George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

Auditory Awareness: Are Students Hearing the Lesson?


How many choir performances, or especially school plays have you attended where you could not hear the performers clearly? No matter how well they performed, I benefitted little from the experience if the sound system was poor. Nothing is more frustrating than attending your own child's performance and not being able to hear them. A while back, I went to International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) here in San Antonio. It was cool to see all the new trends in technology for education, but of the things that I saw planted a seed in my brain. It was simply this: Use technology to make sure every student can hear you in the classroom.

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My daughter, Mercedes, attends a school of the arts here in San Antonio so we go to a lot of performances. Luckily we are able to enjoy her performances because, even though the school has a very old theater, it invested in a good sound system with wireless mikes for the main performers. How much do we invest in the classrooms to make sure that all students can hear well?

Tremendous effort is expended to make sure the students have everything they need to do well on standardized tests, but I fear we are ignoring the most critical element of teaching. The most wonderful presentations, discussions, and participation could be occurring in our classroom, but if the student cannot clearly hear what is being said, how do we expect them to learn well?

Classroom Design and Noisy Distractions

First of all, classrooms are not designed to handle sound like a choir room or band room. Even new classrooms do not usually meet acoustic standards. Most classrooms have flat, hard walls to post things on with little sound insulation between rooms (frequently I had teachers interrupt my learning activity to tell me that we were being too loud), linoleum floors for easy cleaning, the ceiling tiles are rarely "acoustic," and square configurations to maximize space. But if you ask any sound engineer, these are the worst configurations for sound management. Being a Spanish teacher, I wanted my students to talk, but the noise from the chatter became unbearable until I convinced my principal to get carpet in the room.

Classrooms are very noisy places and not just because of the rowdy students (check out these management tips for noise levels) and little attention is paid to competing sounds that most classrooms have. For example, most classrooms have computers. Each computer has a whirring, noise-making fan and each one adds to the noise level of the classroom before the students make any noise at all.

When LCD projectors are purchased we look at LUX levels, size, and price, but do we ever consider how much noise (decibels) the projector makes trying to cool that very hot lamp? What about the thumping of the air conditioning, whistling ceiling fans, the hum of the fluorescent ballasts, and gurgling plumbing? What about the sounds coming from outside: students talking in the hallways, gym class loudly playing outside, noise from the freeways, railroad noises, the landscaping crew cutting the grass and weed eating outside your window, and my personal favorite are the Lockheed C5 Galaxy airplanes (huge tank carrying monsters) and F15 fighters that thundered and screamed overhead from the airbase nearby. When those went overhead, teaching and learning stopped.

Minimizing Noise Distractions

School administrators can fix some of these noises by designing better classrooms, installing carpet or sound dampening materials in classrooms, better scheduling of passing times, and requesting that grounds maintenance happen during lunch or weekends. Teachers can fix some of the problems by establishing noise level standards (or a cool website to monitor classroom noise levels), taking loud activities outside in consideration of other classes, putting up sound-dampening wall-hangings or flags, or turning off noise-making computers and LCD projectors. Most of the worst sound offenders, however, are completely out of our control. What is left to do? We can work on increasing the volume to make sure all students can hear.

As a teacher, I learned that my voice is a powerful tool in classroom management and instruction. I realized early on that I did not have to always be louder than the students. I preferred to not talk "over" the students but I could employ my "teacher voice" when I needed too. I never considered that if I was speaking to the students from the front of the room, how well the students in the back of the room could hear me with noise of the air-conditioning humming in their ears. It never occurred to me that if I was wandering around the classroom, talking as I walked, that the students behind me could probably not hear me well. I unconsciously assumed that if students couldn't hear me clearly, they would let me know, right?

Well, now that I am sensitive to this, to solve this, I could have just spoken louder. This raises other concerns. How I could increase my teacher voice without becoming strident in my tone (I hated hearing teachers that shouted and screamed at the students)? How do I help students farther away hear better without the students nearby going deaf?

At the ISTE conference I found an answer. When you go to the movies, plays, or even concerts, the rooms are equipped with a sound system so everyone can hear. Why don't we do that in classrooms? Isn't it critical that everyone be able to hear? It turns out, this is not really new (it was new to me) but schools have been doing what is called "sound reinforcement" for a while (for research about this read this article). This means that you place speakers in the classrooms so every student can hear, and the teacher, or whoever is talking carries a microphone.

At ISTE I saw systems where the teacher wears a wireless microphone around his or her neck and if it is the students that are talking to the whole class, they pass around a handheld version to use. Certainly using microphones is not as natural as simply talking, but the benefits of assuring that all the students can hear all instruction, in my opinion outweigh the inconvenience. Even without implementing a full-blown sound reinforcement program, teachers who are acoustically aware can do a lot to help students hear more clearly.

What works for you in classroom sound reinforcement and noise reduction? Please share in the comments section below.