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Prelude and Pedagogy: Where the Twain Shall Meet

by Fred A. Bonner, II & Jewel L. Hairston - July 26, 2007

The purpose of this commentary is to integrate college student development theory, multiculturalism, pedagogy, and student learning style concepts with concepts from music theory. A conceptual framework is provided to assist college instructors and multicultural students in the classroom teaching and learning context.

Perhaps some of the most influential and intriguing discussions I have engaged in concerning classroom teaching strategies and student learning style characteristics have been held during informal lunch meetings with my fellow colleague.  Our exchanges were typically conducted over nondescript garden salads with a backdrop of melodious rhythm and blues music.

On one particular day, our chat seemed to create an interesting vibrato, vacillating between music theory and classroom instruction—I am unsure whether our divergent thoughts should be attributed to the bland culinary dishes sitting in front of us or the funky staccato beats blaring in the distance behind us.  Whatever the impetus was for developing what we have now coined the Bonner/Hairston Musical model (Figure 3), our goal quickly developed into a strategic plan on how to use this framework as a means of enhancing teaching and learning in the multicultural classroom.

The Bonner/Hairston model was created to develop an impressionistic awareness of the various components influencing the collegiate teaching and learning process. The interplay of student development, vocational, and musical theory is used to elucidate effective instructional practices that should be advanced within the multicultural classroom-learning environment. Without engaging in an exhaustive discussion of each of the model’s constituent parts, I will share the more salient aspects of its overall purpose and structure in order to show how we have integrated principles from both music theory and education to reveal the linkages between these two broad fields.

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The grand staff in music composition provides the scaffolding for the display of musical notation, while the classroom provides the scaffolding for the display of human aggregate characteristics. By human aggregate characteristics, we mean the collection of traits members within a particular setting exhibit (Moos, 1986). Thus, just as we view the grand staff as a template to support the inclusion of the bass and treble clef symbols, which dictate musical pitch, we can also view the college classroom as a template to support the inclusion of diverse learners— who ultimately dictate classroom pitch (i.e. by their human aggregate [student] behaviors impacting the overall classroom ethos [climate]).

The grand staff serves as a metaphor to provide us with a holistic perspective on understanding human aggregate characteristics, primarily through our informal interactions and observations of student behavior. For example, to identify the characteristics students brought to the learning environment, we examined their interactions with one another, as well as their reactions to the overall presentation of the instructional content. It was also necessary to identify each student’s level of participation in the classroom setting. Body language and facial expressions provided visuals that quickly identified students’ feelings about the learning experience as well as their attitudes toward the learning context.

Instead of thwarting our students’ attempts at sharing their individual experiences and perspectives, we used these opportunities to enhance course subject matter and classroom rapport. We adhered to Delpit’s (1995) assertion that, “We must open ourselves to learn from others with whom we may share little understanding” (p.131). Thus, we both implicitly “went about the business” of creating inclusive classroom environments that supported individual learner expression.


Time signatures indicate the number of beats in a measure of music and inform the musician of note to beat ratios. We equated time signature designations with student learning processes. Just as beat values vary in time duration, so does the learning process for classroom participants. Kolb’s (1983) model of experiential learning (Figure 1) was used to display myriad learner types and learning style preferences. Further, the model is used to elucidate the necessity for varying instructional style within the classroom to meet the needs of all students—eventually altering the cadence of the teaching and learning process.

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The time signature metaphor highlighted our need to provide varied instruction in a manner that touched on the preferred learning modalities of each student. To that end, we initiated formal inventories (e.g. Kolb’s Model and the Student Learning Styles Inventory [SLI]), as well as informal queries (e.g. questioning, one-on-one meetings, group discussions) to identify these preferences.  Additionally, the use of multiple teaching and assessment models created opportunities for us to meet the needs of our diverse learners (Joyce and Weil, 1996).


Key signatures are the collection of sharps and flats at the beginning of a musical piece, sometimes included within the piece; they are used to alter the pitch of individual notes.  Our model depicts a parallel we perceive to exist between key signature and student personality traits. Holland’s (1973) Theory of Vocational Personalities (Figure 2) is employed to shed light on this aspect of classroom instruction.  

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The inclusion of sharps and flats alters the quality of musical pitch. The musical piece that utilizes a uniform pitch would be considered dull and uneventful. The same precept applies in the classroom. A classroom setting geared toward one particular type of student, or one particular student personality or learning modality would be rendered soporific.  

It is the collection of diverse personalities and personality traits that addresses this issue and ultimately makes the teaching and learning arena a dynamic place. We used the six personality types articulated in Holland’s models to reveal the diverse personality profiles that could be potentially reflected in a single classroom setting -- personality profiles that collectively and individually influence our delivery of instructional content, interaction with classroom learners, and planning for future teaching engagements.

