It’s no surprise that loud, unwanted sounds can be disruptive and even damaging to ears. However, even background noise like the air conditioning running, the refrigerator humming and delivery vans idling outside can be cause for concern. According to Nina Kraus, a neurobiology professor at Northwestern University who studies sound, ongoing noises that people claim to “tune out” are unlikely to harm ears, but they can still have a profound effect on the brain. Repeated exposure to noisy environments has many negative impacts including increased stress, problems with memory and difficulty concentrating, writes Kraus in her book “Of Sound Mind: How Our Brain Constructs a Meaningful Sonic World.”
Students’ developing brains are particularly susceptible to noisy environments. A study on New York City public schools showed that students in a classroom facing loud train tracks had lower reading levels than students in a classroom shielded from the noise. Learners in the room exposed to the sounds of the trains were on average three to eleven months behind their peers. When the New York Transit Authority installed padding on the railroad tracks and the school made updates to the classroom to reduce the noise, the reading level disparity disappeared.
Repeated exposure to noise doesn’t just affect language tasks like reading, it also has a negative impact on students’ ability to do visual tasks, such as recalling images or concentrating on objects. In one experiment, researchers asked subjects to track a moving ball on a computer with a mouse while other balls moved around the screen. Those who were exposed to long-term noise had more difficulty completing the task.
“There are sounds that people think of as being safe, but they really aren’t, ” says Kraus. “Even if we’re not paying attention to noise, it is having an effect on us and it is having an effect on us on multiple levels. And one is very much our ability to think.”
With lockers slamming and chatty students, educators can’t have complete control over the sounds in a school. Yet opportunities to reduce noise can be found all around the school building. “There are so many noises that we do have a choice about,” says Kraus, who urges schools to become more aware of the sounds that students are encountering every day and consider which sounds they can eliminate or reduce.
Changing out buzzing light fixtures, installing quiet HVAC systems and updating insulation in the walls and ceiling are large-scale solutions that can minimize noise in school buildings. There are also simpler changes to students’ sonic environment that can make a meaningful difference for learners. For example, some schools have gotten rid of their school bells in an effort to eliminate extra noise.
Improving the soundscape for learners can be as simple as closing the door to the classroom or shutting the windows when students need to concentrate. “Schools are notoriously reverberant and not very friendly with respect to dampening sound,” says Kraus about echoey hallways and classrooms. She suggests laying down rugs if possible, because they absorb sound and keep chairs from scraping noisily across the floor. Additionally, teachers can choose to decorate their walls with wall hangings or student work that uses fabric or fiber to dampen sounds. “So much of our experience as people happens without our conscious awareness and yet these forces are there,” says Kraus. “And sound is, from an evolutionary standpoint, a tremendously important part of how we connect with the world.”
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