Loud and Clear

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In the fight to be heard, teachers turn to microphones.

One of the first things visitors notice about Kim Gall’s classroom at Silver Springs Elementary School in Northville, Michigan, is that her 2nd graders are paying close attention. Even when she has her back to them, the kids seem genuinely interested in what she has to say. Perhaps that’s because the sound of her voice resonates as clearly as a bell as she strolls among the desks. Gall, like each of the 38 teachers at her school, wears a wireless microphone around her neck. It broadcasts her words through four speakers tucked into the corners of the class. This amplification setup, called a “sound field system,” doesn’t make her voice much louder but distributes it evenly throughout the class.

“I don’t know what I’d do without it, now that I’ve had it,” Gall says of the technology. “My voice at the end of the day isn’t nearly as tired. It also allows me to be very mobile and know students can hear me as I move around.” And the teacher’s not the only beneficiary. She shares her mike with her kids when they’re reading aloud or answering questions. “The students feel empowered by speaking into the microphone,” she says. “They like that everyone is hearing them.”

Experts say that noisy classrooms are common at American schools, due to poor acoustics, overcrowding, and loud heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning equipment. Carol Flexer, professor of audiology at the University of Akron, knows of teachers who have had to alternate between talking and cooling the room because they could not raise their voices above the din of the air conditioning. “You could hear or you could breathe, but you couldn’t do both at the same time,” she says.

This is a huge problem, according to Flexer and others, because noisy classrooms interfere with children’s learning. “The whole issue is brain development,” she explains. “In order to stimulate the brain with sound, the sound has to get to the brain. And if it doesn’t get there because of poor classroom acoustics or distance or whatever, then the brain isn’t being stimulated, and learning can’t occur.”

“Children don’t listen like adults listen,” the audiologist adds. “All children need a quieter room and a louder signal than adults need.”

‘My voice at the end of the day isn’t nearly as tired. It also allows me to be very mobile and know students can hear me as I move around.’

Kim Gall,
Northville, Michigan,

A child’s auditory neurological network is not fully developed until about the age of 15. In their younger years, many kids experience signal noise deficit, meaning they have difficulty hearing certain frequencies of sound, especially when background noise interferes. Also, with shorter attention spans, children are less effective than adults at sorting speech from noise. Distracting sounds can prevent them from hearing minor differences between words as they learn to read. And children don’t have decades of life experience to help them listen better. Not only can most adults “listen through” background noise, but they can often “fill in the blanks” of information they fail to hear, Flexer notes.

Over the past five years, the Northville district has outfitted all of its five elementary schools with amplification technology. “We initially offered sound field systems only to those teachers who requested them, but it wasn’t very long before everybody wanted them,” says Bob Sornson, Northville’s executive director of special services.

At a price of as much as $1,000 per classroom, the technology has cost the district more than $80,000. But Sornson calls it “an excellent investment” and believes it is a key reason why Northville has a relatively small percentage of students in special education programs—6.5 percent, which is half the state average and significantly down from 10 percent eight years ago. And Northville is not the only district embracing the technology. Scott Wright, president of Lifeline Amplification Systems in Platteville, Wisconsin, says his company’s sales of sound field systems to schools throughout the United States have increased by 40 percent in the past five years. He notes that at least half of these systems are funded through private sources, such as parent-teacher organizations and business clubs.

“When we look at creating an educational environment, we’re clear we need lights,” Flexer says. “We’re clear we need climate. But we haven’t been clear about sound. We think sound is there because to an adult mind it’s adequate. But it’s not adequate to a child’s mind.” 

—Lynn Waldsmith

Vol. 14, Issue 2, Page 9

Published in Print: October 1, 2002, as Loud and Clear
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