Differentiation in the art room – are there things for other departments to learn?

I recently exchanged a number of mails with a former student of mine. She didn’t follow an arts related curriculum in her last years at school choosing a much more science related timetable. Eventually she left school to go to university to study physics and, if I remember rightly, astronomy.  During our digital exchange, quite unprovoked my me, she said that she and some of her fellow university students had been discussing the state of education recently, and had come to the conclusion that not all was really as it should be.

It short, at a distance of maybe three or four years, since they left, they had concluded that the secondary school education they had experienced had fallen short in a number of ways. She identified a number of areas:

  • The amount of time that is wasted sitting in lessons where you really are ready to move on with the teaching focusing on points that you have already fully grasped
  • The little opportunity there is to pursue themes and areas that genuinely interest you
  • The lack of challenge that there is in much of the teaching that is on offer. 

A bottom line to this discussion was one of the lack differentiation in the classroom. Differentiation as a theme has been a bit of an teaching hot potato of late, generating a lot of discussion along with moves towards more personalized forms of education. Matching education that you provide to the diversity of individuals in the class, the varying abilities and styles of learning being the aim. Whether my ex-pupil is aware of the background educational discussion I’m not sure.  But her point was, that whilst at school, a great deal of time was used and wasted (in her experience) solving fifteen maths problems when she was sure that after five she already understood what was necessary and was ready to move on (a perhaps over-simplification, but one she used to make her point). Others in the class may well have needed all fifteen, but ,in this case, she didn’t.  There lies the challenge for the teacher, how do you organize and practically cope with diversity when you are faced with a class of thirty individuals?

Alongside this observation she made an interesting point, and one that I’ve often thought about. In the art room, whilst working on a practical assignment, differentiation often happens almost automatically. You set a painting or drawing assignment and the more talented and able in the class simply challenge themselves more, both technically and creatively, than those less so. Pupils seem to have a good idea of their abilities, they try (generally) to push up against them to make small improvements, but have a reasonable idea of what are realistic aims for themselves. The result is a sort of sliding scale where, at least in theory, differentiation occurs with the pupils themselves controlling where their own learning boundaries lie.

This does sound a little to good to be true, but it is a process that I recognize and see occurring in my classroom. It begs the question, and this was my ex-pupils question too, how could you simulate something similar in other subject areas?

  • Less front on, one size fits all, traditional/classical educational approaches
  • Lesson material that incorporates a more elastic quality that stretches and challenges the pupils to challenge themselves
  • Different lesson material that incorporates a more exploration, challenge and, dare I say it, use of creativity in all subject areas
  • Digital text books that adjust want they offer depending on the strengths of the pupil
  • Timetables that are a little less rigid and along pupils more space to better cater for their strengths and weaknesses.

The school where I teach is in the process of investigating how we might incorporate a number of these types of ideas into a more personalized form of education, it is at least nice to think that we have the support of at least one ex-pupil in doing so.

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