Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen
Open-plan offices are noisy workplaces. Workers complain about concentration problems and a lack of privacy and have started to use all kinds of tools – such as headphones – to close themselves off from the outside world. The assumed and predicted benefits of these open workplaces, such as more collaboration, more socialisation, better communication, and increased productivity, are nowhere to be seen.
In terms of cognitive performance, Helena Jahncke and David Hallman, for example, found that workers working on a cognitive task in quieter private workspaces outperformed workers in open-plan offices by 14%. In fact, workers chose to email each other instead of talking to each other! So much for increased productivity and better communication. If adults – who are supposed to be relatively good at regulating their own behaviour – are hindered in their work because of all the noise in open-plan offices, we have to wonder what consequences open learning spaces have for children who have to try and learn in that type of environment.?
Spoiler alert 1: This blog isn’t a plea against open learning spaces and the like as pedagogic concept (tough it is a strange name when we know that less learning takes place in these spaces) nor against mobile phones in the classroom (though they should be banned).
However, we do want to place a critical note here. Tom Bennett OBE, author of Running the Room makes it crystal clear that the bottom line for teaching and learning is that the more order there is in the classroom (Yes, we know that this is pure anathema for some progressive pedagogues, educational innovators, and educational ‘artists’), the quieter, calmer, and more focussed the class is. And, as a consequence, children can concentrate better, work better, and learn better (and their teachers can teach better).
Spoiler alert 2: This is not a plea for strict classroom management, school suspensions for disruptive children, or how important it is to keep the 3 P’s – peace, purity, and periodicity – in the classroom.
What we will talk about is the – questionable – preference of some pedagogues and teachers for instructional methods in which ‘hands-on’ work/collaboration/cooperation, including conversation and discussions are the basis.
Side note: Paul was professor of computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL) and is, thus, not categorically against using collaborative learning. It just shouldn’t be the default mode of instruction.
Spoiler alert 3: This is a plea for less noise in the classroom while learning.
We have known since the 1970s that background noise (e.g., air traffic, railway lines, busy streets, construction work…) negatively affects children’s ability to learn how to read. For example, Bronzaft and McCarthy (1975) found that children in New York City, in grades 3 and 4 who sat on the side of a school where the elevated subway rushed past a few times an hour were 3-5 months behind students who were on the other, quieter side of the school building. By the time they were in 7th and 8th grade, they were almost a year behind! See also this New York Times article.
In a 2019 article on classroom noise and learning, Connolly and colleagues reported that as classroom noise levels increased, both reading performance and vocabulary acquisition declined. In 2015, Zhang and Navejar looked at the relationship between ambient noise and math performance in secondary education. They found that about 40% of students said they were bothered by noise and the more annoying the noise was to them, the lower their learning performance (math scores). Finally, Pujol and colleagues (2014) found that an increase in background noise of 10 decibels (dB) was accompanied by an average decrease of 5.5 points on a scale of 100 for 8- and 9-year-old students. To give some context: in a ‘normal’ class, the noise level is 45-50 dB, in a noisy class 60-65 dB, and in a class where there is a lot of talking and discussion 68-73 dB. Count out your losses!
The findings of these three studies point towards a clear link between classroom noise and learning; the more noise, the less learning. Unfortunately, we increasingly see that children not only are expected to learn in acoustically poor classrooms but also have to work together in teams, for example on projects or in differentiated reading or math groups, which comes with a lot of conversation and discussion and noise. We also see that children must read or do math in groups while the teacher walks from one group to the next to observe and explain. You can probably see how this brings lots of noise with it, and so…
If it’s difficult for adults to concentrate when there’s a lot of background talking in open-plan offices, it’s even worse for kids trying to learn (and teachers trying to teach) in today’s typical school classrooms. So please, shhhhh…
Bronzaft, A. L., & McCarthy, D. P. (1975). The effect of elevated train noise on reading ability. Environment and Behavior, 7(4), 517–527. https://doi.org/10.1177/001391657500700406
Connolly, D., Dockrell, J., Shield, B., Conetta, R., Mydlarz, C., & Cox, T. (2019). The effects of classroom noise on the reading comprehension of adolescents. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 145(1):372. https://doi.org/10.1121/1.5087126
Jahncke, H., & Hallman, D. M. (2020). Objective measures of cognitive performance in activity based workplaces and traditional office types. Journal of Environmental Psychology,72, 101503. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2020.101503
Pujol, S., Levain, JP., Houot, H. et al. (2014). Association between ambient noise exposure and school performance of children living in an urban area: A cross-sectional population-based study. Journal of Urban Health, 91, 256–271. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11524-013-9843-6
Zhang, B., & Navejar, R. (2018). Effects of ambient noise on the measurement of mathematics achievement for urban high school students. Urban Education, 53, 1195-1209. https://doi.org/10.1177/0042085915613555
And here are some additional reading materials:
 Quite odd, really, that we have invented these spaces in the first place. After all, we KNOW it’s hard to concentrate when it’s noisy and if that’s a problem for adults in open offices, it’s even worse for kids in school!
6 thoughts on “Silence, please!”
Regarding your article, SILENCE, PLEASE!, you have spotted an interesting trend: creatives want quiet, private workspaces. I’m reading a book right now, Digital Nomad, written by an anthropologist. She immersed herself in a community or hub of Digital Nomads to observe their behavior and interactions up close. I’m also enrolled in a seminar, Just-In-Time & Just-Enough Learning for Nomad Workers, led by Ray Jimenez. The seminar is trying to tease out implications for learning design. A blog post may follow to discuss the implications. Any one interested in this topic, please contact me.
George intersting. I will contact you also on linkedin and look at your webiste. I’m an antropologist and educational designer. I often use also participative observation. When I design I always go back at the base of how we learn. Relational cognition is important in learning and is not well designed. The frts step to do this is selfreflection… and of course this also need some quit space/ place and interactions so you attedn inter & intrapersonal learning. Thank you for your reaction!
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