Col.legi Montserrat in Barcelona is one of the most innovative schools in Spain. The school has departed from the traditional system of silence and listening to explanations and encouraging discussions. The means? Acoustic quality and low frequency absorption.
Col.legi Montserrat is an educational centre in Barcelona. Opened in 1926, it is run by the missionary Hijas de la Sagrada Familia de Nazaret and has classes from pre-school up to when students leave for university.
The establishment was set up with quality teaching, excellence and innovation in mind and follows a personalised learning model in which students work in collaborative groups, focused on individual talent and dialogue.
María Marta Molina, head of the Infants and Primary section.
The first steps towards an open-plan classroom
Eight years ago, the school made several architectural changes to the building. This coincided with the introduction of a new methodology and organisation and a change in the role of the teachers, creating a different kind of space and a new way of working.
In 2014, the school moved from traditional cellular to more open classrooms allowing different learning activities to be carried out in the same space: collaborative group work, discussions and explanations, screenings or seminars in which some talked and others listened. The new work dynamic also required much improved acoustics in the classrooms.
“The students need to hear one another clearly when they are working in groups, as well as being able to listen to the teacher. Each class needs to adapt to different teaching styles. Good acoustics facilitate working in small groups and the pupils’ ability to focus on the teacher and hear videos,” points out María Marta Molina, head of the Infants and Primary section.
“When we planned the architectural improvements, we also had a close look at the hearing range. The student is the main focus so it was important that any changes should also include better acoustics,” adds María Marta Molina.
The student is the main focus so it was important that any changes should also include better acoustics
A new pupil profile
The change from traditional cellular classrooms to more open spaces made good acoustics essential.
The school is not only trying to ensure their students are able to concentrate, but is also seeking to enable collaborative work through dynamic teaching that is completely unlike traditional teaching. To do this, both the student and the teacher must be able to speak without raising their voices and not be distracted by groups talking around them. Recent studies indicate that in the final years of primary schools, between 30 and 40 percent of children suffer hearing impairments, making it even more difficult for them to learn if the acoustics are poor. Good acoustics are therefore essential.
The need for good acoustics in different spaces
The acoustics in an educational setting not only affect the classrooms. Good acoustics also lead to a more conducive environment in other communal areas such as the corridors, canteen, music or sports areas. To ensure best practice and compliance with European regulations, the school first opted to implement a solution in the canteen, followed by two of the larger classrooms. They used ceiling and wall panels with high sound-absorbing qualities to create the best possible learning environment for this new teaching model, and also to make improvements for people with hearing disabilities.
Low frequency absorption was key to success
Jens Guldbaek, architect and educational environment advisor from LOOP.bz, was project manager for the refurbishment.
“While there was a considerable improvement experienced with the sound environment, we found the sound levels still to be higher than what the experts could expect, due to the large amount of students in each room. We were determined to make the learning spaces even better”, says Jens Guldbaek.“We went further with more low frequency absorption to a level we had not heard of being done before.”
Jens Guldbaeks experience and intuition turned out to be right. “It worked and we are strong believers in the necessity of additional low frequency absorption. It creates a more natural sound environment for speech and listening. It is actually not possible to over absorb in these low frequencies. In most of these types of buildings the low frequency sound is actually amplified, making them very bad for speech communication.”
Both students and teachers have experienced several positive effects from the acoustic refurbishment.
Classroom noise causes stress
A typical classroom often has a lot of noise, whether from equipment, voices or the furniture itself. Both teachers and students suffer from different noise-related issues. Some teachers feel stressed, others worn out, or they may even lose their voices.
“It’s difficult to concentrate when you have a space that can accommodate 72 students. Without this architectural change, the multi-purpose space we’d planned would have been impossible to work with. There were two areas to tackle: the acoustics were poor, meaning that it was very difficult to concentrate and sound levels were high, which impacted on the way we worked,” says Juan Linares, technology teacher.
“After the (acoustic) refurbishment, we noticed several changes: the teachers stopped using a microphone, which was distorting sound. Now, we barely need to raise our voices and we can have different groups working together in the same classroom with the teacher talking and the rest listening, while other students work together in groups. The students find it easier to understand the information because they’re not trying so hard to hear it,” he adds.
Also the students notice the difference. “We concentrate more and our work is better,” remarks Jordi Sabé Santacana, a student in the secondary section.
Claudia Fernández Arévalo, another secondary school student points out: “The sound used to carry, now we can focus on our group and we can’t hear the other groups. It’s a much better environment and the sound is clearer.”
“The moment a teacher or student can explain something without having to raise their voice, the person who is listening immediately reacts more positively,” says Juan Linares.
The moment a teacher or student can explain something without having to raise their voice, the person who is listening immediately reacts more positively
Products used to create a good sound environment in the Montserrat Convent school:
Acoustics are a teacher’s best friend
This solution has led to a new dynamic at the centre and in the classrooms. It has enabled change and allowed the school to achieve its fundamental goal: to have the student at the centre of the learning experience. María Marta confirms this: “These elements have certainly helped us to provide the quality and excellence we’d been seeking in the first refurbishment, and we will undoubtedly be looking to replicate this in other classrooms. It is important to understand that acoustics are also vital and something can be done about it.”
Text: Lourdes Redondo Bacaicoa
Photos: Pablo Cueva Junghanns