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Pupils' potential put at risk by noise

Our scientific understanding about noise effects on children's learning is robust, but unacknowledged compared with the slippery concepts of learning styles and multiple-intelligence.

This bias is particularly worrying because of the highly active nature of learning that teachers will foster as they endeavour to target the four capacities underpinning A Curriculum for Excellence. That focus will cause a significant rise in classroom acoustics and may erode learning. Once "noise" becomes normalised in classrooms, we are less likely to "hear" critiques pointing out its downsides.

Perhaps noise has been overlooked because it is financially inexpensive to make changes to policy-rhetoric about ideas of learning, compared with ensuring that classroom acoustics do not impair learning and do not do so in ways that produce inequalities among learners.

Excessive noise distracts and annoys teachers and students. In England, legislation sets guidelines on the acoustics of schools. These aim at moderating two sources of noise in the classroom: external, such as traffic or aircraft, and noise generated by children.

Dockrell et al discovered that if, despite the legislation, average noise levels are higher than the official guidelines, learning is damaged as a result. Like many other social scientists, they conclude that this compromises the child's capacity to hear the teacher and peers.

The long-term memory of children is impaired, reading comprehension is affected and their levels of attention are weakened. Those with additional needs are disproportionately affected. We cannot be sanguine since children do not accommodate to noise either; the longer the exposure, the higher its negative effect on learning.

Noise also discriminates among certain types of learner. The noisy constructivist classroom is less suited to the conditions in which children with introverted personalities flourish. Anxious children also learn less under conditions of excessive noise. And noise reduces our tolerance for frustration, therefore contributing to indiscipline.

To add to these complex consequences, boys and girls differ: in the mornings, boys tend to do less well on numerical reasoning tasks if the environment is noisy; in the afternoon, they perform better when it is. Female learners show the reverse pattern. As all teachers know, time of day matters.

In summary, the new curriculum seeks to promote successful learners, confident individuals, effective contributors and responsive citizens. To reach these worthy goals, classrooms will become noisier places. All such major reforms appear to assume the wisdom of "sameness". In their use of a particular concept of fairness, it becomes anathema for them to raise questions of gender and personality differences among children.

In view of our scientifically-sound knowledge of noise on learning, it seems misguided that we appear to work with monolithic visions of the curriculum and of how classrooms operate. We are putting at risk the potential of groups of children to reach their full capacities while favouring others - albeit sometimes in the mornings only.

Chris Holligan is senior lecturer in education at the University of the West of Scotland.

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