Reasons One Curriculum Does Not Work for All Students – A Guest Post by Neil Hanks

Piano man and American songwriting legend, Billy Joel, said that music is an explosive expression of humanity. It is something we are all touched by and no matter what culture you’re from, everyone loves music. Bono, the lead singer of the rock band U2, said that music can change the world because music can change people. And guitar virtuoso Jimi Hendrix called music his religion.

With something as universal, powerful and uniting as music, it’s no wonder that music education has a firm root in our educational systems from the elementary level right through to post-secondary and doctoral studies.

According the Ontario government, its music curriculum is intended to help students develop an understanding and appreciation of music, as well as the ability to create and perform it, so that they will be able to find a lifelong source of enjoyment and personal satisfaction in the art form.

Music not only helps develop practical artistic skills but also enables students to sharpen their ability to reason, to think critically, and to explore their emotional responses.

But having a single curriculum or rigid approach to teaching does not always work for everyone. As such, it is essential that a balanced approach to music education is offered and that students are given a chance to develop musical literacy through a range of activities like singing, playing, moving, performing, creating, and listening actively.

“Children learn to love music when they have opportunities to experience it in the context of a rich and varied curriculum,” the Ontario elementary arts curriculum outline states. “Teachers need to provide options to accommodate different learning styles and intelligences.”

Why one approach might not work for all?

Different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, varying degrees of exposure to music and formal education, as well as distinctive learning styles or intelligences are all reasons why one curriculum or teaching style might not work for all students within a music classroom.

The theory of multiple intelligences was introduced in the early 1980s by Howard Gardner, a psychologist and professor of education at Harvard University, and establishes seven distinct intelligences and keys to the way people learn. The different types of learning styles outlined by Gardner are:

    Linguistic: the intelligence of words.
    Logical-mathematical: the intelligence of numbers and reasoning.
    Spatial: the intelligence of pictures and images.
    Musical: the intelligence of tone, rhythm, and timbre.
    Bodily-Kinesthetic: the intelligence of the whole body and the hands.
    Interpersonal: the intelligence of social understanding.
    Intrapersonal: the intelligence of self-knowledge.

With these concepts in mind, educators can begin to craft an effective strategy for student success. While “musical intelligence” is one of the intellects that Gardner identified, this does not mean students who fall into a different category can’t appreciate and excel at music. Whether it’s singing, playing drums, guitar lessons or some other aspect of music, teachers simply need to learn how to incorporate different students’ strengths into their lessons.

Karen Lonsdale a music teacher with the Trillium Lakelands District School Board in Bracebridge, Ontario, faces the challenge of providing a music curriculum that is effective and engaging for all 527 of her students that range from kindergarten through to grade 8.

“Depending on the students’ needs or abilities, as a teacher I have to change the curriculum all the time,” Lonsdale said. “The curriculum in the arts sometimes doesn’t work, [and] as a teacher you have to be really flexible and creative.”

Mix in a set of students that have learning disabilities or special needs and a whole new series of challenges arise. Lonsdale teaches a number of students with developmental delays, autism, and other learning challenges and she continually has to reevaluate the way she approaches the curriculum so that she can connect with her entire classroom.

For example, Lonsdale currently has a grade 5 student that faces certain physical challenges and she has had to give special attention ensuring the student can participate.

“Her hand and eye coordination is not good, so I might put her on a percussion instrument,” Lonsdale said. “Because she does have good rhythm, she can keep the beat, but she’s physically not going to be able to play an instrument.”

After 27 years of both private and in-class teaching, Lonsdale said one of the most important factors in making a music curriculum work is making it fun.

“I have kids that will be so excited to come tell me that they’ve started guitar lessons but after a month or two they stop. And I know why… it’s because they’re not excited,” she said. “They’re not excited about the music the teacher is teaching them, it’s not what they want to learn.”

“When I was young you learned what your teacher told you to learn, whether you liked the song or not. But today, if you don’t make it fun, act excited yourself and do things that are relevant to them, you’re going to lose them.”

Neil Hanks is a business and music enthusiast. His passions, among other things, include playing and teaching music to people of all ages. When not working, you can often find him a pawn shops and garage sales looking for classic Gibson Guitars to fill his collection.

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