What is Differentiation in Art?

By The Arty Teacher - July 31, 2019

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?

Supporting Students

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It is widely believed to be outdated to write what ‘All students will…’ ‘Most students will…’ ‘Some students will…’ to differentiate between your low, average and very able students in your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.

Beyond the Data

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.

Support Resources

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.

Differentiation in Art by Task / Outcome

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.

Differentiation by Extension

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.

Verbal Feedback

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.

Differentiation in Art through Assessment and Marking

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.

The Arty Teacher provides downloadable art resources to art teachers around the globe.


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The Arty Teacher

Sarah Crowther is The Arty Teacher. She is a high school art teacher in the North West of England. She strives to share her enthusiasm for art by providing art teachers around the globe with high-quality resources and by sharing her expertise through this blog.

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15 responses to “What is Differentiation in Art?”

  1. Tawa says:

    Great Article this was really useful in planning of inclusive activities. I Have picked a variety of ways i can scaffold learning. Great ideas to explore!

  2. Jo says:

    What a fantastic, really helpful and clear document. As a primary school art co-ordinator, I am very grateful! Thank you.

  3. Mark Wilson says:

    Great article. Thank you! I have long understood these and I use them intuitively. However, Im being asked to evidence what i do. I am online teaching and verbal feedback is really hard as it means holding up every child’s work. Multiple tasks is hard for most activities and harder when delivery to class online.
    Heres an example: I had 30 mins to teach class 2. I made a video of a guided drawing of a horse (construction “helper” circles method) where i talk through each step and pause as I go check no one is stuck. However, its still the same take for all and while I’m full of other ideas I dry up when it comes to differentiation ideas. How do I learn to translate my tasks into differentiated activities when doing so doesn’t come naturally.

    • The Arty Teacher says:

      Hi Mark, You say you have to evidence what you do, but how do they want you to evidence it? Could you create a document for your art department handbook that lists the way you differentiate? Could you write how you differentiate for students in the schemes of work? Sometimes school expect the art department to be like every other department and we aren’t.

      With a virtual lesson it is the feedback you give students that is differentiated. If you know your students, you know their ability. The advice you give to a high ability student would be different to what you give to a lower ability student. The only way to evidence that is in your lesson plan or unit or work, and to put it into practice.
      If you have created a video, you may ask some students to watch it again. You may refer a student to a certain point in the video. ‘Katy, go to 1min 30secs in the video. Watch how I…’ That is differentiating for that student.

      You could refer a higher ability student to look at an artists work that pushed them further. That would also be differentiating.

      I wouldn’t go down the route of creating different resources for different students. That is too much.

  4. Hyeyoung says:

    I would love to know more about your ‘menu tasks’. Can you share any examples of these? Thx!

    • The Arty Teacher says:

      A menu would link to a project and tasks done in class and try to cover a range of different skills/activities that students might enjoy. So, for example, if they had been looking at Georgia O’Keeffe a menu might include: draw a different sort of flower in a media of your choice, draw a flower digitally using an App of your choice, create a second research page on O’Keeffe’s skull paintings finding out more about them, draw a close-up of something other than a flower, or you have photographed flowers, create a second photography page of flowers, this time working in black and white. However, as I’ve said above, it is even more effective to get the students to come up with their own list. I hope that helps.

  5. Hyeyoung says:

    Great strategies! I learned a lot! Thank you for sharing!

  6. John says:

    Do you use anything else on the board to replace ‘ all students will, some students will…’ ?

  7. Regins says:

    I’ve always thought grouping high achieving with lower achieving students might help but I find many of them comparing their work. I feel like it has led to disappointment in some of my lower ones. How do you arrange seating in your large classes?

    • The Arty Teacher says:

      Seating plans are created for all sorts of different reasons. For example, to improve behaviour, or as you suggest, to let able students inspire less able students. I suppose it depends on the individual as to how they respond to this. Generally, I think it’s been a positive strategy for more able students to pull up the standard of less able students. Students are always going to compare and if it’s not with the person next to them it could just as easily be with someone in the room.

      I start the year with sitting classes in alphabetical order. I try to change seating plans termly and at this point would think about behaviour and ability. I think it’s good to mix it up and have tried fun methods of creating the order of students such as asking them to sort themselves into a line by height order or even shoe size!

  8. Dbellaby says:

    Massively helpful, I find this tricky too but have now realised I am already doing most of this already without realising. some great ideas here – thank you

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