Why differentiate?

I heard an excellent speaker at an INSET organised at my previous school. I remember vividly his response to a colleague’s question about differentiation: “F**k differentiation. Teach everyone the same.” Hmm. I ponder this a great deal. What it boils down to for me is differentiation is not about differentiating what you teach, but the outcome. I do teach all pupils the same – well, in the respect that I expect the highest standards consistently from all of them – but do not expect them all to achieve identical results. I strongly believe pupils should all have access to equally rigorous teaching but we need to change and constantly change our expected outcomes for pupils on an individual basis. Rather than expect identical performance from identical teaching, I expect achievement that exceeds the pupil’s ability regardless of their starting point. For learning to have taken place the pupil needs to have been changed somehow, regardless of what this change is. That is differentiation for me: my manipulating my teaching strategies so all can exceed their abilities by not only achieving a learning goal but by surpassing it. Not surpassing others, but themselves.

I want all pupils to have access to the same content; it is the presentation of the content that changes not the amount. Setting is a difficult concept for me, as I feel it is a mix of personalities that creates an engaging learning environment rather than segregation through testing. In a class situation this is indeed difficult and we face this particularly noticeably in the music classroom as we regularly have highly experienced musicians working with those of less experience. We need to
manipulate the expected outcomes so these more experienced musicians are stretched as much as those with less experience. Setting the high ability pupils tasks they can do and achieve with ease does nothing to develop then. Essentially they have learned nothing. Lower ability pupils conversely need not be patronised: we can expect seemingly complex musical ideas to be attempted regardless of prior musical experience. Ultimately avoid ceilings in teaching – all have potential to surpass expectations if we forgo playing limits on learning at the outset.

A real barrier to class music learning can seem to be notation. I think it is an important language – one used internationally – as thus has a rightly place in the classroom. One can expect some pupils to use this language with greater fluency than others, but I do not think it should be avoided as the teacher thinks it is difficult. Pupils find things difficult when we tell them it is difficult. Learning is going from the unknown to the known. It might take several journeys but everyone can undertake such a journey to learn notation. They just might need different methods of transport.

I say don’t deny pupils access to what we might consider complex, difficult or challenging. Teach with rigour, take risks. If it doesn’t work at least we tried. Denying teaching music with challenge will do nothing but to undermine future musicians. After all we are all musicians.

One response to “Why differentiate?”

  1. Well, from a teaching point of view that speaker may have been correct. After all teaching usually means one person communicating to many. However, when we change the perspective and start to talk about learning, then things change radically. Supporting students’ learning means also differentiation, simply because we are all individuals, and have different prior knowledge and understanding of the subject.

    Empowering your students to learn makes teaching so much easier – and more effective, too. 😉

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