On classrooms and classroom acoustic design, lack of.

by Fjm

Yesterday I talked to people about the struggle to hear when I’m teaching a group of students and someone, in all innocence, said “at least it isn’t an 18th century lecture hall”.

Folks, if we still used 18th century lecture halls I would have been able to function a lot longer. 18th century lecture halls were designed for the unaided voice, and for a population that expected to lose hearing with age and didn’t have hearing aids. 40% of us lose some hearing after the age of 40 after all. When I stand at the front of one of those curved, steep tiered lecture theatres, all those audience voices are directed at me, I am the focus of the sound.

Modern classrooms are all sorts of shapes and they each raise issues. Here are just three (there are others).

The classroom full of tables for group work: suddenly a third of the class have their backs to me, a third are side on, and the only way I can hear is if I walk right up to someone.

The rooms where the microphone is at the very front of the room and there is a huge empty space in the centre, into which the teacher walks to talk. Which means the students with hearing impairments can’t hear a thing because while the teacher is conforming to current pedagogy and moving around, the technology is still there, fixed on the podium.

The classroom with sound baffles so that students can focus on the sound from the front of the class (ie the lecturer): that was fascinating, it was only the day I went to the back to listen to a guest that I realised the classroom was deliberately designed to make the lecturer voice central and to dampen student voices. I could hear every word the speaker at the front said.

I only ever found one book on classroom acoustic design (I’ve just tried to find it and can’t) and of twelve essays every single one assumed it was the student who might have a hearing impairment. But 40% of us will lose some hearing as we age, making it far more likely to be the teacher,




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