There is something magical about attending a classical music concert. Oops, did I just lose you? Hang in there, I am going somewhere with this!

You enter the concert hall and find your seat. People are murmuring quietly. It’s all very decorous. Then the orchestra takes their seat and tunes in to a note played by the second violinist. The first violinist enters to applause. Then the conductor, usually to a standing ovation – before anything has happened. He takes his place in front of the orchestra on his podium. His back to the audience.

Then there is a hush. Quiet. Expectation rises.

He raises his arms, and – music. Depending on the piece, often the violins begin. He cues in the cellos, the trumpets with a glance, flutes, oboes and clarinets follow. At some point, all the instruments play. They may play pianissimo (very softly) or forte (loud). But they don’t play whatever they want, no, they play according to the direction of the conductor, following a composition – a plan. At times one will be sitting still, another waiting for their turn, a third intensely playing, whilst the fourth is turning a page looking ahead. Even when there are 3 flutes, one may be playing whilst the others wait. They know their place, but always under the direction of the conductor. Ahh, I think you may see where I am going!

The magic of a classroom symphony

Yes, classroom practice. How many times have you had a classroom plan go according to how you had imagined it and it was like, well a piece of well-orchestrated music! You walk in, the students are all there, no latecomers, expectant. They have what they need. The technology works. The lesson plan runs smoothly. No one steps out of line. The end-of-lesson review shows students have all learned something! The dream, right?

But it need not be a dream. This is how a classroom can run. Each time. With careful and intentional planning, using a differentiation classroom curriculum framework.

Differentiated planning

Differentiated planning is like a written piece of music. I am no composer. But my son is a pianist, and I have seen some of the compositions he plays! Just for the Piano! Piano pieces are written using two clefs, for two hands. I am looking at a Beethoven piece now. The right hand (treble clef) will often be playing two notes at once, and the left hand (bass clef) may well be playing 3 notes at once. If I add in other musical instruments, more notes. Each plays in harmony with the others.

Our classrooms are like that you know. Each student plays their own tune. Brings their own melody to the table. We as teachers need to become like the conductor on the stage, directing, guiding, a nod here, a glance there. Bringing out the best in each of our students. Softening one, raising another, allowing one to speak, asking a third to be quiet for a time. But this can only happen when we differentiate what we teach. When we plan to allow them all to play their own tunes but in harmony.

3 steps to the differentiated classroom

How can I make my classroom symphony sound like a beautiful piece of music? There are 3 steps as teachers we need to take in differentiated planning:

  1. Adopt a piece of music (the curriculum framework) – There are several curriculum frameworks that will give you the guidelines and direction for successfully differentiating your classroom. June Maker, Frank Williams, Sarah Kaplan, and Carol Tomlinson are just a few writers who have written extensively on this way of teaching, sharing evidence-based classroom teaching ideas. Choose one that works best for you, and that you would be comfortable implementing.
  2. Understanding the different musicians and what and how they play (your students) – Understand your students. I have said this before and cannot emphasise this enough. Knowing your students is a key step to successfully planning for your classroom. Spend the extra time to understand their preferred learning styles, their interests, and what they want to achieve (see here how I have done this previously).
  3. Plan the playing of the piece (plan the learning) – Use the chosen framework to think about each of your students. Have you ever seen a conductor’s music? His book is much larger than that of the musicians he is directing. All the instruments are present right there in front of him (see image below). And during rehearsals, he will make copious notes, about emphasis, who will play loud, and who soft.
Conductor's music sheet - a symbol for differentiated planning in the classroom

Differentiated planning in practice

Let’s quickly look at an example! At times I teach English. In planning a series of novel lessons using William’s framework for encouraging creative thinking, I might begin with his creative reading/creative listening strategies.

I know I will have students whose learning styles preference literacy, others who are more auditory learners and others who are visual learners. I may also have those who have additional learning needs that demand different forms of literacy engagement. The strategies I have chosen, which are about developing in my students the ability to generate new ideas and information through listening or reading, will meet many of those needs.  

I start my planning by sourcing a set of novels at different levels so that all students have access. I will also grab the audiobook – I love having the class listen to these together. Not only does it give everyone access to the novel to be studied, but the skill of building meaning from listening to text is as important as reading. Finally, if available, the graphic novel is another great option for student engagement, encouraging visualisation skills.

The end of the first movement

The result of my class’s engagement with the novel is that all students have read/heard/or seen the novel, with preference given to their specific needs, strengths or abilities. The first movement in my classroom symphony is complete. I am ready to conduct the rest of the music.

Want to know more?

My latest book, Curriculum Journeys – Towards Inclusion (A Journey through the world of Curriculum Frameworks for the inclusive education of ALL students), gives more detail on the process of planning for an inclusive classroom. Framed as a journey through curriculum frameworks, the book takes you, the practising teacher, through seven different planning frameworks for developing a 21st Century inclusive classroom learning environment, one where all students can learn. You can find it on Amazon now!

Music a symbol for the differentiated classroom

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