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.