Thinking about differentiation and social justice

This blog post was co-authored by Sue Thomas and Sue Monk

How do schools conceptualise difference? How does this conceptualisation play out in terms of social justice? These questions were explored in a paper written by Sue Monk and her colleagues: Investigating ‘moment’ of student agency through a differentiated music curriculum

The paper gives an account of how students who could be described as underachieving and disengaged from schooling talk about the learning that has taken place through a differentiated music curriculum. The paper is not about music advocacy. Rather, the focus is on curriculum. It raises questions about what we really mean by curriculum, who differentiates it and who decides what is a valued curriculum. The students’ voices attest to the ways in which a differentiated curriculum (in this instance in music) enable students to connect their school experiences with their real world experiences and to become active in their own learning. The abstract for Sue’s paper is below.

Research provides compelling evidence linking music-making to academic achievement and increased wellbeing for disengaged students. However, in the Australian context, education policy has narrowed its focus to literacy and numeracy, with an associated ‘accountability’ framework of mandated assessment and reporting practices. Within this context teachers are being asked to demonstrate how, through their pedagogical practices, they meet the needs of all their students. As a result of this, differentiation has become the lens through which student learning and engagement are being monitored. Drawing on data from a large state secondary school, this paper examines how a differentiated music curriculum is being implemented to support student agency. We demonstrate that, through a range of formal and informal music programs, agency is enhanced through the development of self-reflexive and self-referential learning practices. However, we suggest that differentiation, alone, does not unmask the reasons behind students’ different learning experiences nor does it necessarily redress entrenched educational inequalities. We also suggest that the ‘moments’ for student agency, created by these music programs, may have as much to do with the ‘fragile’ position of music within the broader school curriculum where the spotlight of high-stakes testing is directed elsewhere.

The paper provoked considerable discussion, not just about the music curriculum or curriculum more broadly. Other points raised included:

  1. the relationship between social justice and the curriculum, particularly in relation to the last sentence in the article that notes the need to address the shared experiences of disengagement and marginalisation
  2. music and learning
  3. ways of theorising research: working from the data (grounded theory) or with a preconceived theoretical framework
  4. the processes involved in writing a paper with multiple authors

A reference point for this paper is Morwenna Griffiths’ work on social justice and education. She claims that there has been insufficient research on the experience of education and the importance of creating opportunities for students to participate in joyful, in-the-moment learning experiences. Much of the research about social justice and education is related to issues of distributive justice – redistribution, access to resources and opportunities, etc. The usual rationale is that these are even more significant for disadvantaged and marginalised students because they are linked to their future outcomes. However, Griffiths asks us to rethink this instrumental view of education, arguing that we need to consider the ‘integral’ reasons for education and take into account much broader questions about social justice, such as ‘What constitutes a good life?’ (p. 658). Griffiths suggests that a good life includes both social and individual measures that relate more to ‘a person’s full humanity’ (p. 658). Experiencing pleasure and joy in learning is important, she argues, ‘in the educational space of coming to understand’ (p. 656). These ideas provide a useful way of understanding the discussions with students that formed a major part of Sue’s paper. During interviews with students at one state secondary school, several students articulated the importance of the music programs in their lives. They discussed a growing awareness of their own learning goals, strengths and needs, as well as a deep satisfaction and joy of making music. These discussions provide a rich account of how students themselves explain the connection between cognitive and emotional engagement, which goes beyond the usual overemphasis on music programs as promoting engagement through increased behavioural participation.

The paper concludes by asking as to consider whether such positive responses are directly related to music-making or whether they reflect the overall position of music within the school curriculum, and the fact that high stakes curriculum subjects, such as literacy and numeracy, have pushed the possibilities for joyful in-the-moment learning experiences to the periphery of school life for students.


2 thoughts on “Thinking about differentiation and social justice

  1. Yes Sue. I agree with your comments about this paper. It is an enlightening read. I really liked the way Sue Monk used the school’s music program to frame disengagement as a social/cultural practice. This led her to arguing for approaches that address disengagement as a social/group issue (as opposed to extra programs being ‘done to’ individual students). Hmmm….fodder for thought.


    1. Thanks Kim. Sue was most particular that the paper was about how schools differentiated the curriculum. That doesn’t mean that she didn’t value music programs but that the paper was not an argument for the benefits of music but about differentiation in the curriculum and social justice broadly.
      Sue T


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