Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Tips for Differentiating Instruction in the General Music Classroom

Don’t fret!  It’s not just “something else to do.”  Implementing strategies and activities for differentiated instruction in your music classroom can be easy, practical, and beneficial for students.  A classroom that uses differentiated instruction simply works to meet the needs of its students.  Differentiating instruction might look like centers or independent projects or small group work.  It might involve taking student surveys to find out what they are interested in.  The bottom line is that differentiated instruction in any classroom is simply meeting the needs of individual students.

For a general music teacher this can sound over-bearing.  We often have hundreds of students that we see once a week.  How can we possibly meet the needs of all students through differentiated instruction when we know so little about them? 

I certainly won’t claim to have all the answers, but I do have some simple tips for implementing strategies for differentiated instruction in the general music classroom. 

1. Differentiate one aspect of the lesson in your beginning stages of differentiated instruction.

Think about the three main parts of your lesson: content, processes, and products.  Give students at all levels opportunities to experience the content, processes, and products in ways and at a pace that works well for them.  For instance, an advanced student might be ready to begin composing in 6/8 time while struggling students are still working on 4/4 time.  Implementing readiness-level (below-level, on-target and advanced) small groups would be an easy way for students to explore rhythm content at a pace that meets their needs. 

You might differentiate the processes in which students learn the content.  For example, I use a lot of small group work, but there are always some students who drift away on their own.  I used to require them to work together in a group, while, sadly, forgetting that many students are great independent workers.  Now I give students the option to work alone or with others when it’s appropriate.  This gives students more choices and thus helps management, student engagement, and learning. 

Differentiating the products within a lesson generally allows students choice opportunities in order to show or demonstrate what they have learned.  For example, in the rhythm lesson mentioned before, advanced students might choose to compose and perform four measures of 6/8 time while the struggling students might choose to perform only.  I believe it is important to involve authentic music skills in each lesson, but at times a variety of written assignments or projects might also be appropriate.  For example, my third grade classes are working on a West African program.  I will probably allow them to choose a writing project towards the end of the unit that allows them to demonstrate what they have learned in the form of a letter, speech, short story, or another writing activity.  But this will come at the end of a unit filled with authentic musicking (David Elliott) and dancing.    

2. Think about your students learning styles, interests, and readiness levels.
Because we general music teachers might not be able to differentiate instruction according to the needs of every student individually, we can at least provide a variety of activities that reach multiple learning styles, interests, and readiness levels.

When I teach rondo during a form unit, for example, I really enjoy allowing students to create their own B, C, D, etc. sections with things that they are interested in.  You can even create simple ostinati using words or phrases related to student interests. 

Be sure to include the use of multiple intelligences in your lessons (Howard Gardner).  Visual students will need to see examples of form and rhythm, aural students will benefit from hearing an example, while kinesthetic learners will benefit from a simple ABA dance.  Don’t be afraid to integrate math (for the logical/mathematical learner), self-reflections (intrapersonal), group work (interpersonal), language or lyrics (linguistic), and the humanities and connections that the arts have to our society and world (existential/naturalistic).  This leads me to my next point:

3.  Get out of your box!
You might already feel like you do that a lot (hopefully I’m not alone), but differentiating instruction really is all about the kids and their long-term learning.  Add one strategy at a time and be flexible with it.  Applying differentiated instruction strategies certainly won’t work perfectly at first (will it ever?), but it does make the classroom a more welcoming and safe environment as students are allowed to experience failure and success at their own pace. 

Differentiating your instruction should be a natural process that leads to authentic learning experiences and products.  Don’t try to force things that don’t work, and keep your composure when the music room gets a little louder than you prefer (or is that just me, too?).  A couple of great resources about differentiating instruction are How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms (2nd Edition) by Carol Ann Tomlinson and Making Differentiation a Habit by Diane Heacox.

Hats off to you as you try differentiation in your music classroom! 

And hats off to me for my longest blog post ever. 


  1. This article helped me out a lot. Please keep the suggestion coming

  2. Love your thoughts on simple differentiating ideas. The word "differentiate" always burdened my shoulders when teaching but simple changes can give students different ways to learn and succeed. Thanks!

  3. Great article! Wish I knew who wrote it so I can attribute. Am I missing something or is there no author listed?