If you step into a newly-built school in Victoria these days, chances are you will see classrooms that look very different to the classrooms most of us spent our own school years in as children.
On a visit to a new primary school in Melbourne, Grattan Institute’s education team entered a large room that contained two classes, separated not by a wall but a wide pillar that left ample room for teachers and students to move between the two ‘classroom’ spaces.
In the first space, students leant forward at their desks, concentrating hard on their teacher. The room was noisy – very noisy. The teacher was only metres from her students, but her voice was all-but drowned out by the sound of the second ‘classroom’, on the other side of the room.
Unfortunately, this scene is repeated every day in many school buildings across Victoria and Australia.
Arguments in favour of ‘open-plan’ classrooms heave with buzzwords, such as ‘21st Century learning’ and ‘innovative design’.
The idea is to have flexible classroom spaces that can cater for large groups of students, while also allowing students to break into smaller groups, directing their own learning while receiving support from a team of teachers working collaboratively. Sounds good, right?
Well, maybe not. There are now lots of open-plan classrooms, but there is little robust evidence about their impact on student learning.
A 2018 systematic review of 5,521 studies that looked at educational spaces and academic achievement found only 21 relevant studies since the 1960s. And of these, the studies showed open-plan environments had mixed effects on academic performance.
What we do know with confidence is that too much background noise is bad for learning.
A 2015 Australian study compared speech perception in traditional and open-plan Kindergarten classrooms and found that noise coming from other classes in the open-plan setting made it more likely that students would misunderstand their teacher.
The study found that traditional classrooms were the only classroom type to be within or close to recommended noise levels.
A Victorian study of six primary schools, published this year, had a similar finding: students, particularly students with the poorest attention and listening skills, tended to have slower reading development in open-plan classrooms, probably due to these spaces being noisier.
Many open-plan learning spaces are also hard to square with internationally recognised, evidence-based strategies for high-impact teaching, many of which are endorsed by the Victorian government.
For example, explicit teaching – where the teacher explains key concepts and procedures clearly and models how to solve problems to the whole class – is difficult to do well in a noisy open-plan environment.
Imagine trying to teach division of fractions to your Year 5 class while the Year 4 class on the other side of the pillar practices their Mandarin oral language presentations.
Of course, traditional classrooms can also be noisy, but a 2013 UK survey of 2,500 high school students across six schools found that students at schools with traditional classrooms were more positive about their school acoustics than students at schools with open-plan classrooms.
Too much noise is bad for all students. But it is particularly worrying for some students, such as students with hearing impairments, auditory processing disorders, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorders.
In fact, it is inconsistent with the Victorian government’s stated priority of ensuring schools are inclusive spaces that cater for students with additional learning needs.
The Victorian government should take steps to ensure that all classrooms across the state are genuinely fit-for-purpose and can support the learning of all students, including those with additional learning needs.
The government should do a state-wide audit of school buildings, and provide funding to remediate open-plan classrooms so teachers can reduce noisy distractions.
And it should follow the lead of NSW, which recently promised to cease building open-plan classrooms after repeated complaints from teachers, students, and parents.
The Victorian government has committed to spending an extra $1.8 billion on school infrastructure over the next four years. While investments in school infrastructure are of course welcome, the danger is that many classrooms may be built in ways that undermine effective teaching.
Classroom designs should not create more work for teachers, just to make sure their students can hear them – and each other.
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