School Without Walls

The effects of noise on the learning environment in schools.

Last week the from parents seeking a more beneficial
learning environment for students at .  Specifically, they requested the erection of actual walls to separate classrooms, replacing the flexible, movable walls that had been the hallmark of the “open classroom” concept that was popular in the 1970s. That educational fad has gone the route of Nehru jackets and leisure suits, but Branford students still endure the lingering effects of that
philosophy with the physical plant. 

A 2004 article in the Education Next journal explains the situation: “By the early 1970s, the phrase open classrooms dominated educators’ vocabularies. Even though parents and practitioners found it hard to pin down exactly what open education meant, many school boards adopted open-education programs, and open-space schools were built across the country.”  However, within a few years, the tide shifted again, and traditional school buildings began to reappear around the nation. “Citations in the media and academic journals indicate that interest in open classrooms peaked somewhere around 1974. By the early 1980s, open classrooms had already become a footnote in doctoral dissertations.”

A major concern about the learning environment at Walsh centers on the
amount of noise that seeps from one classroom to another.  One classroom might have students actively engaged in a learning game that emits substantial enthusiasm from the students, while the adjoining class might be engaged in a test or quiet learning endeavor.  Reducing interference so that students can focus is a paramount concern in learning.  

The Engineering Toolbox has published a chart indicating maximum acceptable decibel levels for a variety of environments, ranging from 30 in a bedroom to 55 for the outdoors.  The table lists 35 decibels as the maximum acceptable sound level for a classroom.  Any noise above that level results in “speech interference, communication disturbance.”   A 2000 research study by the Acoustical Society of America indicated that children with normal hearing who were routinely exposed to noise levels above 60 decibels experienced higher blood pressure rates. Furthermore, the girls in the study “evidenced diminished motivation in a standardized behavioral protocol.”

In September 2005, the noise level at Walsh was assessed by a professional
audiologist, Antonia Bracia Maxon, Ph.D.  Her report indicated that the readings in three areas of the school demonstrated noise levels above the recommended maximum.  Room 1 was between 60-70 decibels; the decibel reading for room 2 ranged from 50-58; and the lowest levels in the third room were 50-55 decibels.  Can the noise level now be substantially lower than those recorded? Does any evidence exist thatnoise has no effect on learning?

Improving the physical plant of the school is an essential step towards enhancing learning.  Are the current capital improvement plans putting the children first?

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victoria verderame March 18, 2012 at 08:41 PM
This has been a debate that has been going on for decades since the school was built. However, not every "working" environment allows for sound proof walls. I think Walsh is a wonderful way to prepare for this. I found I was better able to focus at the High School and College levels because I had learned to tune sound out. Now that I work in an office with open space and cubicles, I am also able to focus easily and get work done. I don't think I would be able to tune sound out so well if it hadn't been for my 4 years at Walsh. Then again, the parents have a point. The school structure is out dated and it's time for a change.
Diane Anderson March 18, 2012 at 10:20 PM
One of our children had a severe hearing loss and that school was a nightmare for her. Needs to be addressed. How can you learn or educate properly in that environment? Middle School years are difficult enough and critical in sending students on the right path. A zoo.
Maria Mattei Alfano March 20, 2012 at 12:58 PM
My daughter is in special ed classroom at Walsh and she tells me she has a difficult time in a walled classrooms. I could only imagine if she was in a open classroom. I believe it is beneficial for both students and teachers to have a close classroom . There are already too many other distractions going on. I can't see how if benefits anyone.
Kendra March 23, 2012 at 01:45 PM
Back in my day I had to walk 10 miles to Walsh in the snow, no shoes to keep my feet warm and dry and no Facebook page to refresh on my iphone that whole walk. Imagine the horror. Suck it up. Generations have attended, graduated from and went on to leave leadership filled, productive lives.
Joe Pet March 25, 2012 at 04:23 PM
Everyone loves to specukate how much it is a distraction, I'm a freshman at NDWH now, and I never had any problems. Those of you who have children with hearing problems.. there ARE some rooms with walls and if handled correctly, informing the school, can be put in those classrooms. With everything going on in this town, all the financial needs, Walsh having walls and / or being renovated is the last thing that should be considered. Plus, the only problem I ever had with Walsh was the administration witch is a whole different story.
Edward Fast Lazarus March 25, 2012 at 08:52 PM
Kendra-- No shoes in the winter ---very cool! ED


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