Learning in inappropriate spaces?

When “assessing the impact of education”, argue Edgerton, McKechnie and McEwen (2011, p.34), “researchers have tended to focus on what is taught or how it is delivered. Limited attention has been paid to where pupils learn.”


In this post, I propose some reasons why paying attention to the “where” of learning in schools is such a pressing issue.


When I worked as a specialist reading teacher in primary education I would ‘withdraw’ groups of children or individuals from their classroom to another part of the school. Withdrawal of children by adults — usually classroom assistants, volunteers or counsellors — is a common practice in schools in the UK and gives children an opportunity to learn something different or in a different way while the rest of the class is engaged in a lesson.  


I was lucky enough to have the use of a tiny room at the top of the school for these lessons. I call it a room but it was actually more like a through-way between a busy stairwell and the office of the deputy head, into which staff ebbed and flowed on their way to meetings. However, when I visited my colleagues working in the same role in other schools, I was extremely thankful for that little room. At least I wasn’t spending each day working in a noisy corridor or, like one colleague, a windowless, converted toilet.


Whenever I began working with a new pupil, it usually took some time to win their trust and persuade them to read aloud with me and having a quiet space where we were relatively free of interruptions was helpful. Even once I had won their confidence, I often noticed how children drew back from the task at hand or fell silent as a line of children or an adult visitor walked past or leaned over them to see what they were reading.


As Reading Recovery expert Georgie Hughes notes: “I’ve seen teachers having to read in corridors with children and they’re OK until a whole class has to walk past and then they’re either distracted by that or they’ll be really, really quiet.”

This reaction by the young reader shouldn’t really come as a surprise. After all, who amongst us enjoys being watched when we are learning to do something new or difficult?


I do believe that it is valuable to withdraw children from the classroom for extra tuition, sometimes children need to find their confidence with reading or writing or maths away from their peers in the classroom, as Georgie suggests:

“they start to feel more comfortable because they’re reading out loud, nobody else is listening to them.  When I’ve seen them in class, when there’s lots of other children around you can see them looking at other children and you can almost get inside their head and see that they’re worried about what might be said to them or if they’re doing it wrong.”


But when children are taken out of the classroom to learn in other spaces, shouldn’t those spaces feel at least as secure and comfortable as the classroom, if not more so, to give those children more confidence in learning whatever they are practising?


During my doctoral studies, I made an audit of several schools, documenting in each one the types of spaces into which children were withdrawn from the classroom. I came across children learning in staff rooms, school libraries and converted cloakrooms, which were often rather well-adapted, see The phantom cloakroom but most often children were withdrawn to work in corridors, dining rooms and school halls. The majority of these spaces were thrown-together, noisy, poorly lit, often with terrible acoustics. The most problematic example that I discovered was of children learning to read in a screened-off area in an extremely reverberant and busy school hall with classrooms on three sides of it and the main staircase on the fourth. Here, a group of children would read every morning with their classroom room assistant.


Pakeman reading screen - blur


Often in schools the problem is that there are so few available spaces for withdrawing children from classrooms that a table in a dining room becomes a precious commodity for a busy classroom assistant looking for somewhere to teach. The scarcity of spaces may desensitise the users to problematic features of the space, even ones that might have a substantial impact on children’s learning.


Evidence that these spaces are unsuitable for teaching and learning has been identified when researchers have examined the relationship between learning, noise and acoustic design. Woolner and Hall (2010) offer a valuable review of the negative impacts of noise on pupils’ learning, drawing on a wide range of data from a variety of disciplines. Flagg-Williams, Rubin & Aquino-Russell, (2011) found that young children are more likely to be adversely affected by noisy conditions than older children and adults. As Klatte, Bergstrom & Lachman suggest, this could be due to an increased susceptibility to distraction by non-verbal sounds (Klatte et al., 2013).  Children with hearing loss or impairment are, unsurprisingly, challenged by poor acoustic conditions (Nelson & Soli, 2000; Bradlow, Kraus & Hayes, 2003) and children with special educational needs are also more likely to be disadvantaged by noisy environments (Shield & Dockrell, 2003; Ljung, Israelsson & Hygge, 2013; Wall, 2015). Furthermore, speech intelligibility is a vital component of learning to read and high-frequency sounds can be masked by an environment with background noises, meaning that “spoken messages” from teaching staff to pupils may be audible but not intelligible (Pickard & Bradley, 2001; Flagg-Williams et al, 2011).


There are regulations and standards for acoustics in schools, of course. Building Bulletin 93, which outlines acoustic standards for schools in England (DfE/EFA, 2015), indicates that the upper limit for indoor ambient noise levels in a classroom or special educational needs room should be 35 decibels (dB) (2015, p. 19), while the upper limit for atria and dining rooms is 45 decibels: there is a significant difference between these two upper levels that reflects where architects and policy-makers expect children to be learning to read and write i.e. in a classroom rather than a dining room.  


