The Sound of Silence
Where do you think best? Walking in nature? In a busy street? At school? There is much research now on how walking benefits the mind and brain, and especially thinking.
It was Henry David Thoreau who wrote ‘the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow’, and research now shows that walking is good for the mind.
But there are big differences according to where you walk. Noisy streets are not as effective for enhancing thinking and creativity as walking in quiet gardens, parks, or other natural environments. As the old Arabic proverb says, speech is silver, silence is golden.
Walking is clearly good, and noise is clearly bad for thinking. The advantage of walking is already recognized in Finland where students are regularly physically active, including having lessons in standing classrooms. Finnish teachers follow the proverb – the deepest rivers flow with least sound (altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi).
Our ancestors lived by listening to and interpreting the extraordinary sounds of nature’s symphony. They thought, learned, and lived in environments that sounded like this:
Just listen to this for one minute!
In contrast, nowadays our children spend entire days inside school buildings. These schools are often built with hard prefabricated elements made from concrete and steel. Looking from outside they can appear dull, monolithic, even ugly. And when you go inside, hard, and flat surfaces create poor sound environments which are often noisy, disturbing, and which in extreme cases, can cause harm.
Excessive noise reduces the capacity to think, learn, and particularly to remember. Controlling noise is one of the most urgent and meaningful actions we can do to improve learning outcomes in our schools.
In recent years pedagogical architecture has brought educators, building engineers, architects, and others together to create schools with purpose designed spaces that minimize noise and maximize positive human interaction, communication, and ultimately learning. But there are presently very few such school buildings globally, and many of us face this acute noise problem now.
The problem is bad enough when teaching through the students’ first language. It is multiplied when learning through another language such as through CLIL.
So, what can we do?
First, recognize the significance of the problem.
When sound environments are poor, students become restless, frustrated, and have difficulty concentrating. There is a physiological negative impact on short-term memory (because of the increased energy needed to hear things that are being said), and on the body (in terms of noise-induced stress). The impact on teacher’s mental and physical health can be considerable.
Second, look at the research.
Sound loudness is measured in decibels (dB). Noise over 85 dB for a prolonged period can cause serious physiological damage. Noise levels over 60 dB can negatively impact on student learning in school environments.
Typical levels are:
Soft music and speech 30-40 dB
Vacuum cleaner 60-70 dB
Heavy traffic 80-90 dB
Chainsaw, leaf blower 106-115 dB
Research at 9 schools in Santiago de Chile showed that half had noise levels of 50-60 dB in classrooms, and average school noise levels around 70 dB, with 40% of students having difficulty hearing the teacher. A study of elementary schools in Barcelona and Madrid reported noise levels of 53-76 dB. Other sources report school dance events (100-105 dB), school gymnasium (80-90dB) and classrooms as high as 70-80 dB.
What might the noise levels be like in your school?
Third, see if you can act to reduce noise levels to create an ideal ‘library
effect’. The World Health Organization recommends maximum noise levels of 35 dB in schools. That figure is almost impossible to reach. Admittedly there are cultural differences in attitudes towards noise (think of family parties in Finland and Brazil) but children are children wherever they live, and noise is bad for all, so 35 dB is a good ideal target. And no matter where we live in the world, if everyone is talking, who is listening?
Noise reduction is achieved in many different ways. These range from
extreme to simple. In South Korea, the government stops aircraft landings
and take-offs and restricts truck movement during the main language
listening test of the national exam, the Suneung. In schools, simple actions
such as placing fabric under the legs of student desks and making noise
reduction a competitive game can work wonders! There are many things we can do. And if we teach through CLIL successful student engagement and learning will improve if we add noise control into our pedagogical portfolio.
And now to the best part of this blog!