June 15, 2024
Search
Close this search box.
Search
Close this search box.
June 15, 2024
Search
Close this search box.

Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

The Optimum Learning Environment

Noise is generally considered disruptive to the process of conveying and acquiring information. That is why teachers always insist on silence when presenting new material and ideas to students. A certain amount of frontal instruction is necessary but perhaps collaborative learning is the way to go, noisy though it may be. A recent series of scientific studies examining the effect of sound on the brain reveals why this strategy works.

Perhaps we can learn something about noise from earlier studies on office productivity. We learned that workers’ primary problem with open or cubicle-filled offices is the unwanted noise. New research shows that it may not be the sound itself that is distracting, it may be who is making it. In fact, some level of banter in the background might actually benefit our ability to perform creative tasks, provided we don’t get drawn into the conversation. Instead of total silence, the ideal work environment for creative work has a little bit of background noise. That’s why many people focus really well in a noisy coffee shop, but are barely able to concentrate in a noisy office, or why many students prefer studying while the television is on.

One study, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, found that the right level of ambient noise triggers our minds to think more creatively. The researchers examined various levels of noise on participants as they completed tests of creative thinking. Participants were randomized into four groups and everyone was asked to complete a Remote Associates Test (a commonly used measurement that judges creative thinking by asking test-takers to find the relationship between a series of words that, at first glance, appear unrelated). Depending on the group, participants were exposed to various noise levels in the background, from total silence to 50 decibels, 70 decibels and 85 decibels. The differences between most of the groups were statistically insignificant; however, the participants in the 70 decibels group (those exposed to a level of noise similar to background chatter in a coffee shop) significantly outperformed the other groups. Since the effects were small, this may suggest that our creative thinking doesn’t differ that much in response to total silence and 85 decibels of background noise — the equivalent of a loud garbage disposal or a racing motorcycle. Presumably, we don’t want our classrooms to sound like a garbage disposal or a motorcycle, so this data is quite revealing..

Since the results at 70 decibels were significant, the study also suggests that the right level of background noise – not too loud and not total silence – may actually boost one’s creative thinking ability. The right level of background noise may disrupt our normal patterns of thinking just enough to allow our imaginations to wander, without making it impossible to focus. This type of “distracted focus” appears to be the optimal state for working on creative tasks. As the authors write, “Getting into a relatively noisy environment may trigger the brain to think abstractly, and thus generate creative ideas.”

In another study, researchers used frontal lobe electroencephalographic (EEG) machines to study the brain waves of participants as they completed tests of creativity while exposed to various sound environments. The researchers found statistically significant changes in creativity scores and a connection between those scores and certain brain waves. As in the previous study, a certain level of white noise proved the ideal background sound for creative tasks.

So why do so many workers hate open offices? The quiet chatter of colleagues and the gentle thrum of the HVAC should help us focus. The problem may be that, in offices, we can’t stop ourselves from getting drawn into others’ conversations or from being interrupted while we’re trying to focus. Indeed, the EEG researchers found that face-to-face interactions, conversations and other disruptions negatively affect the creative process. By contrast, a co-working space or a coffee shop provides a certain level of ambient noise while also providing freedom from interruptions.

Taken together, the lesson here is that the ideal space for focused work is not about freedom from noise, but about freedom from interruption. Now translate this to the classroom. As mentioned earlier, frontal instruction is a necessary component, especially in the younger grades. However, group work or a collaborative learning environment may be more effective. Assuming that students have sufficient information to advance to the next step in whatever discipline, aside from the impact of self-discovery and the lasting effects of grasping an idea independent of a teacher, the low-level noise emanating from these groups may actually stimulate learning.

The vast and growing literature on collaborative learning that is supporting this position now has the additional backing of the research on background noise. Teaching is a great skill if done right. Traditional frontal instructors may need to modify their approach and learn new techniques.

As a final observation, we must note that Jewish tradition has always supported this position by embracing the chavrusa (partner) method of Talmud study. Walk into any beis medrash and each member of the chavrusa is challenging and asking questions of the other. A person who walks into a traditional beis midrash is struck immediately by the noise level—each partner reads the text aloud and often argues at some volume, pushing one another to come to a better understanding of the text at hand.

Jewish study focuses not on simple absorption of material, but on a dialogue among students and between students and text. This dialogical mode of study is exemplified by the standard page layout of many classical texts. Generally, the focus text–which may be Talmud, Bible, Midrash or a law code–stands at the center of the page and is surrounded by two or more levels of commentary: one or more commentaries on the text, and sometimes a later commentary on those commentaries. The traditional mode of Jewish study maintains an emphasis on dialogue. Asking questions contributes to a deeper understanding of the texts at hand and of one’s companions in study.


Dr. Wallace Greene is the incoming principal of the new mesivta, Yeshiva Keren HaTorah of Passaic-Clifton.

Leave a Comment

Most Popular Articles