Differentiation in art means providing for the individual needs of the students in your art class so that they all make progress.
When I was training to be an art teacher I found differentiation to be very confusing and worrying. How could I possibly plan work that differentiated for each and every single student and their varied needs? I imagined excruciatingly long lesson plans with microscopic detail for each student. Luckily this isn’t the case. So, how do you differentiate in art?
For me, differentiation is all about various ways of supporting students. Some of this is planned for and, as you become a more experienced teacher, some of this happens with thought, practice and habit. This support needs to come before, during and after the lesson.
Firstly, you need to know your students. This means looking at their data. Who has English as an additional language? Who has special educational needs? Who are you going to stretch and who is going to find things difficult? Knowing this is all part of differentiation in the art classroom. Make sure this information is in your planner. It may well become pertinent as you build up a picture of your students and notice successes or problems.
Planning a unit of work that is appropriate for the age range and ability of a class is broad differentiation. I have taught in a school where the students are streamed. I would plan very different work for a top set of students in comparison to a lower set. This is differentiation at the planning stage. I have also taught in schools where the students are not setted. If I was going into a school where I was uncertain of the ability of the students I would try and get to look at past work of different year groups. This would really help me to see what level the students are working at.
It is widely believed to be outdated to write what ‘All students will…’ ‘Most students will…’ ‘Some students will…’ to differentiate between your low, average and very able students in your planning. I always plan a journey and an outcome that all students will achieve. How they get there just might be different. Some will certainly need more help. Some will definitely push an idea further.
Next, you need to get to know your students as individuals. Who is the student who repeatedly doesn’t know what they are doing after you have just told the whole class what to do? You go to them first to make sure they know what they’re doing, that’s differentiation. Who has behavioural issues and is going to be slow getting on with the task? This is also a student you need to support to make progress with behavioural strategies. Responding to different learning styles and needs is differentiation.
Different students will need different levels of support throughout the lesson. Being aware of this and offering the right level of support is differentiation. You can make more ambitious suggestions to your more able students. Push them to succeed. This might be telling them to add a much, much higher level of detail within drawing. This might be encouraging them to make a more ambitious armature for a sculpture. You may know them well enough to know they have the resilience to do something again to a higher standard or take a piece of work further.
Less able students are going to need more one-to-one support. Breaking tasks down into smaller manageable chunks for them is often essential and can be done verbally. This is differentiation. Less able students may well be sitting there thinking ‘I can’t do this’. Approaching them and showing them again how to do something, or showing them what small part to tackle first is differentiation. Their success might be simply managing to finish a task.
You might create step by step guides for tasks, that give students a tick list of stages to progress through. This would be helpful for students with a poor working memory. I would make them available to all students but make sure that those students who really needed them were using them. I even know a teacher who has translated these into different languages to support her students with the most extreme EAL. Wow, that’s dedication.
I wouldn’t feel comfortable singling out children and getting them to do a different, simpler task to their peers. This wouldn’t be good for their self-esteem. However, there are subtler ways of differentiating by task and outcome.
For example, differentiating by negotiation. I recently used some animals grid drawings as an extension activity*. I gathered students around to show them the different options. I pointed out which ones were more difficult and suggested that if they knew they were really good at drawing they should try one of the tricky ones. If they knew they found drawing a challenge, I pointed out other ones they should try. This is differentiation by task. You could take this further by suggesting that if they achieved a certain grade on a previous drawing task they should choose particular worksheets or if they had achieved a particular grade they should choose other worksheets.
Differentiation by outcome can happen as work progresses. For example, if students are designing a sculpture inspired by the work of Gaudi, you would aim for every student’s sculpture reflected the shapes and features found in Gaudi’s work. You would help all students one-to-one in the lesson so that all students could reach this basic level. You would then push the more able to extend their designs and be more ambitious. Their sculpture could have satellite components attached with wire. You could then share their ideas with the class driving up the standard and outcomes of the class as a whole.
I’m a big fan of offering extra, optional class and homework tasks, that link to the current unit of work, in return for some sort of reward. In my school that would be a merit which is part of our rewards system. I have done this in two ways: By providing a menu of tasks which students can choose from. I try to make this include a wide variety of practical and more research-based tasks so that it appeals to a broad range of students. Another way I have found great success with is to get the students to come up with the list of tasks. Their collective imagination is always going to be greater than mine! This is a really enjoyable activity and gives you a chance to praise imagination. I have managed to type this into a Word document during the lesson as they come up with the ideas and print it there and then, although this is not essential.
Additional optional tasks appeal to the more able and to the keen. I don’t believe more work is better but I do believe providing students with additional ways to practice or additional opportunities to try new media or experiment is always a good thing and part of differentiation.
I am not a fan and wouldn’t use a verbal feedback stamp. (Can you imagine asking the student several months later what verbal feedback had been given?) However, practical subjects really use verbal feedback all the time. The verbal feedback you give one student is quite often very different to what you would tell another and this is because you are differentiating your feedback according to age, ability and special needs.
In a differentiated classroom, formative assessment is happening all the time. Through whole class questioning, one-to-one questioning, through holding up good work for comparison and reflection, through plenaries. This way, learners needs are addressed as they arise and opportunities for success are increased. Being aware that this is part of successful differentiation makes you realise that whole-class teaching is part of differentiation.
When you write a comment on how to improve in a sketchbook or on a piece of work, it is an individual personalised way to improve and that is differentiation in art. Even if you find yourself writing the same thing for six or seven students, you are differentiating your marking for those students. It is important to give your students time to read your comments at the start of a lesson. I also try and get them to reflect back on what I have written when they go on to do a similar piece of work. For example, when they next do a research homework, I direct students to look at what advice I gave them last time. They should then be responding to your individualised, differentiated advice.
If you have ways that you differentiate in art, I would love to hear, so please comment below.
*An extension activity is an extra activity that is linked to the current unit of work but is not essential to complete. Students who finish quickly will move on to the extension activity.
Read more about differentiation by TeacherToolkit.
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