Depending on how old you are or how interested your school administration was in being up-to-date, you might recognize a classic school desk. That desk was my "place to learn" for all eight years (1933–1941) of my elementary education at a two-room Concordia Lutheran School in Louisville, Ky. My brain constantly processed the noises around me in school and sometimes it paid attention to the messages included in the noise. Some of my schoolmates were less fortunate, because they were "hard of hearing"—a 1930s way of saying their auditory cortexes had difficulty processing the noises. No one understood why some of these students seemed to have trouble learning. They often seemed to be confused, bewildered, and baffled by noises that they could not "compute."
Now, some 70 years later, ASHA has made it clear that the acoustical properties of classrooms are often the "forgotten variables" in ensuring students' academic success. A 2005 ASHA publication relying on Crum and Matkin (1976) stated:
Acoustical performance is an important consideration in the design of classrooms. Research indicates that high levels of background noise, much of it from heating and cooling systems, adversely affect learning environments, particularly for young children …. Poor acoustics are a particular barrier to children with a hearing loss. At risk are children with mild to moderate hearing loss, as well as those who have cochlear implants or who use hearing aids and assistive listening devices …. Children with temporary hearing loss, who may comprise up to 15% of the school age population according to the Centers for Disease Control, are also significantly affected, as are children with speech impairments or learning disabilities.
My institutional home, the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA), held a February 2005 workshop based on the hypothesis that the sound quality of a learning environment can enhance or impede learning.
ANFA participants, including architects, educators, and neuroscientists, spent three days discussing the potential for improving classroom acoustics based on research gathered through the neuroscience focus on the brain and mind. The group looked at the various needs of an educational environment in the context of the physiology of hearing. They paid particular attention to the broad range of styles and methods used in teaching and learning and how these methods related to childhood hearing programs that measure activities of the inner ear and its links to the auditory cortex.
Measuring acoustic levels in a classroom is useful, but it is not sufficient to understand how such measurements relate to learning unless there is a research connection to neuroscience. We know enough about the auditory processes of the brain to know how children listen in order to speak and read, spell, and use language to express themselves. At one of our workshops a speaker estimated that 75% of the school day is spent engaged in listening activities. It is easy to understand that in order to do well in school, a child must be able to receive auditory signals, but it would be wrong to believe that all children with normal hearing will hear in the same way. There are very large differences in what children can perceive and understand in the way of auditory messages, depending on how well their brains are prepared to recognize the sounds of speech, how much their previous training has prepared them to understand, and how well they are able to attend to what is being said.
Architectural decisions can have a major impact if the classroom is not designed to address background noise, which can mask what the teacher is saying. It is critical that architects design classrooms that are acoustically pleasing and reduce noise to the greatest degree possible. As the distance between a teacher and student increases, the teacher's speech level is less well-perceived—so the size and configuration (shape) of the room will affect hearing. Because the brain's networks make thousands of connections among the various senses, a classroom that lacks good lighting will affect listening, as will an indoor temperature that makes a child uncomfortable. Children can be sensitive to the feel of the materials on the walls and floor as well as to noxious odors in the room, both of which can disturb their auditory process.
If that were not enough to challenge architects, we know that children's brains are going through major developmental changes between ages 5 and 12. A child's brain does not take in information from the physical environment and store it like a camera or a tape recorder for later retrieval. What a child remembers is continually being changed by new learning, as the connections between neurons in the brain are modified. When a sound, a light level, a touch, or a smell sends signals to the brain's receptors, that input triggers a reaction, by which the brain constructs a pattern of neural activity.
The sensory activity that triggered the creation of this pattern is then "washed away" (physiologically speaking), leaving only a "construct." This construct does not represent the sound, the sight, the feel, or the smell. It constitutes the meaning of those stimuli for the child who is receiving them. This meaning is different for each child depending on the child's age, past experience, and level of sensitivity. Because the original sensory activity is washed away and only the construct is saved, the knowledge each child has stored within his or her individual brain is unique to that child. Children may share a learning experience, but what they know is different. It is apparent that architectural design influences children's learning environments, and by extension, the way they learn.
Most schools have been designed with classrooms that are considered interchangeable. But "one size does not fit all," as ANFA has titled a post-workshop film. We know that children will generally double their height between ages 5 and 12, and that they more than double their weight. But from neuroscience, we know that their brains will also change dramatically. The parts of the brain involved with sight (the occipital cortex) and hearing (the temporal cortex) will add millions of neurons between ages 5 and 6, only to shuck off a large percentage of their neurons as they approach age 12.
During a UCLA Brain Development briefing, Neal Halfon, director of the UCLA Center for Healthier Children, Families and Communities, and his colleagues observed that:
Sharp boundaries in development periods are called "critical periods" where growth and pruning most likely occur. In these periods, children could be more vulnerable to environmental influences, which can cause changes in experience-dependent development. During this stage the brain responds to stimuli, such as light and sound that are expected to influence brain development.
In The Learning Brain, Blakemore and Firth indicate that neuroscience research has not yet provided much in the way of guidance to educators. The authors believe that the cognitive functioning underlying how children code the locations of things and navigate their worlds, and how they represent and mentally manipulate spatial information need to be fully understood. Without at least a reasonably close correspondence between internal representations and the actual physical world, children are not able to find what they need, avoid what they fear, or imagine and construct tools that they use. The child's auditory cortex does not provide an ability to hear and then tell another child how to find his or her way until a child is at least 7 years old.
"We have moved beyond the one-size-fits-all approach to school design to an age of greater innovation and flexibility tailored to meet the needs of individual students, schools, and communities," said Ronald E. Bogle, president and CEO of the American Architectural Foundation. "The successful schools of the future need to apply the research on how students learn and how the quality of our educational facilities affects student performance, health, safety, self-esteem, and well-being."
It is apparent that everyone involved in education, from the teacher providing instruction to the architect designing the school building, needs to know more about how children learn so the learning environment can be made supportive for all children. There is much research yet to be done in this area, but there is also much to learn from what research has already revealed.