Friday, September 3, 2010

Heading Back to School: Classroom Acoustics

It's getting closer to fall and that means that kids and college students are heading back to their classrooms. At my workplace, which is a public library, that means newly silent rooms and a lull in patronage until the winter visitors from snowy states and Canada start coming in. In classrooms, it means that some kids are facing a yearly challenge: trying to hear the teacher and the classroom discussion.

Classrooms just aren't built for those with any degree of hearing loss to hear well. They have laminate or wood floors, hard walls, and many sharp edges for sound to bounce off of. Air conditioning or heating systems create sounds competing with others. Desks in a classroom are typically arranged in a row facing the teacher, which will be fine for a child trying to see the teacher but not useful for trying to follow student discussion. Sounds from outside or the hallway can easily filter in and disrupt hearing. Not only that, but the challenge of getting used to a teacher's voice, to pick out the sound reliably, can be difficult.

Classroom in Japan - similar to American classrooms.
Classrooms were always a challenge for me growing up. (I went to a mainstream public school with no special education and very little special treatment outside of yearly audiologist visits.) I could sit up front to hear the teacher, but following other discussion meant constantly twisting and turning in my seat to try to see other students' faces. Some kids thought I was weird for moving all the time. If somebody whispered my name, I would never hear it; if several people started talking at once it all blurred into a meaningless ocean of sound. I paid a lot of emphasis to what the teacher wrote on the board, always had my textbook open to make sure I was getting names and dates correct, and only raised my hand to start a discussion, not to join it.

That being said, I did well in an academic environment as a child. I regularly got A's, with B's in math, and was on the honor roll often. I always enjoyed writing, reading and history, and as a kid it seemed like I just absorbed knowledge around me. However, I always felt shy socially and I felt like I was never really a part of classroom discussions.

This article from the American Academy of Audiology touches on some of the problems with a traditional classroom environment for children. According to the article, 75% of the school day is spent listening. Even for children without a hearing loss, their auditory system is not fully developed until age 12, so they face similar challenges. They recommend that children sit close enough to the teacher to eliminate echoing and reverberation of sounds. While it's definitely a good idea for deaf children to be in front in a traditional auditory classroom situation, it does create the problem I mentioned before of not being able to hear peers. That can lead to feelings similar to mine, feeling shy or not really involved. Kids can be pretty tough on differences they perceive.

So how can students be helped in a traditional classroom with difficult acoustics? Part of it is educating the teacher. Making sure he or she is keeping an eye on the child can contribute to more success. The teacher, too, can move children into a roundtable discussion, or set discussions up in small groups.

While I was looking around online on this issue, I found this page, which includes a lot of links and information on acoustics-friendly classrooms.

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