Elementary Classrooms Are Too Noisy for Kids to Learn
The standard small-group rotation approach creates background noise that interferes with learning.
It’s hard to concentrate when there’s lots of talking in the background. That’s a problem for adults in open-plan offices, but it’s an even worse one for kids in the typical elementary school classroom.
A few years ago, while researching a book, I was observing a first-grade class of about 20 students that was in its usual state of hubbub: children working (or pretending to work) in small groups at tables, some talking while collaborating on worksheets, others arguing loudly. A tiny girl whispered something to the teacher that prompted her to announce to the class that the girl had something to say.
“Please be quiet!” the girl pleaded. “I can’t think with all this noise.”
The teacher nodded approvingly but did nothing more, and after a brief pause the noise returned to its previous high level.
I was reminded of this incident while reading Annie Murphy Paul’s recent book, The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain. In a chapter on “Thinking with Built Spaces,” Paul writes that because intense thinking is an unnatural activity for humans, “our minds require external structure in order to pull it off.”
As people began living in closer proximity, Paul explains, distractions increased—and walls were built in response. “The wall was designed to protect us from the cognitive load of having to keep track of the activities of strangers,” she quotes one expert as saying.
Then, starting around 1950, walls began coming down. One reason was that building fewer walls saved money, but another was the notion that “open-plan” offices would lead to greater collaboration and creativity. But humans are hard-wired to pay attention to unexpected sounds, especially speech and social interactions, making the open-plan office a recipe for continual distraction and decreased productivity.
As problematic as noise can be for adults in offices, it poses even greater risks in classrooms. Studies have shown that background noise can reduce efficiency and lower test scores for adolescents. And younger students may suffer more. Background noise can interfere with their ability to hear the individual sounds in words, a key skill in learning to read.
Studies going back to the 1970s, for example, have found that children in classrooms near airports and noisy train lines have a higher incidence of reading difficulties. Those findings have prompted noise abatement measures like a Federal Aviation Administration program that funds soundproofing in schools located along flight paths.
Fortunately, the educational counterpart to the open-plan office—the “open classroom”—is no longer with us. Starting in the late 1960s, the fad led to thousands of schools with no interior walls. The theory was that children would learn best if they could roam freely from one “learning center” to another, unconstrained by divisions among age groups or subjects. As at my own neighborhood elementary school, such arrangements were quickly found to be unworkable. Temporary, often flimsy, partitions were soon installed or re-erected. (My neighborhood school got its permanent walls back only a few years ago.)
At the same time, though, we’ve not only overlooked but even encouraged a standard elementary classroom practice that is a smaller-scale version of the open classroom: the organization of instruction around multiple “small groups,” especially for reading.
The typical elementary school day devotes two hours or more to reading. While the teacher may deliver a brief whole-class “mini-lesson”—usually focused on a reading comprehension skill or strategy like “finding the main idea” of a text—for the bulk of that time children are working in groups of perhaps five or six, organized by ability level.
The groups rotate through “centers” or “stations” every 20 or 30 minutes, with each group taking a turn working directly with the teacher. The other groups are given worksheets or digital devices and in most classrooms, which have only one teacher, are expected to work independently. That was the situation in the noisy first-grade classroom I observed, where a rotation system was also used for math—the subject that accounts for almost all the rest of the elementary schedule.
Noise doesn’t just make it hard for kids to hear the sounds in words, important as that is. It can also make it hard to hear the teacher’s instructions: it’s been found that children aged six to nine have more difficulty than adults distinguishing one person’s voice among many. (A UK-based company has recently come up with a device that can help students focus on the teacher’s voice, although it seems to be least successful when the competing sound is loud noise from other students.)
Children are also more likely than adults to be distracted by novel sounds, according to a recent study. Other studies have found that even low levels of background noise can interfere with memory and learning and cause students to experience stress.
Small-group instruction has become so deeply entrenched that few educators question the idea. But if pressed to justify it, they would probably say that children learn more if they get more individualized attention from the teacher—and if they’re working at their individual reading level.
But reading expert Timothy Shanahan has reviewed the evidence on both of those counts and found it lacking. While there are studies showing that small-group instruction is more effective than whole-class instruction, better readers benefit from it more than struggling ones. And, says Shanahan, the overall benefits get canceled out if you take into account that for most of the “reading block,” kids will be learning—or supposedly learning—on their own. From what I’ve observed in multiple classrooms, most activities kids are asked to do at reading “centers” are of dubious value, and often children aren’t even actually doing them.
What about the idea that having students read at their individual levels will turn them into better readers? Shanahan has found no evidence for that. In any event, given the well-established finding that reading ability varies with the text and how much the reader knows about the topic, the very concept of fixed reading levels rests on shaky ground.
None of this is to say that classrooms should be silent as tombs. Certainly there are times when some noise makes sense, depending on the task. And not all classrooms are as noisy as that first-grade one was during center time. But even low levels of speech in the background can distract kids, and it’s unrealistic to expect young children to direct their own learning for 90 minutes or more without at least some chatting—not to mention that the teacher is necessarily speaking with one group while other children are at centers.
There’s a place for small-group instruction, but it makes no sense to rely on it for hours every day—especially for reading comprehension. Rather than having kids independently practice the comprehension “skill of the week” on simple texts, we need a fundamentally different approach: a coherent, content-focused curriculum that spends at least two or three weeks digging into meaty topics, with the teacher reading aloud to the whole class from complex texts and leading thoughtful discussions.
Until children are fluent readers, that’s the most effective way to build the kind of academic knowledge and vocabulary that will enable them to read and write at higher levels. An increasing number of schools are adopting that type of curriculum, but it’s still far from the norm.
Even at schools with a less than optimal curriculum, though, we should acknowledge that young children—even more than adults—will struggle to focus in an environment that maximizes distractions. Instead of forcing kids to spend hours each day in the equivalent of a three-ring circus, let’s give them classrooms that are actually conducive to learning.
This post originally appeared on Forbes.com.