I’m standing in the grocery store aisle, trying to cost-compare in my monumental struggle to find the greatest bargain on black beans. “I hear the earth move from under my feet, I feel the sky tumbling down . . .” Carol King is beckoning me back to the shag carpet of my childhood, where I would listen to soft rock on vinyl. It’s decent music, not too offensive, if a little boring. It fits with the fluorescent lighting and rows of processed products.
When I leave the store, I flip through the stations, each one geared toward a specific demographic group. Somehow, I don’t fit. None of the stations will play the artists I like. I can’t imagine the rock station choosing Sufjan Stevens or Damien Rice. So I settle for NPR and listen to Garrison Keiller tell me the news from Lake Wobegon.
At home, I turn to Pandora, where I can customize the station to fit my own tastes. It’s not exactly an iPod. I am unable to instantly access any song I prefer. Instead, I get to provide my thumbs up or thumbs down and over time, the station will expose me to artists that I had never known (like Ben Harper or the Neutral Milk Hotel).
And yet . . . I’m looking forward to the jam session. Andrew is playing at the Roosevelt Tavern. He’ll be taking requests. Less choice for sure, but the music will be real.
These four musical models represent my own journey in shifting toward a more authentic, personalized approach.
Stage One: Standardization
Goal: Reach the entire class
Focus Questions: What does my class need? How can I motivate this group?
Description: At the beginning of student teaching, I followed the corporate, data-driven methods of the textbook companies. I started with the history book, bland like grocery store music and absence of anything offensive. My students listened to the fluff under our classroom fluorescent lights and I grew resentful of students who despised the grocery store atmosphere.
Pros: A teacher can plan great lessons and get the “middle group” really interested. It’s also easier to plan.
Cons: Students get bored and become disengaged.
Stage Two: Differentiation
Goal: Reach different levels within the class
Focus Questions: What does each small group need? How can I differentiate my instruction?
Metaphor: Broadcasting / Multiple Stations
Description: When I had a class of my own, I created several lessons based upon the notion of differentiated instruction. I leveled my class on ability and on performance and on learning style. I had my Top 40 style and my hip hop style and my oldies group. The class didn’t have to play the same tune. Students could choose a station that fit their own style.
Pros: I’m providing intervention and enrichment
Cons: It can be time consuming and the layers of differentiation can get confusing
Stage Three: Customization
Goal: Provide individual choice so that students can own their learning
Focus Questions: What does each student need? How can I get to know students well enough to customize instruction? How can I plan projects so that students can customize on their own?
Description: If Muzak uses data to get a broad, bland scope and Clear Channel data to create stations, a Pandora approach uses data to help provide suggestions and support for individuals. Here, the students can choose things that are quirky and odd, their own indie and mainstream fare that fits their personal preference.
Pros: Students get exactly what they need and they find it based upon teacher recommendation.
Cons: It can turn too individualistic and it can mirror a consumeristic mentality. Choice menus have a place, but there is a danger in relying on the menu instead of forging one’s own path. Also, it requires quality teacher-student relationship and creative planning.
Stage Four: Personalization
Goal: Students are free, empowered and ready to make learning personal
Focus Questions: What does each student need? How do students express these needs? How can I shift from a catechism to an ongoing dialogue? How do I shift from “providing choices” to facilitating a democratic process?
Metaphor: A jam session where each voice matters, where there is a balance between solos and shared harmonies
Description: The shift here is from choice to freedom, where the power is more horizontal. It’s a chance to develop loose lessons with a greater sense of student autonomy. It’s real. It’s personal. It’s respectful of autonomy and identity.
Pros: Students become independent, self-directed learners who own their learning process. And unlike customization, it’s sustainable.
Cons: It can be difficult for students who aren’t used to the autonomy. And unlike the customized approach, there are times when the will of the group will supersede the right of the individual. There’s a tension here that’s difficult both for teachers and students.