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: http://research.acer.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1144&context=research_conference (Accessed June 2019)