The key signature essentially revealed how the numerous personality types in our classrooms alter the pitch of our instructional processes—similar to the effect the sharp or flat exerts on the musical piece. Listening to our students’ concerns and allowing them to express their feelings about classroom instructional material and protocol (i.e., negotiating course syllabus requirements and assignment point distributions) allowed us to more effectively structure the learning environment. Once we were able to assess our students’ needs through this profiling process, we then shaped our course goals and vision to satisfy the appetite of these classroom instructional connoisseurs. By and large, our objective was to promote the display of individual student expression in order to circumvent the one-dimensional approach to teaching and learning we often engage in—an approach that embraces tradition and shuns constructivist-based practices, diversity and multiculturalism.


Musical notes are the rudimentary elements used in the composition of melody and song. Notes, which are displayed on the lines and spaces of the grand staff, were equated with a number of student and classroom-centered variables that were found to impact the process of teaching and learning. Just as the musical note is manipulated on the grand staff, the variables we identified are manipulated in the classroom environment.

The notes occupying the lines of the grand staff were denoted as classroom centered variables--course content, instruction, assessment and evaluation, classroom dynamics, and student-instructor rapport. The notes occupying the spaces between the lines were denoted as student centered variables--culture/ethnicity, gender, disability, and age.  

Like note combinations in the formation of chords in music, the classroom teacher engages in the instructional process in a similar manner. A classroom chord could be composed of a note combination including gender, age, and classroom dynamics; or assessment and evaluation, culture/ethnicity, and disability might be the designated grouping.  Regardless of the note aggregation, the overarching goal is to enhance student learning by increasing the instructor’s awareness of variables that may foster or hinder this process.  Much like Bonner and Bailey (2006) assert, such opportunities, “create an institutional climate in which these students feel that their voices and worldviews are not particularistic but part of the normal structure of the academy” (p. 40).

Therefore, as instructors we actively used our classroom demographic data, data collected through both informal and formal exchanges with our students, essentially to establish the nomenclature of each note. Once this information was secured, we were able to combine notes and assemble chords and chord progressions that ultimately led to the development of our melody (i.e. learning). Although each chord represented an aggregation of notes, it was the complementary sound that each note added to the composition that made the melody distinct.

Our musical model incorporates student development, multiculturalism, pedagogical and student learning style data, in conjunction with music theory. The purpose of this model is to heighten awareness and to provide a conceptual framework that will assist college instructors in their efforts to meet the needs of a diverse classroom constituency.  

As college instructors and the proponents of this model we say, “Let the music play as a background sound and as a partnership between the composer and the performer, and let teaching resound as a composition of precepts and experiences shared between the teacher and the student.”


Bonner, F. A. II & Bailey, K. (2006). Assessing the academic climate for African American men. In M. Cuyjet (Ed.) African American Men in College (pp. 24-46). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Delpit, L. (1995). Other people's children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York, NY: The New Press.

Holland, J. L. (1973). Making vocational choices: A theory of careers. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc.

Kolb, D. (1983). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Moos, R. H. (1986). The human context: Environmental determinants of behavior.

Malabar, FL: Robert E. Krieger Publishing Company.

Joyce, B., & Weil. M. (1996). Models of teaching (5th ed.). New York: Allyn & Bacon.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 26, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14564, Date Accessed: 5/19/2022 11:08:16 PM

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About the Author
  • Fred Bonner, II
    Texas A&M University
    E-mail Author
    FRED A. BONNER, II, is an Associate Professor of higher education administration in the Educational Administration and Human Resource Development department at Texas A&M UniversityŚCollege Station. He received a B.A. degree in chemistry from the University of North Texas in 1991, an M.S.Ed. in curriculum and instruction from Baylor University in 1994, and an Ed.D. in higher education administration and college teaching from the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville in 1997. Bonner has been the recipient of the American Association for Higher Education Black Caucus Dissertation Award and the Educational Leadership, Counseling, and Foundation's Dissertation of the Year Award from the University of Arkansas College of Education. Bonner has published articles and book chapters on academically gifted African American male college students, teaching in the multicultural college classroom, diversity issues in student affairs, and success factors influencing the retention of students of color in higher education. He currently serves as an assistant editor for the National Association of Student Affairs Professionals Journal, and has completed three summers as a research fellow with the Yale University Psychology Department (PACE Center), focusing on issues that impact academically gifted African American male college students. Bonner is also completing a book that highlights the experiences of postsecondary gifted African American male undergraduates in predominantly White and Historically Black college contexts. Fred spent the 2005-2006 year as an American Council on Education (ACE) Fellow in the Office of the President at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia.
  • Jewel Hairston
    Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech University

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