By Natalie Wexler for forbes.com
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.
Read more here.
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