In which I worry about differentiation in music education

I’ve seen a number of posts on twitter recently, and read some blog posts too, that argue that differentiation is a bad thing. I’ve been doing some head-scratching about this, as I’ve always maintained, and say to PGCE students, that every KS3 music class is mixed-ability (a term I don’t like, but that’s another story!). If this is the case, how do we then deal with the range of pupils that present themselves each time a KS3 music lesson is taught?

One of the main issues – for me, and I want to be clear these are personal thoughts – is that there seem to be a number of issues with what we (whoever ‘we’ are, I keep saying that at the moment!) actually meanby differentiation. Let me try and explain. (What follows applies to KS3 music, by the way, I appreciate other subjects and phases will be different.) When we plan for teaching and learning we do so normally at three levels, long-term, medium-term, and short-term. What this means is that long-term planning considers where the learners in this school, with these teachers, will be at the end of KS3. Then medium-term planning translates this into schemes of work and programmes of study, and short-term planning will be individual lesson plans.

So what is differentiation? Let’s take this definition from Munro (2012) as being typical:

Differentiating instruction involves responding constructively to what students know. It means providing multiple learning pathways so that students can have access to the most appropriate learning opportunities commensurate with their capacity to learn. It involves matching students’ approach to learning with the most appropriate pedagogy, curriculum goals and opportunities for displaying knowledge gained …

From this I would want to add three words to the first sentence: “..responding constructively to what students know” and can do. This for me is where differentiation comes in. Our mainland European music educator chums talk a lot about ‘competences’ in music education. This works for me, what the pupils are competent at doing is a good place to start from. This brings us back to planning. I think we see differentiation operating principally in the lesson planning stage. This is because it is here that it finds its outworking in the way we deal this individual group of children and young people in the classroom. And each class will be different, in music.

Let us drill down, or as Ofsted now say, take a deep dive, into what is going on. Some arguments against differentiation argue that you should ‘teach to the top’, and that this will bring the others up to this level. Let’s think about that in KS3. I’m sure many colleagues will have had the experience of teaching a KS3 class where a child has, say Grade V on an instrument. So, do we teach to this child, and assume everyone else will catch up? I don’t think that will go down well! Others recommend ‘teaching to the middle’, so do we do this, and ignore the Gd V child, and risk them being bored in practical work, as their competences will be of a different level? These are questions music teachers have to grapple with every day.

I think that this has become a contested area because so many education social-media pundits never seem to even get as far as thinking about music. I remember well an educator who had been to a CPD event with an orchestra, came back amazed to tell me that not everyone in the orchestra plays the same thing at the same time (well, derr!) and that the violas were playing something different to the flutes (derr, again!). This was revelatory for them in thinking about how different activities contributed to a unified whole. This is so obvious in music that we don’t even bother to worry about it. Of course the drummer plays something different to the lead guitarist, and the bass guitar, and the keyboard, and…and…and.

The upshot of all of this is that differentiation is built into our musical DNA, so of course we ‘get it’, and we enact it.

The problem with differentiation is that it isn’t a conceptual problem for KS3 music, but that others, from other areas, have made it so – now where have we heard that before 😉 ?

Where it does become an issue is doing something about it for every KS3 class, every lesson, of every day. But that is why music teachers are so good at their jobs, because they can do this.


Munro, J., (2012) Effective strategies for implementing differentiated instruction. [online] Available at: (Accessed June 2019)


About drfautley

Professor Education at Birmingham City University, UK.
This entry was posted in Curriculum, KS3, Music Education and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to In which I worry about differentiation in music education

  1. Nick Wardle says:

    I taught music for 25 years, mainly as HoD, but have recently thrown in the towel. I have come to the conclusion that the joy of music making for many students and teachers has been killed by over assessment using criteria that is clearly not fit for purpose, too much over-thinking of what is essentially an instinctive art form and an increasingly desperate attempt to measure the unmeasurable to conform with expectations. My answer is simple (for GCSE and A level): an external assessor (a musician) watches or listens to a performance and grades it on their instinct as a musician. No justification required. No mark scheme. That assumes a level of professional trust…but why not? Why not trust proven professional performers to make a judgement?! It beats counting words and ticking boxes surely. These days you can get a GCSE equivalent by ‘showing improvement’ even it is playing the tambourine slightly more vigorously than 9 months ago and ‘engaging’ an audience if you follow certain vocational exam boards (eg Rock School). I have seen it happen first hand. When I realised that all the rigour had gone, an ‘everyones a winner’ attitude was prevailing over common sense and that the pupils who has ‘put in the hours’ but not met someone’s interpretation of a seemingly arbitrary set of criteria were not getting the grades they deserved…I realised it was time to go…leave them all to it…and start enjoying being a musician myself again. I am glad I did. But regret feeling the need to leave quite so soon.

  2. Keith Evans says:

    Couldn’t agree more. This is just common sense in music for both engagement and progress. It is essential that you provide different entry points for different abilities. Building on your orchestral example and as all my former PGCE trainees will have heard me say many times: “A group performance helps pupils understand and gain knowledge of the blues but they don’t all have to play the same part. For some in a group it will be a challenge to play the root note of the chord in each bar but the Grade 6 saxophonist needs to be challenged to attempt some melodic improvisation. But in doing so, they ALL come to know the blues.

  3. Martin McGinley says:

    It’s common sense that in a group class the tuition must be tailored to the individual abilities and needs, as far as possible. For the teacher, that’s the test. How do you keep the ‘fliers’ motivated and learning while trying to bring on the group as a whole, and dealing with the ‘stragglers’? There’s a lot of concern about words used to define those in this bell curve of abilities/interest/application but that doesn’t change the underlying reality. It’s a team of mixed abilities sharing objectives and challenges.
    The lovely thing about music is that there doesn’t have to be winners or losers – everyone can be involved and enjoy it. It could be that blues group performance, with people contributing in different ways. It could be a junior string orchestra with parts geared to different levels. In Irish trad you can be a slow session if you’re not ready for a blistering one. In a class performance you can create different musical roles.
    But music is not just about being ‘clap happy’. Dumbing down doesn’t take anyone very far. Music demands application and effort, and that brings rewards. That’s the virtuous circle. Music is like lots of other things in life; the more you put into it, the more you get out of it. It’s fun but the glory is that it can be so much more. Group teaching must recognise that.
    Nurture talent. No-one left behind.
    It’s not easy, right enough!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s