Differentiation is one of the more important methods facing teachers today. With a diversity among students that is greater than ever, meeting individual student needs within a single classroom can be challenging. Some of the challenge of differentiation can be eased by structuring the learning environment so that students develop skills to be independent learners. When more of the responsibility for learning is placed on the student, differentiation becomes a matter of self-pacing, which is a more effective strategy. To explain how this plays out in a classroom, I will once again use my 7th grade class as an example.
The bass clef is relatively new to many of my 7th graders. They have had ample opportunity to learn and practice using the treble clef, but limited opportunity to use the bass clef. My lesson plan for them this week was for them to practice and perform the bass line of “Stand by Me” on their piano keyboard apps I had them download to their smart phones. This is the second class for them to work on this project. During the last class, I noticed that although I had some of the note names labeled on their music, some students were still unsure of the notes names and even unsure of where they are on the piano keyboard. Others had all of the note names down, and could quickly find them on the keyboard, but needed practice playing the music in time. This set up a situation where differentiation was needed. I wanted to improve the skill of those who could already find the right notes on the keyboard, and build the skill at a more basic level in those that were not yet at that level.
I began class by giving them a note naming worksheet. I offered them optional extra credit if they timed themselves on each line; one extra point for every second under one minute for completing the line if all the answers were correct. The students appreciated the chance to get extra credit and some of the boys made a friendly competition out of it. Once they had finished the worksheet, I had them choose one line and play it on their keyboard. This was to connect the note names to keys on the piano. The pitch set on the worksheet was exactly the same as that for the bass line they would be practicing. Students worked at their own pace, and those who were slower were not penalized for not timing themselves.
Next, the students were told to find the notes they just named on the worksheet in the music for “Stand by Me.” I then played the recording of the song while they did this, so the rhythm, which they were not asked to read, would be fresh in their minds. When the recording was over, students began practicing the music. Some worked in small groups, playing the music together, others worked alone, and those having the most difficulty worked with me on my acoustic piano. Having the music played on the acoustic piano so that everyone could hear it in the background of what they were doing served as a frequent reminder of what their performance should sound like. Five students working on the piano went from not knowing where to start, to playing the first half of the music correctly. Those students were then able and happy to show their new-found skill to others who needed help, and a productive work group was formed, freeing me up to hear and assess those on their phone apps.
This approach was different from the one I used for the other 7th grade class, in which there were much fewer students who needed substantial assistance. In that class, students who were doing well were able to pair up with students who needed help, and bring the latter up to speed that way. So there was inter-class and intra-class differentiation leading to the point where all 7th graders could play the bass part to Stand by Me on a keyboard. All of these students will increase their skill at performing this song with further practice, and their performance will eventually become accompaniment for playing or singing the melody. This brings me to one more important point. We often stop building proficiency too soon—as soon as a student “gets it.” But excellence isn’t achieved by just getting it; it is achieved by exceeding a baseline. We should be building student skills beyond a basic proficiency, and onward to a high level of performance.