How Much Learning Can Take Place In All This Noise?

By now, you’ve probably noticed I have a fascination…passion…possibly, an obsession with listening and sound. So let’s talk some more about it. Perhaps it has the greatest effect on learning than any other variable, and my goal is to enhance learning in all the students I encounter – directly or indirectly.

Did you know that noise was the number one quality-of-life complaint in New York City in 2013? It is the 2nd biggest type of pollution, after air pollution.

Many years ago, when I worked in New York City, I was often overwhelmed by the incessant noise and rushing. It seemed like the movement of the people on the streets mirrored the noise of the blaring sirens, pounding jackhammers, screeching taxi brakes, passionate vendors, and…

Every night when I got home, I was exhausted. My life seemed similar to the mouse in the spinning wheel. Lots of activity but hardly any significant accomplishment. The more I study sound, the more I understand why. The researchers tell us that it takes mental effort to screen out unpleasant sound, that is, noise. No wonder I was always tired.

That’s the noise outside. What about inside. That must be better, right? You be the judge.

This morning, as I walked into the school building where I provide speech-language therapy for a caseload of students, I was one hour and fifteen minutes early. It was quiet. Oh blissful quietude! I was going to organize my thoughts and files for the day.

Thirty minutes later, someone began playing a saxophone on the stage outside my side door. It’s a very thin wall. I believe  originally, my room was the dressing room for the stage.

At first, it was soft and mellow – “Amazing Grace.” Then it grew louder – “I Did It My Way.” About fifteen minutes later, a trumpet and recorded accompaniment joined in. The volume crescendos. I got so distracted and frustrated that I grabbed my laptop and took refuge in my van outside until I finished what I was doing on it.

With the sub-zero real-feel temperature outside, the halls are cold. This cold air seeps under doorways making most rooms chilly. So all day long, a small space heater has been buzzing in my office.

The all-purpose hall (cafeteria, gym, auditorium) is also next to my office. So, in addition to the students practicing their instruments on the stage, I heard children running, clapping and screaming as they played; buffet equipment and utensils banging; garbage bins rolling; children chattering; and, after lunch, rehearsals for the upcoming assembly.

This is the environment in which significant learning is expected to take place. Children with listening difficulties (and that includes most of the ones who are struggling, if not all) spend so much energy trying to block out the disturbance, they miss what is being taught.

In addition to this, sound researchers tell us that, in a classroom set up in the lecture-style arrangement, speech intelligibility is reduced by 50% by the time it reaches the students in row 4. Those children have to work twice as hard to succeed in getting the knowledge being dispensed.

Considering that on any given day, there are children – 16% (1 in 8) of them – whose hearing is impaired due to colds, allergies, ear infections, etc.; only the strong learners survive.

Question: How do you feel about the learning environment in many schools? What suggestions do you have to improve these learning conditions?

Florence is the mother of an amazing teenager; an educational consultant, author, speaker, speech-language pathologist, encourager and perpetual optimist. She shares tips, tools and resources with mothers (and other caregivers) of struggling and/or failing children. She is fiercely committed to helping them develop and enhance their children's foundational skills for learning, to grow them to success in school and life. A believer in the unique learning abilities of all children, she is an advocate for those who learn differently.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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6 thoughts on “How Much Learning Can Take Place In All This Noise?

  1. “Oh blissful quietude!” I say that every time. I really feel for you, I need quietude. I truly do as I am so intense when I am doing anything, that actually any sudden noise makes me jump.

    I used to hate when practicing as an accountant and people worked with radios. How can you concentrate on your work?

    Luckily at the moment I live in a very quiet place and I am lucky enough to work from home.

    • Liliana, I have resorted to using ear plugs and going to my van. My concern is for the students I serve. Many times we are in the middle of an activity when suddenly the “noise” starts us from the stage. They begin swaying in their chairs and tapping the table and I lose their attention. Others who have unresolved sensory issues, cover their ears and ask, “What’s that noise?” I’ve pleaded my cause to a former principal who moved the department. However, a new principal was sent to us at the beginning of the following school year, and she moved them right back. Her comment to me when I went to explain why they had been relocated was, “We have a space problem in this school.” And that was the end of that! How are these students supposed to make significant progress?

  2. You wrote, “In a classroom set up in the lecture-style arrangement, speech intelligibility is reduced by 50% by the time it reaches the students in row 4.” That is amazing! It’s a wonder any of us learn at all! Plus, as you say, so many children on any given day are suffering from a hearing impairment for some reason or another. I had no idea about about any of this. I can imagine that in a large with such as New York, these numbers may be even higher. Honestly, I don’t know what to say! It’s been so long since I’ve been in a classroom, but this makes me appreciate the teachers AND the students even more. Thank you for the eye-opening article. Peace to you.

    • Thanks for your thoughts,

      Jeanne. Many teachers have moved away from the lecture style to groups of four desks with two students facing the other two. This presents a different problem for children with “attention” difficulty and those who have trouble locating and focusing on sound outside of their line of vision. Most people who criticize teachers haven’t the slightest notion of what challenges they face daily. Consider how much more knowledge children would acquire if their classroom environments were more conducive to learning.