The importance of acoustics in learning: an interview with Shane Cryer, Ecophon

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Shane Cryer manages the education sector in the UK and Ireland for Swedish acoustic experts, Ecophon. After a career in the construction industry, having studied building and property surveying, he now concentrates on building acoustics. Working closely with organisations such as The Institute of Acoustics (IOA) and the RIBA, Shane has been promoting the new BB93: Acoustic Design of Schools standard via CPD seminars, conferences and articles in the trade press. Shane also manages several acoustic research projects around the UK.

Tell me about your first school.

My first school was In Rayleigh, Essex. A late 60’s early 70’s system build in a suburban environment, with a decent sized playing field and a hearing impaired department.  It also had a couple of so-called temporary demountable classrooms where I spent a year, overheating in the summer. But, I enjoyed school there, and the large green playing field to run around on.

Do you remember a particular place that you liked in one of your schools?

My musty, old, 1940’s English classroom.  I seem to recall the acoustics were good but it was a small class-size of approximately 22. Large windows meant a good amount of natural daylight but it didn’t overheat, being on the north side of the school. I was just one of two lads in the top stream English class; I enjoyed the subject and being in the minority sex.

And somewhere you disliked?

A 1970’s, open-plan primary school, also in Essex. I found it chaotic and don’t recall accomplishing much in the way of learning.

Do you remember noise or quiet as a particular feature of either of these places?

Good acoustics in the secondary school English classroom, noisy in the open plan primary school.

Did you learn to read at school?

Like learning to tie my own shoelaces, I had a mother who felt it was important to get me started on reading before I went to school. I do, however, remember reading to my teacher and bringing home school reading books to practise.

What led you to become interested in acoustics in schools?

I have always been in construction and studied building and property surveying. When I joined the Swedish company Ecophon, I was trained in room acoustics and became involved in publicising the Heriot-Watt school acoustic study, as well as the more recent Essex Study.

What do you think professionals, including educators and architects, most often overlook in relation to the design of acoustics in schools?

The importance of room acoustics in learning, and the detrimental effect of high background noise levels on the well-being of teachers and pupils is often overlooked. Also, typically, the school hall is left untreated. Architects tend to be ocular, prioritising form, function, colour and texture. Sound, of course, has none of these features.

How does your work benefit pupils?

Our research feeds into product development and hopefully influences acoustic standards positively. Ultimately, the result is classrooms where all students can hear every consonant, learn, focus and memorise in optimal conditions*.

Do you think that there is a case for having private or secluded places inside the school building as a feature of the acoustic design?

Absolutely! In fact, many students would, and do benefit from places that are quiet but not so secluded that a bullying risk is introduced.  A significant percentage of students are introverts and prefer to work and learn alone, and quietly.** In December 2014, pupils with autism were added to the SEN of Building Bulletin 93. The majority of them need to escape the daily school routine to reboot. And students with a hearing impairment, particularly cochlear implants, are quickly exhausted as they strain to focus and listen even in partially noisy spaces. They need to recharge their mental and physical batteries.

If you could change something about schools overnight, what would it be?

That every school met the design guidance contained in Hawkins Brown/Architect’s Journal publication #Great Schools: ‘a well-proportioned classroom which has appropriate storage, with just the right amount of display, is flooded with natural light, has good acoustics, no glare, good air quality, a comfortable temperature, sufficient space to accommodate a range of activities for the right number of students (which) will improve educational outcomes’.  The publication contains great case studies, including Burntwood School, the Stirling Prize winner by Alford Hall Monaghan Morris. Other contributors include giants of education design Mairi Johnson, Aecom (formerly EFA) and Sharon Wright of Creative Wit.

What is the biggest investment that should be made in school buildings?

Aside from the necessity of making schools water-tight and ensuring the right amount of natural daylight, I would like to see all schools meet and hopefully exceed the minimum BB93 acoustic design of schools standard, Building Regulations Part E4. In terms of research, I would like to see a much larger sample of schools study the long-term impact of good acoustics upon attainment and inclusion for pupils with special educational needs. Research from Heriot-Watt and the renowned Essex Study have both linked teacher and pupil health, student behaviour and attainment to the acoustic environment.***

*Higher noise level = lower academic performance in schools = increased stress in both teachers and children, Shield and Dockrell, (2003).

**Susan Cain’s TED talk: The Power of Introverts

*** Copies of these research studies are available free of charge by email from shane.cryer@ecophon.co.uk

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