Listen up, class

Sound systems can mean better marks, and behaviour

Listen up, classAfter Keewatin-Patricia District School Board in northwestern Ontario had sound amplification systems put in its classrooms to help students hear their teachers better, Barb Kilberry asked primary children what they thought of the new equipment—which had been receiving rave reviews from staff. Some precocious pupils didn’t hold back. “They don’t like it,” reports Kilberry, a special assignment teacher who spearheaded the purchases. The reason for their disdain: “Because it makes them pay attention,” says Kilberry. “They’re not easily able to sit at the back of the room and daydream anymore!”

In fact, sound amplification systems have been so good at focusing students at Keewatin-Patricia’s 23 schools that now “we have them in the classrooms, gymnasiums, libraries, and anywhere kids are learning,” says Kilberry, who works with deaf and hard-of-hearing students. Save for a few disgruntled students, there is fervent support for this equipment at a growing number of schools. While penetration rates for Canada are hard to come by, companies who sell these systems, such as Lightspeed Technologies and FrontRow, report that they are widely used in Ontario, British Columbia, Alberta, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and likely elsewhere. Kilberry says that a nearby northern school district is planning to get its own systems soon. Lawfield Public School in Hamilton, Ont., started using the devices last May. And River Valley Public School in Sundre, Alta., added a system to every classroom four years ago. “The experience sells itself,” says principal Rod MacLean. “People don’t go back to not using it.”

Unlike other classroom technology, this equipment is easy to use. A small microphone worn around the teacher’s neck picks up the frequency of his or her voice and transmits it to a receiver, which distributes the sound evenly throughout the classroom. “The point is not to make the teacher louder,” says Bruce Bebb, a former principal who now works at Lightspeed. This equipment makes a teacher’s words more crisp, and they’re heard at the same volume and with the same clarity at every spot in the room.

Hearing the teacher can be a tough task given the constant whir of computers, projectors, HVAC systems, and bad classroom acoustics. A student sitting 3.5 metres away from the instructor can miss half of the words being said. Studies show that often, ambient noise during class is equal to or slightly lower than the teacher’s voice. This is compounded by education models that emphasize group activities—or student chatter. “Classrooms are very dynamic places these days,” says Pam Millet, an audiologist and professor at York University’s faculty of education. “It’s good that kids are doing different activities, but the noise level is always going to go up.”

There are physiological reasons for sound amplification systems, too. Ear infections, which are common in 20 to 30 per cent of children, can lead to temporary hearing loss for up to six weeks at a time—which means students can miss 20 per cent of the information coming at them. What’s more, the parts of the brain in charge of auditory processing aren’t fully developed until mid-adolescence. Students with normal hearing have trouble tuning out background noise and filling in the blanks when words aren’t heard.

But in classrooms where sound amplification systems are used, teachers report that students are behaving better, boosting their grades, and participating more. A 2006 study in New Brunswick also found that after using this equipment, teachers experienced less vocal fatigue because they didn’t have to keep repeating themselves or project as much. They spent more time talking to the whole class rather than individuals. Meanwhile, students were keenly focused on the teacher’s instructions, and “there was a more relaxed atmosphere” in the class, according to the report. Principal MacLean saw the same change: “Kids who had anxiety or attention issues were so much calmer.” And students who used to be shy doing presentations or answering questions are excited to use a handheld microphone, adds Kilberry.

Of course, just because the students can hear the teacher better doesn’t guarantee they’ll listen more, concedes Bebb. But “it certainly allows all kids to have the opportunity to hear the instruction and have everything they need to succeed,” he says. “No more ‘I didn’t hear you’ excuses.”

For Ondina Love, executive director of the Canadian Association of Speech-Language Pathologists and Audiologists, sound amplification systems are beneficial (though she warns that they may occasionally add noise by creating reverberation), but she’s got her eye on another solution. As part of the Concerned About Classrooms Coalition, Love wants Canada to adopt acoustic building standards like the ones in the U.S.

In the meantime, educators such as Karen Norton, principal of Jessie Duncan School in Penhold, Alta., are thrilled with the systems. “We can be heard above the hubbub of classroom noise!” she effused over email. “I should have had one in my home so I could be heard above my children and their toys!”