Differentiated Instruction in the Music Classroom

Differentiated Instruction in the Music Classroom

What if there was a way to make your classroom more efficient, save you time, and better communicate with your administrator all at once? Incorporating more differentiated instruction into your classroom takes some work, but the rewards are worth it.

“Differentiated instruction” refers to a teaching philosophy that gives different students different ways to learn the same material. It’s an effective strategy for an obvious reason: kids don’t all learn the same way (and as teachers, we know that all too well). Adjusting your teaching to better serve students with different learning styles sounds like an imposition — you have to offer more content, more material, spend more time working with students individually. In reality, it’s an opportunity. Differentiated instruction provides a way to meet the needs of every student.

What is Differentiated Instruction?

In the previous paragraph, I referred to differentiated instruction as a “teaching philosophy.” For many of us, “teaching philosophy”  conjures images of reflection statements and idealistic conversations from our student teaching. After my first semester leading a middle school band room, my “teaching philosophy” ended up sounding more like “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy” and yes, I was thinking of the students as the enemy. I overcame my cynicism (especially once the kids sounded great at a concert), but I recognize that incorporating fancy “philosophies” can be difficult in the real world.

A better way to think about differentiated instruction is to consider it in a more functional context. For example, ask how can differentiated instruction:

  • Help my students learn skills faster?
  • Help me keep students engaged?
  • Make my classroom more efficient?

Putting the philosophy in context gives it real-world meaning — and potential. In this case, offering multiple paths to learning can help students learn skills by ensuring that they have access to an activity that matches their learning style, engages students by empowering them to choose their own approach, and improves classroom efficiency by focusing on activities that are appropriate to each student’s ability level.

At its heart, differentiated instruction is about changing the teaching process to more effectively reach each student, regardless of past experience, ability level, or personality.

A variety of sources, including Carol Ann Tomlinson, offer four points in the learning process where teachers can differentiate things for students: presentations of content, activities used to learn, products the student creates, and the learning environment itself.

Differentiated Instruction in Practice

Let’s think about differentiated instruction in the context of teaching a new rhythm. Our students are ready to try dotted quarter notes for the first time. Some students will need a large diagram on the board showing how 3 eighth notes fit into the dotted quarter. Some will learn better by hearing you play dotted quarter notes with a metronome. Presenting the material in different ways helps students with varied learning needs.

We can similarly vary the activities students use to practice. Some students will need to see the dotted quarter in a piece of repertoire to truly understand its application. Others will learn better by playing along with a method book exercise so they have a simpler context (and can hear when they are off). Some students will learn a new rhythm best away from their instrument (so they don’t have to multitask and also concentrate on tone production, etc.).

Students can create different products as well — some might make a recording to demonstrate their performance ability, while others need to cement the notation with a music theory worksheet. Finally, don’t discount the learning environment. Some students will struggle with this concept in an ensemble setting but learn quickly when attacking it in a practice room.

It’s fitting that there’s not a “right” way to incorporate differentiated instruction in your classroom. We all have different approaches.

Differentiated Instruction Is Not…

Let’s also address some misconceptions. Differentiated instruction is NOT:

  • An individual lesson for every student. That’s not realistic. Offering multiple activities and learning approaches isn’t the same thing as lavishly catering to each student.
  • Separating the “dumb kids” and the “smart kids.” Sure, differentiated instruction is good at keeping elite achievers engaged and supporting lower-level students. But that doesn’t mean separating them just to separate them. Indeed, pairing a weaker and a stronger student together can offer some effective differentiation.
  • Teaching only the lower-level students while the more advanced students “teach themselves.” Differentiated instruction means pushing students of all abilities.
  • Incompatible with state standards. In fact, differentiated instruction usually makes it easier to teach to standards by helping you find ways to ensure every student meets the learning target.

In the Music Classroom

So how do we put this to work in the ensemble classroom? In the instrumental classroom, some of the differentiation has already been done — students are learning different skills because they play different instruments. They even arrived at those instruments based on (in most cases) a combination of choice and readiness. This is textbook differentiated instruction. Of course, it also makes teaching all these different students a challenge.

– Group Students Based on Interests and Strengths

Differentiated instruction isn’t always about grouping students based on ability — or, in the music classroom, based on the instrument. Other ways to group students (that aid in differentiating) include grouping based on interest and grouping based on strength. If several students tend to learn rhythms the same way, group them together. The students who learn rhythms faster can help students at other ability levels. Additional pairings can involve extra-musical skills. A student who produces the most beautiful tone might be an introvert and the student who just can’t figure out how to get their airstream centered might be a great leader. Pair them up!

As risky as it sounds, you can also pair friends together. Good classroom management is essential here, but those pre-existing relationships can end up being fruitful for your ensemble.

– Offer Individualized Feedback

Offering individualized feedback used to be a laborious process, involving many(!) hours of listening to low-quality student recordings and adding feedback, or pausing rehearsal long enough to have everyone play in front of the group. Today, technology makes it easy for educators to offer feedback to their students.

Which piece of technology should you use? I’m biased, of course, but offering specific feedback and differentiating instruction is exactly what SmartMusic was made for. Whether you use SmartMusic or not, it’s important to remember that individualized feedback needs to be:

  • Personal. If the feedback is generic or could apply to any student, it won’t be as effective. Be as specific as possible.
  • Efficient. The more time you spend giving feedback, the less time students have to complete a task!
  • Balanced. Try to give students information about their strengths and weaknesses.
  • Helpful. The easiest way to do this is to combine feedback with clear instructions about what to do next.

Managing Student Skepticism

A common student complaint with differentiating instruction is that it’s “not fair.” The more advanced student often ends up with more difficult tasks, which can feel like an undue burden. There are two ways to overcome the objections.

First, explain what “fairness” really means. I’ve pointed out the distinction between everyone having “the same” and everyone getting “what they need” and (surprisingly) even most middle schoolers accept this concept. Avoiding comparison with peers also sets up a welcoming environment for musical risk taking.

Second, foster a team attitude with your ensemble. Set high expectations and work (with a lesson plan) to bring the entire group up to that goal. Encouraging peer mentors can go a long way as well. When a peer is there to help with a difficult technique exercise or passage in the music, students are accountable to each other (not just the gradebook), and the “unfair” complaint goes away because the team effort becomes a goal unto itself.

Wrap Up

Today we talked about what differentiated instruction is, is not, and shared some top-level ideas of how it might be implemented in a music classroom. This is all fine and good, but feels like a step or two away from making it actually happen. In tomorrow’s post I’ll share some very specific ways you can build differentiated instruction into your lesson plans.

Hopefully this helps you make the leap from thinking that this makes sense to thinking this makes sense for your students this year.

Ryan Sargent is MakeMusic’s social media manager, an active jazz and funk trombonist, and an affiliate faculty member at the Metropolitan State University of Denver. A graduate of Baylor University, Ryan has taught middle school band and low brass lessons in Texas and Colorado. In addition to his teaching, performing, and social media managing, Ryan serves as vice president for the non-profit Technology Institute for Music Educators.

Although he no longer spends his days teaching band, Ryan does differentiate his coworkers based on their learning styles.

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