Differentiation and the Brain: How Neuroscience Supports the Learner-friendly Classroom
In Differentiation and the Brain: How Neuroscience Supports the Learner-Friendly Classroom, authors David Sousa and Carol Ann Tomlinson examine the practice of learning differentiation in the modern day classroom. The book explores challenges in public education where inclusive and differentiated classrooms have become the norm. Some of the key highlights in the book center around the brain’s inability to learn in a fear based setting, how a positive learning environment supports memory and how the brain responds best to patterns in curriculum. “Teachers who differentiate instruction effectively decrease fear of failure responses through addressing student readiness, talking with students about the role of “failure” in learning, sharing their own failures, and providing effective feedback via non-graded formative assessment to help students build toward mastery before summative/graded experiences.”
As a music educator for the Toronto District School Board one of the greatest challenges has been adapting the wind band program to be inclusive of special needs students. My area of research in my PhD Music Education program is learning differentiated wind band education at the elementary level. My school board is currently implementing a program that will see all special education students streamed into regular classes. I currently find myself in a unique position as a music educator. In the first eight years of instrumental teaching, special needs students were included in my classroom. For some, the program was an opportunity to be in an inclusive setting, make music, express oneself kinaesthetically and take part in music curriculum in a meaningful way. For others, the wind band program was overwhelming and often became an arena for acting out and disrupting the class as a whole. The challenge for me was how to engage all students in the act of making music in a positive environment through the traditional wind band medium.
In 2013, I changed schools and began to teach wind band music in a setting where special needs students were not streamed into the regular classroom. I currently find myself, as part of my schedule, teaching brass instruments to nine special needs students at the Gr. 7 and 8 level. The progress has been phenomenal with real potential for streaming some of the students into my regular intermediate classes. I have set up a framework of research for learning differentiated wind band students and am developing a curriculum of wind band education that works on a unified numbered approach based on the first five notes of the B flat concert scale. This curriculum eliminates the staff and basic notation in order to allow students on different instruments to play music by focusing on one unified line of numbered patterns that they can play in unison, guided by the instructor.
Differentiation and the Brain’s emphasis on pattern based teaching supports the progress I have seen in developing a structured wind band curriculum that seeks to make learning instruments accessible for all students. The book does, however, have a generalized, common-sense feel about it that underlines the need for teachers to look at the whole, unique individual through relational pedagogy. There is nothing earth-shattering here in terms of neuroscience. The authors use brain lingo to support basic education concepts in dealing with differentiated students. But it is informative and there are some good concepts for educators to reflect on and incorporate in the differentiated classroom.