When children are withdrawn from a classroom which has been designed to minimize reverberation to a dining hall, which has not, this may have a negative impact upon their learning. And if, as many researchers suggest, noise is detrimental to the progress of early readers (Bronzaft, 1981; Bronzaft and McCarthy, 1975; Evans & Maxwell, 1997; Klatte, Bergstrom & Lachman, 2013; Maxwell & Evans, 2000; Shield and Dockrell, 2008), then an investment in alternative, well-designed areas for teaching outside the classroom is vital. Small-group rooms are provided for precisely this purpose but as they are often shared between at least three classes of children at any one time, they are in such demand that teachers and teaching assistants resort to teaching in halls and corridors. Additionally, in view of the prevalence of the teaching of reading in English through phonics, which depends heavily on speech intelligibility, ensuring that children are learning to read in conditions that are acoustically sound is even more important.


Of course, this isn’t to suggest that classrooms are always the perfect place to learn either. In a Finnish study of 14 schools, Sala and Rantala (2016, p. 82) discovered that only a small proportion of the classrooms assessed met the Finnish national standards for acoustic criteria and not one fulfilled the international criteria for intelligibility of speech.


How can we do better? My first suggestion is to recognise that in primary education, at least, a significant number of children in each class, leave their classroom to study the basic curriculum of reading, writing and maths elsewhere in their school. Auditing the suitability of these spaces would be a step towards to creating change. Secondly, we might recognise that there is a negative consequence to delivering smaller, cheaper school buildings and that is a paucity of additional, suitable learning spaces beyond the classroom. If teaching staff have a limited choice of spaces in which to provide extra tuition then children will continue to be taken to places that are unsuitable in terms of acoustics, lighting, ventilation and comfort. Thirdly, as I argued in my previous post about the spatial implications of curricula, policy and pedagogic decisions, post-occupancy evaluation and an awareness by architects and designers about what is actually being taught and learned in schools could prompt some clever ways of addressing this issue. Finally, even though there are minimum standards for acoustic performance that vary between classrooms and other types of school accommodation, we shouldn’t imagine that school staff are familiar with these or even have the possibility of choosing another location in which to teach.


We need a joined up conversation about school design, about what is taught and learned and about where that learning and teaching takes place. This conversation needs to involve architects, teachers, policy-makers, contractors and researchers.


If you have any comments or photographs of designs that add to this discussion, please let us know.


Bradlow, A.R., Kraus, N., & Hayes, E. (2003). Speaking clearly for learning-impaired children: sentence perception in noise. Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research, 46(1), 80-97.

Bronzaft, A.L. (1981). The effect of a noise abatement program on reading ability. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 1, 215-222.

Bronzaft, A.L., & McCarthy, D. (1975). The effect of elevated train noise on reading ability. Environment and Behavior, 7(4), 517-527.

Department for Education/Education Funding Agency (2015). Acoustic design of schools: performance standards. Building bulletin 93. Retrieved from https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/400784/BB93_February_2015.pdf

Edgerton, E., McKechnie, J., & McEwen, S. (2011). Students’ perceptions of their school environments and the relationship with educational outcomes. Educational & Child Psychology, 28(1), 33-45.

Evans, G. W., & Maxwell, L. (1997). Chronic noise exposure and reading deficits: The mediating effects of language acquisition. Environment and Behavior, 29, 638-656.

Flagg-Williams, J.B., Rubin, R.L., & Aquino-Russell, C.E. (2011). Classroom soundscapes. Educational & Child Psychology, 28(1), 89-99.

Klatte, M., Bergstrom, K., & Lachman, T. (2013). Does noise affect learning? A short review on noise effects on cognitive performance in children. Frontiers of Psychology, 4, 1-6.

Ljung, R., Israelsson, K., & Hygge, S. (2013). Speech intelligibility and recall of spoken material heard at different signal-to-noise ratios and the role played by working memory capacity. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 27, 198–203. doi:10.1002/acp.2896

Maxwell, L., & Evans, G. (2000). The effects of noise on pre-school children’s pre-reading skills. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 20, 91-97.

Nelson, P., & Soli, S. (2000). Acoustical barriers to learning: children at risk in every classroom. Language, Speech & Hearing Services in Schools, 31(4), 356-361.

Picard, M., & Bradley, J.S. (2001). Revisiting speech interference in classrooms. Audiology, 40(5), 221-244.

Sala, E., & Rantala, L. (2016). Acoustics and activity noise in school classrooms in Finland. Applied Acoustics, 114, 252–259

Shield, B., & Dockrell, J. (2003). The effects of noise on children at school: a review. Journal of Building Acoustics, 10(2), 97-106.

Shield, B., & Dockrell, J. (2008). The effects of environmental and classroom noise on the academic attainments of primary school children. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 123(1), 133-144.

Wall, K. (2015). The built environment of primary schools: interactions between the space, learning and pupil needs. In P. Woolner (Ed.), School design together (pp. 32-54). Abingdon: Routledge.

Woolner, P., & Hall. E. (2010). Noise in schools: a holistic approach to the issue. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 7(1), 3255-3269.




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