As well as teaching piano, I teach music in a busy South West London school. In education, differentiation is a common word. A recent talk at my school put me in mind to make a blog post about it as it is an area of great difficulty in music. Differentiation is discussed all the way through teacher training, it is discussed after every lesson observation. It is generally an expected part of effective education.

If you’re not sure what is meant by differentiation in education, it is essentially planning a lesson (each and every lesson in fact) with the expectation that there will be varying levels of ability within the class. Therefore, if you give the same activity, worksheet or even question to every member of your class, you are not effectively differentiating.

Imagine you are planning a maths lesson and you have designed a lovely worksheet for whatever topic you happen to be teaching. You should know your students well enough to know that many of them will learn in different ways. Some learn well just by listening, some by watching you demonstrate while others learn best by doing it themselves. You should also know that while some will surge ahead with the topic you have designed your worksheet around, others will need to spend much longer and will need to attempt it several different ways.

Naturally, you would have produced two or three different versions of your worksheet to cater for the varying ability ranges well as an extension task for the high-fliers. You might also have carefully hidden the fact that you are giving an easier sheet to the lower-ability members of the class. What’s more, you will do this for each and every lesson you ever teach.

So, why does differentiation touch a nerve with me? Read these two sentences and see if you don’t agree:

  • It is not uncommon to have in a year 7 class, a grade 6/7/8 musician sat next to a a pupil who does not even know how to identify a single note on a piano keyboard.
  • Music has a wider range of ability than perhaps any other subject.

In most subjects, you can be fairly sure that even though your brand new year 7 class, fresh into secondary school will have (sometimes vastly) differing levels of ability, they have all covered ‘roughly’ the same topics in primary school. With music, this is never true. This is the real crux of what I am saying - in my opinion, it is absolutely IMPOSSIBLE for a student who has never had any external music lessons to enter school in year 7, be taught music only in timetabled music lessons and to go on and get an A*, A ,or even a B at A-Level. I would venture that this is not the case with ANY other subject.

How do you realistically differentiate a lesson when half of your class don’t know where middle C is and two or three are already musical high-fliers? Do you recruit the musicians to help train the lower abilities? From one angle, that’s not a bad idea - it’s certainly inclusive. But it’s hardly presenting much of a challenge for the musicians; at least not a musical challenge. Do you split them up entirely?

The fact is, nobody ever really answers the question on differentiation in music. I always ask it - and I asked an expert only last week. You always get the same reply - something along the lines of “that’s a very interesting question which we will explore further”... We never do...

Teaching music is quite challenging for various reasons, but it’s always fun. Trying to come up with new and better ways to challenge and include the entire class never gets old. But spare a thought for music teachers on the odd occasion - by definition we just don’t fit into the same mould as other subjects. Perhaps more on that in a future post.