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Bringing natural peace to the classroom

Bringing natural peace to the classroom

Västervångskolan, a school in southern Sweden, modified the acoustics and lighting in four classrooms on a trial basis in 2013. The experiment proved so successful that all the municipality’s schools are now receiving the same acoustic modifications.

“I often used to have headaches, but I don’t anymore,” notes Isa Oriabure Andersson, who teaches Swedish and Spanish.

When we arrive at Västervångskolan in the town of Landskrona in the south of Sweden, Isa Oriabure Andersson is teaching a Swedish lesson. Class 8C are doing grammar exercises and tackling the definite and indefinite possessive forms. Of the 21 pupils in the room, some are working independently on the exercises and others are discussing their work in small groups.

It’s like after a snowfall, when there’s a carpet of snow muffling everything and creating a nice, peaceful feeling.

The noise level fluctuates, but even when lots of people are talking simultaneously, the sound is muted. Against this soft murmur, Isa can talk at normal volume as she moves from table to table helping her pupils. Asked to describe the acoustic feel of the classroom, she turns to a nature metaphor:

“It’s like after a snowfall, when there’s a carpet of snow muffling everything and creating a nice, peaceful feeling. It feels like you can whisper and everyone will still hear you. It’s a rather liberating feeling. I imagine myself out in the country, surrounded by birdsong. It’s not really like that in the classroom, of course, but that is how I would describe the feel of it.”


Basis of comparison soon disappeared

The story behind the improved working environment for staff and pupils began some years ago when Thorn, a lighting company, wanted to conduct a study on how lighting affected pupils and, more particularly, energy consumption at Västervångskolan. When the new lighting was installed, a light-reflecting ceiling was needed. Thorn got in touch with Saint-Gobain Ecophon, who noted immediately that high-grade sound absorbents were also needed to handle classroom noise levels (see box).

One classroom was excluded from the project to serve as a basis of comparison alongside the upgraded classrooms. When the staff returned to work after the summer holidays, they immediately noticed the difference – especially in noise levels.

The project’s focus soon shifted from energy consumption to the acoustic and working environment. The unimproved classroom that served as a basis of comparison disappeared sooner than anyone could have imagined. The municipality lost little time in funding improvements to the acoustic environment – initially for the rest of the senior classrooms at Västervångskolan and then for all the schools in Landskrona.

 “We’ve noticed a real difference,” says Andreas Hellmer, assistant head teacher. “The physical environment for teaching is much improved, so we can focus on what we’re here for: encouraging the children to learn.” 

Andreas Hellmer, assistant head teacher

Andreas Hellmer, assistant head teacher, has noticed many benefits with the improved acoustics and lighting.


Dividing lessons from breaks

A total of 15 classrooms at Västervångskolan now feature improved acoustics and lighting.

“As assistant head, I don’t spend a lot of time teaching in the classrooms, but I’m in and out of them a lot. I notice quite clearly how the outside world is tuned out and a sense of calm now pervades in these classrooms. There’s a definite division between lessons and break times. The acoustic environment signals that it’s time to get down to work.”

Good acoustics and lighting create the right conditions for staff and pupils alike to perform better and achieve more. Andreas Hellmer is noticing the benefits.

“Teachers are keen to get to their classrooms. There’s greater job satisfaction, thanks in part to the improved acoustic environment. Lighting is very important too. The new light fittings in the classrooms produce a gentle light similar to natural daylight.” 

Pupils have more fun

Isa Oriabure Andersson, who has taught at Västervångskolan since 2007, testifies that the acoustic modifications have made a big difference to her pupils.

“They used to tire much faster and lose concentration in the afternoon. Instead of listening to the teacher, they would get rowdy. Now I get more done, without ever needing to raise my voice. The atmosphere is comfortable, and the pupils have more fun.”

Not all the hallways have yet had new sound absorbents installed, and the difference is noticeable.

“As soon as I step outside the classroom, it feels like there are a lot more pupils out there in the hallway, but there are not – it’s just how the noise level affects me.” 

We can all focus much faster and get more out of our classes. We get more work done at school instead of having to take it home with us.

Getting more out of classes

Student Elin Lundgren

Elin Lundgren, a pupil in Year 8, can now concentrate much better in the classroom.

Fourteen-year-old Elin Lundgren, a pupil in Year 8, describes it as being like entering a bubble where she can concentrate much better. She used to play music through headphones to shut out background noise when she was trying to work in class. She no longer needs to do this.

“It’s more fun when everyone is engaged and doing what they’re supposed to. I love that it really is quiet while we’re working. We can all focus much faster and get more out of our classes. We get more work done at school instead of having to take it home with us.”

Andreas Hellmer believes a good acoustic environment makes it easier to conduct classes according to learning plan.

“Teachers have to take the lead in creating an environment that’s conducive to working and studying. But the conditions have to be right – no interruptions, for instance. Children perform well when the noise levels are right. That doesn’t mean it has to be deathly quiet. They should be able to have discussions in small groups without disturbing one another.” 

Researchers studying effects

The modifications at Västervångskolan have attracted plenty of interest from the world at large. Lund University has launched a research project to study how the acoustic environment affects teachers’ actions and pupils’ ability to learn. To begin with, the researchers are training the teachers how to actively use voice and communication as part of the teaching process. The study involves teachers working in acoustically modified and unmodified classrooms alike. The researchers will go on to study the differences between the environments in terms of how the teachers behave, how the pupils feel and perform, and how they perceive their teacher. The tools to be used include meters worn by teachers around their neck, which measure both the teacher’s voice and the ambient noise level in the room.

“This study is designed for the real world. We hope to prove that children perform and feel better in a good acoustic environment,” explains Viveka Lyberg Åhlander, an associate professor of speech and language pathology at Lund University.

“We also want to produce some guidelines on good school design, and to highlight the educational benefits of a good acoustic environment.”

Acoustic modifications continue

Not content to restrict good acoustics to its classrooms, Västervångskolan has now installed sound absorbents and hygienic felt carpeting in its assembly hall, where they have made a big difference. The next stage will involve acoustic modifications to the walls and ceiling in the school foyer, where a cafeteria is located. The goal is also to improve the acoustic environment in all the hallways.

“If we want our pupils to believe school matters, we have to make it matter. We have to convey the importance of acquiring knowledge and attending classes, which means we have to offer the best possible learning environment,” says Andreas Hellmer. 

Text: Lars Wirtén

Photo: Teddy Landén



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