The Sound of Education

Sounds are educational, and their meanings are sociocultural constructions. This means they provide a way to learn knowledge, norms, and values.

Sounds are an essential part of how people make sense of their world. They also communicate the relationship between people, spaces and places, contextualising how their identities are built.

Traditionally, noise has been considered something that makes learning difficult. However, there hasn’t been an in-depth analysis of the meanings embedded in the noises and how they can be educative.

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The sounds often considered harmful are indeed educational since they have a meaning and are systemic, as those meanings can be conceptualised to increase the knowledge of the system.

An example is the bell announcing the end of school classes. It can be considered harmful because it can interrupt the day’s lessons. However, it has a meaning, the end of the classes, and it is systemic since it is particular to the school context but can be conceptualised to be used in other contexts. The general conceptualisation of a bell ringing is that when a repetitive high-pitched mechanical sound suddenly starts, there is a change in the environment, and you need to move. This concept of a bell ringing can be used when you are in a museum, and the fire alarm goes off, so you know you must move towards the exit.

Talking about sounds in education is often linked to children’s literacy, as non-linguistic sounds are considered a precursor of words. Non-linguistic sounds are much more than that. They are part of the children’s practices to express and communicate, their way to relate with the world in which they live.

To understand the significance of sounds in children’s literacy is important to point out that they have three kinds of non-exclusive representation:

  • Symbol: Sounds whose meaning is formed socioculturally, and there is no direct relationship between the sounds and the meaning. An example is the language.
  • Icon: Sounds that resemble what they mean. An example is the onomatopoeias.
  • Index: Sounds that affect or correlate with what they represent. An example is the sound of footsteps.

When we talk about children’s literacy, the focus is traditionally on symbolic representation since most of the effort goes to increase the quantity of children’s vocabulary. However, children’s literacy is much more complex, with non-linguistic sounds being iconic and indexical representations of their reality. Focusing only on symbolic sounds limits literacy since to develop it, you first must know the iconic representation and the three types are embedded with each other. Projects like Sound of Stories, which focus on developing educational material where sounds are seen in their complex and contextual nature, are necessary to support this change of perspective.

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Bull, M. (2001). Soundscapes of the car: A critical study of automobile habitation. En D. Miller (Ed.), Car cultures (pp. 185-202). Berg Press.

Gallagher, M., Hackett, A., Procter, L., & Scott, F. (2018). Vibrations in Place: Sound and Language in Early Childhood Literacy Practices. Educational Studies, 54(4), 465-482.

Gershon, W. S. (2011). Sounds as Educational Systems. 27(2), 66-81.

Kohn, E. (2013). How forests think: Toward an anthropology beyond the human. University of California Press.

Shield, B. M., & Dockrell, J. E. (2003). The Effects of Noise on Children at School: A Review. Building Acoustics, 10(2), 97-116.


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