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Summary  •  Poor Acoustics  •  Hearing Problems
Immature Auditory Capabilities  •  At-Risk Students

Problems: Summary


When we think of education, we think about the students, teachers, curriculum, textbooks, homework, etc. The focus is always on the tangible visible aspects of learning. Even when we consider the school environment, we think about those aspects of the environment that are visible and more concrete. What does the building look like, do they have computers, new desks, air conditioning, television monitors etc. Its natural to think in this manner because this is the type of society that we have evolved into; the emphasis being always on what can be seen. Even iPods and cell phones, recent technologies whose original development was for a listening purpose, now have been enhanced with a visual aspect. It seems like sound alone isn’t good enough; if we do not see it, we do not believe it.

Educators and politicians think no differently. They both have spent a lot of time and money trying to revolutionize education, looking for something new that will bridge the achievement gap and leave no child behind. Schools are constantly trying to outdo one another in this area, by increasing the homework, focusing on state assessment preparation, modifying class schedules to pack in more “learning” time, even making changes to the faculty hoping that someone else will be able to reach the unteachable. But unfortunately, we have all been “looking” for a solution, rather than “listening” to one. And in the process we have unconsciously ignored the foundation of brain development and learning…the ability to hear.

In 1977, the U.S. Department of Education began funding the initial investigation of what was to be a three year investigation named the Mainstream Amplification Resource Room Study, or more commonly referred to as the MARRS project. The concept behind the study was to use a wireless microphone to amplify the teacher’s voice so that children with mild or minimal fluctuating hearing losses could remain in the mainstream and still hear the teacher amidst the poor acoustics. It was hoped that these children with a hearing problem would be able to keep up with the mainstream and reduce costs associated with special education referrals and outside resourcing. It was not anticipated what astonishing ground breaking results would be revealed.

Under the MARRS project, ALL students, regardless of hearing ability, taught in sound enhanced rooms showed significant gains in academic achievement, and were noted to achieve in reading and language arts at a faster rate, to a higher level, and at one-tenth the cost of students taken from regular classes to resource room instruction. This study received national validation status and opened the door to a new line of thinking: Does the classroom support a child’s ability to hear the teacher, and ultimately affect a child’s academic success?

Over the past two decades more than fifty additional studies have been reported providing evidence that inappropriate levels of classroom noise and reverberation can deleteriously affect not only speech-recognition ability, but also psychoeductional and psychosocial development (e.g., Bess & Tharpe, 1986; Blair, Peterson, & Viehweg, 1985; Crandell & Bess, 1986; Crandell & Karasik-Rush, 1990, 1991; Davis, Elfenein, Schum, & Bentler 1986; Finitzo-Hieber, 1988; Finitzo-Hieber & Tillman, 1978 Leavitt & Flexer, 1991; Ross, 1978; Ross & Giolas, 1971). A study at Cornell University in 2001 and one at London University in 2005, found that if students can’t focus on the spoken word of the teacher, they not only lose the desire but also the physical ability to learn. Information regarding the detrimental effects of poor acoustics combined with the scientific knowledge that children’s cognitive auditory abilities are not fully developed until age 15 (Crandell, 1995; Flexer 2002), provides valuable insight into classroom auditory learning and threatens to undermine the entire premise of our educational system; i.e. that a child can attend to an audible teacher’s voice throughout the classroom.

As relevant as this information is to the academic success of our nation, few people beyond the researchers and audiologists are aware of it. Parents continue to send their children into the classroom, incorrectly assuming that they can adequately hear the information they need to learn. Most teachers are oblivious to these findings and to the fact that ALL children do not hear the same as adults. Teachers themselves often become desensitized to the poor acoustical environment after prolonged exposure to it. Even educators and politicians continue to develop educational practices around the incorrect belief that children hear the same as adults and can adequately attend to verbal instruction in the classroom. Our entire educational system continues to revolve policies and practices regarding education around the preconceived incorrect assumptions about auditory learning, and yet auditory learning represents as much as 75% of child’s day in the school.

Despite the significant role that auditory learning plays in a child’s education, little attention has been paid to the children’s actual ability to hear in the classroom; nor to children’s hearing abilities at all. Something so important continues to be overlooked, simply because it cannot be seen. Auditory learning encompasses two aspects: the acoustical setting and the hearing ability of the child. If either one is compromised, so is the child’s ability to learn from hearing. Some of us (if we stopped to think about it) may be aware that classroom acoustics are substandard, but few of us (both parents and educators) are aware of the hearing limitations and needs particular to children, ALL children.

Children’s cognitive auditory capabilities are not fully developed until age fifteen. This means that children do not hear and process what they hear, the same as an adult. When we think of hearing, most of us just think of what our ears do; our knowledge of hearing problems center on the anatomical structure of the ear. But the ear’s purpose is simply to capture sound. Our brains actually harbor the mechanism that identifies what the sounds are, discriminates between different sounds, interprets and comprehends what we hear. In essence, the brain makes sense of the sound and makes it useful to us. This is the neurological component of hearing, and it is just as important as the ear’s ability to detect a sound. Children do not have a completely developed neurological auditory ability until age fifteen, and this means that they cannot understand the difference between sounds and comprehend what they are hearing the same as an adult. They must exert more energy than an adult to concentrate on and process the sounds they are hearing. Because of these immature auditory abilities, children require a better acoustical environment than does an adult in order to understand what they are hearing.

Herein lays the problem. The combination of poor classroom acoustics and the unique hearing limitations of children, create an unfavorable listening environment building a barrier to learning. If children are spending the majority of their day attending to verbal instruction, and they cannot hear or understand even a portion of what they are hearing, surely at a minimum, the child is not maximizing his or her learning potential. This understanding presents a moral and social dilemma that is currently being overlooked in our educational system. Do our school facilities meet the auditory (both physical and neurological components) needs of its students? How many children are being incorrectly labeled with a learning disorder, simply because they cannot hear? How much of our tax dollars are being needlessly spent on a “reactive” special education program for those incorrectly identified as L.D.? How many children are being unnecessarily medicated simply because they cannot adequately hear in the classroom, losing both their ability and desire to learn?

Poor acoustics, immature auditory capabilities, and the multitude of hearing problems prevalent amongst the K-12 student population jeopardize every child’s potential for academic success when the ability and desire to learn is so directly impacted by the student’s ability to hear in the classroom.