Silence: An Unexpected Montessori Benefit

When parents first visit a well-run Montessori school, they often comment on how quiet the classrooms are compared to many other environments where groups of preschoolers come together. It’s true: our classrooms are quiet—not quiet in the sense of totally silent, but quiet in a busy, active, yet very civilized way. There’s a hum of young people moving about, talking in low voices to each other or sounding out words under their breaths, of chairs getting moved quietly, of teachers sitting down next to children and giving individual lessons, of sound boxes being shaken, and Montessori bells being played. With all that activity, though, you can have a conversation in a normal voice, and a small bell ringing will get the children’s attention when it’s time to clean up and get ready to go outside.

I’ve always thought that this quiet atmosphere was a nice side benefit of the Montessori approach to preschool education, but not something directly related to the amazing achievements children accomplish in our classrooms.

Then I happened across this article, called “What Do Preschools Have in Common with Bridges and Airports?” In the article, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, of NurtureShock fame, discuss the negative impact of noise level on reading achievement, for children who either live close to or go to

school next to noisy environments, such as major highways or airports. For one group of children living in an apartment building next to the George Washington Bridge in New York City, the article explains this connection:

The kids living on the lower floors had predictably lower reading scores than the children who lived on the buildings’ higher floors. In fact, it was a linear relationship: the lower the floor of the child’s apartment, the lower his reading scores. …

What did predict the difference in reading between the lower-floor kids and the higher-ups? It wasn’t air pollution – it was noise pollution. The lower-downs were exposed to exponentially more traffic noise. All day, every day, the kids heard the endless honking of horns, the screeching of brakes, and the continuous roar of hundreds of thousands of engines zooming by.

Human hearing isn’t sensitive to small changes in volume, which is why decibels are a logarithmic measurement. Every 10 decibel increase (one hash mark on your stereo) signals a doubling of the perceived volume. Leaves rustling are around 10 dB, while a jet engine taking off is at 120 dB. Background noise at 45 dB is loud enough to interfere with the ability to understand speech.
On the Apartments’ 32nd floor, the traffic volume was at about 55 dB. For the kids down on the eighth floor, the noise was up to 66 dB (twice as loud). So the pattern was really: the lower the kid’s floor – the louder the noise – the slower the kid’s reading progressed.

None of these kids had hearing problems: all the kids had hearing tests, and they sailedright through. But, in addition to their reading problems, the lower-down kids also weren’t as good at auditory discrimination tasks. They couldn’t hear the difference between words like “cope” and “coke.”

The article points to other studies with similar, consistent results: a high ambient noise level has a measurable negative impact on a child’s academic achievement level, especially in learning to read and in reading comprehension.

While the article focuses on outside noise, its findings also apply to preschools: one preschool the article mentions reduced ambient noise by 5 dB – and children experienced measurable improvements in language skills.

In a Montessori classroom environment, we teach students to speak quietly with each other, to walk up to a teacher with a request instead of yelling it across the room, etc. We respect our students who are working by doing small group lessons in very quiet, low voices. We teach the skills of volume control as part of our emphasis on respecting each other and the work we are doing, and I think we implicitly realize that a quiet environment is much more conducive to quality learning.

Here’s the causal mechanism that explains the strong impact of noise on learning, and especially on language skills:

According to [Cornell professor Gary] Evans, children in extremely loud environments begin to mentally block out noise as unnecessary distraction. After a while, it just doesn’t register anymore. But the kids are actually too good at this mental block.

“Their tuning out the noise is indiscriminate,” continued Evans. “They don’t just tune out the airport noise – they tune out all noise. Including speech.” …

Kids in noisy environments hear enough words that they learn to communicate. But they miss out on the additional language necessary to master the more sophisticated nuances of phonics, vocabulary, and structure.

Those nuances are just what preschoolers urgently need to learn, and what we emphasize in our Montessori language program: the sounds that make up words, the association of sounds with letter symbols, the development of vocabulary. If this research is true, then our teachers are doing more than they probably realize when they work their classroom management wonders. By keeping their classrooms noise level at a controlled, civilized level, they establish an essential element of the prepared environment that children need to thrive.

Next time a parent comments about the quietness in our classrooms, we may just point them to this study – and encourage them to embrace this relative silence as an unexpected side benefit of choosing a Montessori education.

Heike Larson