Excessive noise can be a problem in any classroom. Discussions may start quietly but can quickly build up into an excited hubbub and the teacher may repeatedly have to re-establish a working atmosphere.
The measures they use range from ineffective "shushing" to threats of sanctions. The main culprits are called on by name and told to work quietly or "keep the noise down". After repeated requests, teachers may even demand silence , which is usually impossible to achieve.
In an open-plan school the problem of escalating noise can be worse. At Wheatfields, a 400-pupil junior school near St Ives in Cambridgeshire, teachers decided to take a pro-active approach to noise. Although it was not excessive, a quiet working atmosphere would inevitably be disrupted by an excited discussion in a nearby area.
The first decision was to take a positive attitude. Rather than talking about "noise" - the negative aspect of children's conversations - we would refer to specific "voice levels", giving reasons why particular levels should be used. The levels would then be taught and practised by the children.
Five voice levels were selected and colour-coded for ease of recognition. These were: * Silence: we talk only in emergencies so we don't disturb other people working. Put your hand up if you want to speak to the teacher.
* Partner voice: only the person we are speaking to can hear what we are saying.
* Table voice: one person at a time speaks and the others on the table listen. Only the people on our table can hear what we are saying.
* Class voice: one person at a time in the class speaks and the others listen. Everyone in the class can hear what we are saying.
* Playground voice: we use this voice to call to people who are a long way away.
It was also agreed that some areas in the school would be permanently blue (silence) or green (partner voice) zones, such as the school hall and the corridors leading to it, as these had adjacent administrative offices. These levels were explained by the head in assembly and each class went on to design an illustrated voice level chart.
All the children then were asked to practise the different voice levels to help them to become aware of the voices they normally used and to learn what was meant by the new terms. For example, pairs of children were asked to talk to each other with their "partner" voice so that no one else could hear.
During this stage classes also discussed when it would be appropriate to use the different levels. For example, if most people needed to speak in a classroom at the same time this could mean that up to half the class could be talking, so partner voices would be necessary. When the louder table voice was being used, only a small number of pupils should be talking at any one time and only those on the same table should hear what was being said.
At the start of an activity the class selected the voice level they would use and the chart was set accordingly. This process proved useful not only for the classroom but also for a visit to the local museum - the children agreed beforehand that partner voices were appropriate.
Initially some teachers would inadvertently disturb a quiet partner voice atmosphere by using a "class voice" when talking to one child. Those teachers who spoke quietly and sensitively tended to foster the working atmosphere.
The work of Bell Rogers (The Language of Discipline) proved especially helpful in devising positive corrective language, such as "remember to use your partner voice, John", but it was not easy for teachers to use it automatically. The old ways of checking noise, particularly the reaction "shush!", frequently emerged.
Rogers suggests that teachers could use gestures to correct behaviour. Miming "turning down the volume" or pointing to the appropriate level on the class chart were immediately understood and very effective, as was the index finger to the lips for silence.
A smile, a raised thumb, or a quiet "thanks" to complete the message was used when they co-operated.
It became apparent that most activities required partner voices and even though the class themselves decided on this at the beginning of the session it was felt they would soon become disenchanted or bored with the system if the other levels were rarely used. Teachers made an effort to devise activities which needed a table voice and the children then practised taking turns in speaking and listening to what others on their table had to say.
It was also possible to use logical consequences rather than arbitrary sanctions when individuals or groups persistently used too loud a level. If they did not heed a warning they could be brought back during the lunch hour for a five- or 10-minute "practice session".
Wheatfields has been operating the scheme for a year and teachers and pupils have responded very favourably.
Though classes do still become noisy now and again, there has been an improvement both in reducing the levels of noise and in the teachers' ability to subdue it in positive and effective ways.
John Robertson is an educational consultant and the author of Effective Classroom Control (Hodder Stoughton). Nigel Webb is headteacher of Wheatfields School.