distract students from deep work?
If anything, there’s often an emphasis on embracing “noisy learning.” We see it in pithy tweets portraying noisy spaces as more innovative and maker-centered. I recently talked to a principal who said, “If I see a quiet classroom, I’m alarmed. I look for loud classrooms. That’s where the learning is happening.” We often hear that “those who are doing the talking are doing the learning,” and thus classrooms shouldn’t be silent spaces.
I agree with the core idea of these statements. I don’t want to see students sitting alone in rows, working on packets. However, when I taught middle school, my classroom generally ran at a quiet hum. There were moments when the volume spiked during a maker project or a heated small group discussion. But there were also times when each student quietly read during choice reading and hovered at a quiet concentration during our blogging projects. We had a makerspace. We used design thinking for creative work. We had writer’s workshops and implemented PBL. My classroom was quiet, but it was still student-centered.
Part of this was admittedly selfish. I get edgy and anxious when I’m in a space that’s too loud. I also had students who had sensory issues and students who were more introverted. But it wasn’t just them. Every student benefits from quiet:
- Quiet is necessary for collaboration: This sounds simple but it’s easy to overlook. Students need to be able to hear themselves when they work together. Whether it’s a pair-share or a brainstorm, students need to be able to communicate at a natural speaking voice and listen without distraction.
- Quiet is necessary for deep work: I often spend hours working on a single project. In these moments, I hit a state of flow, where I tune out all distractions and enter a point of hyperfocus. But this often begins by working in a quiet house or the white noise. Yet, even when I’m in the zone, a doorbell will pull me away. Now imagine yourself as a student working on a project. You’re in a state of hyperfocus until the intercom beeps. If we want students to engage in deep work, they need to have spaces of quiet. Note that it doesn’t need to be silent. Some people thrive in white noise of a coffee shop. However, even then, they’re working in a space with fewer audio distractions.
- Quiet is necessary for introspection: Just as every student benefits from cooperative learning, every student also benefits from reflection. But this is challenging in spaces of noise pollution. We often hear about the need for mindfulness in school – and that’s certainly a positive thing. But we also need moments of silence built into our lessons.
What can we do about it?
The following are a few strategies teachers and school leaders can use to think more strategically about sound.
#1: Do a noise audit.
Each year, my university students do a formative edTPA, where they have to videotape a lesson and reflect on their teaching. Because the videos are continuous, they cannot edit out any wasted time. As I’ve watched these videos, I’ve noticed a trend. The intercom interrupts the learning at least twice a lesson – whether it’s an early elementary class or an AP junior English class.
Often, it’s a secretary calling a student out of class and suddenly the entire school’s learning is interrupted. These moments hijack deep work and sap away valuable learning time. In one videotaped lesson, I noticed that a teacher lost five minutes of class time, or 10% of the class period.
I’ve also noticed other noise issues. Science classrooms often have stools that scrape against the tile floor. Student desks are often creaky.
These noisy disruptions might seem like a small deal but over time, they compound to produce noisy spaces. As educators, we can do a noise audit to identify ways to clean up the collective noise pollution.
#2: Consider noise when planning spaces.
Over the last few years, I’ve worked with districts in planning makerspaces. I don’t focus on the hardware (what 3D printer to get, for example) so much as the instructional goals and the ways we can use UX design to create more intuitive and empathetic spaces.
One thing I’ve noticed is that districts will often hire an architect to sketch out a detailed plan for their makerspaces. The focus tends to skew toward visual aesthetics and movement without much consideration for sound. Often, leaders will discuss paint colors but fail to address noise level.
A simple question to ask is, “How will this space sound for students?”
You might want to visit places with similar environments and invite people with audio sensitivities to share their perspective on the sound. The focus should be on empathy toward all students.
#3: Differentiate the noise of the space.
When we think of innovative spaces, it’s easy to imagine the cutting edge companies with large open floor plans decked out in an urban industrial style. And yet, some of the best spaces I’ve seen have been libraries. Some of the most innovative libraries have loud spaces for discussions and collaboration and buzzing makerspaces where folks are tinkering. But they also have quiet alcoves and outdoor spaces where you can be alone. It’s not that libraries are quiet, per se, but that they value the balance between noise and silence.
Our university has a packed library. Students sit in semi-circle sofas discussing ideas. They frantically sketch out equations on mobile whiteboard easles. But they also hide out in quieter single tables behind the bookshelves. They book soundproof conference rooms where they talk loudly but they also sit outside and study in a silent zone.
In other words, the library space is intentionally differentiated with sound in mind and a walk around the space is a tour of different audio levels that correspond to various individual and collaborative activities.
Here’s where we need to lean into the expertise of librarians and library space designers.
#4: Create experiences where students have more choice around the noise level.
Let them go outside to get away from the noise or to collaborate more loudly. If possible, create gardens in the wasted spaces and maximize the breezeways. Let them wear headphones if they want to listen to music or wear noise-cancellation headphones when it’s getting too loud.
We often think about these ideas when we have students with sensory issues. However, when we let students self-select their noise level, we are honoring their agency while reducing their affective filter.
#5: Consider noise when lesson planning.
If you are planning a collaborative project-based unit, be sure to plan moments of silence and solitude. Build individual think time into the lessons and utilize structures that allow introverts the chance to recharge.
Notice how silence and think time are both built into my process for brainstorming. Instead of having students shout over each other, they get the chance to sit in silence and think and plan.
As we lesson plan, we can think about noise level. We can imagine ourselves as students trying to engage in deep work and collaboration.
Every Student Needs Quiet
I cringe a little at the common “noisy equals better learning” mantra. Yes, there are times when classes will burst out with loud energy during a hands-on maker project. Sometimes a discussion will get joyfully boisterous. And that’s okay. However, sometimes quiet is the answer. Sometimes solitude. Sometimes a gentle hum of work is the answer – not just for introverts or students with sensory issues, but for all students.
In music, there’s a deliberate symbol for rest. It’s not a break from the song. It’s a part of the music. But it is silent, and it is powerful. I think we need the same thing in the classroom. In a culture of noise, sometimes relevance isn’t more noise. Sometimes it’s more silence.
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