“It’s like they’re not listening to a word I say!”

November 2011


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Soundfield amplification in classrooms might be the answer to improving students’ listening, learning and behaviour... and teachers’ stress levels and fatigue.


Many a teacher has been exasperated by their students’ inability to grasp a concept quickly or respond appropriately to a question posed in the classroom. However, new research has shown that students’ inattention might be down to something as rudimentary as finding it difficult to hear in the classroom.

Virginia Good from the University of Canterbury researched the effectiveness of an enhanced listening environment (soundfield amplification) combined with phonological awareness intervention as part of her masters degree. “The research adds to the mounting body of evidence demonstrating the positive effects of soundfield systems on behavioural and academic achievement,” says Good. There is a large amount of research on the subject across the globe, all pointing to the same conclusions. 

Good’s research showed that children responded positively to soundfield systems; the benefits were observable by teachers within days of installing the systems. There was a marked improvement in behaviour and general academic performance as a result of the enhanced acoustic environment. Students were observed to comprehend and follow teacher instructions much better than before the system was installed.

Some teachers noticed that the soundfield amplification had a beneficial effect on students working below expected norms, while children of middle ability made a significant jump in progress.

Many teachers commented on the personal benefits of the system as well. Some noted that soundfield amplification reduced vocal strain and left them with more energy and less tiredness. Others observed that the system seemed to enable a calmer classroom environment.

The outcomes of Good’s research are music to the ears of those at Oticon New Zealand, whose FrontRow Active Learning soundfield systems, which include speakers and microphones designed to make it easier to listen and hear in the learning environment, were used in the research project.

“The research builds on what we know locally and internationally about the benefits of FrontRow Active Learning Systems in the learning environment,” says Karen Pullar, general manager of Oticon New Zealand. “FrontRow systems are designed specifically for the classroom to optimise classroom sound quality, engage young minds, inspire participation and create a more intimate learning environment,” says Pullar.

The systems were showcased at the New Zealand Principals Federation Conference in Wellington in April this year and have been embraced by the sector. Pullar says Oticon has been delivering soundfield systems to New Zealand schools for more than 40 years and have around 2500 classrooms using the technology. She says principals, teachers and students across the country know first-hand the difference it is making to their schools.

Brent Griffin, principal of Western Heights Primary School in Rotorua, says the systems have made a huge difference. “Classrooms are quieter, and that creates the best environment for learning. FrontRow has particularly improved teaching of literacy. Children can hear clearly what the teacher is saying and teaching. This is allowing teachers to focus on teaching, instead of managing students and classroom behaviour. Children are hearing instructions and are engaged quicker.”

Suella Quinn of Wiri Central School in Auckland reports similar success. “Our teachers are reporting that students with poor listening skills tune in better and quickly. That means less waste of learning time, and students have better concentration because they can hear all the time and the class is more relaxed.”

Some schools have even adopted the FrontRow To Go system, which enables them to take the soundfield system outside the classroom environment. Windley School in Porirua is one such school. “We have some large withdrawal spaces that we can take the portable FrontRow To Go system into. We can use it in the library, hall and for staff meetings. We have even used it on the school field as a PA system,” says Tony Birch, the school’s deputy principal.

So how much do the systems cost? Oticon offers four different systems, priced from $1200 to $2400 per classroom. Installation can cost up to $200 plus travel costs per classroom. Schools can install the systems themselves if they prefer. Oticon says typically most schools pay for the systems themselves and apply to local charities for support, such as Lions and Rotary clubs.