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.

Advertisements

Just how bad were you at French?

Well the answer to that is really pretty bad. Mrs Hunt did her best, but for me in the flatlands of the Fens in East Anglia it just wasn’t happening.  I was generally a pretty good pupil at school but languages (even English, where I was a particularly slow reader) weren’t my thing.

CLIL-spring-2016-FINAL-version-enkel_Page_01-smaller

The irony is, I’m now bilingual, read a great deal, and although first and foremost an art teacher, I am also a language teacher…..specialised in CLIL (content and language integrated learning). With the CLIL approach my art skills are combined with my language knowledge in helping my Dutch pupils learn about art and the English language simultaneously.  How did that occur? It wasn’t a great plan, it just kind of happened and I’ve found great enjoyment in it, to the extent that, CLIL Magazine asked me to explain my perspective on this strange turn of events!

CLIL Magazine 2016 (Page 10)

The Dutch like to talk about a ‘taalknobbel‘ (a language bobble/lump??!), something that people who are good at languages are supposed to have and others (like me) don’t have.  When I was a teenager nobody would have said that I had a taalknobbel, yet here I am writing about language learning strategies and using them constantly in my art lessons with 12-17 year olds.

So what is the lesson here?  I would certainly start by saying that just because you struggle with language when you are 12 it doesn’t follow that you are a lost cause. To be honest, and I know that many will disagree with me, I think the way languages are generally taught in schools is where the problem (at least for me) lies.

The structural deconstruction of language in order to learn vocabulary, grammar and other elements of language simply made it too abstract and confusing for me.  Essentially the way I learnt Dutch was through immersion and being constantly surrounded by it.  It became a more real thing and learning to speak it became a more intuitive issue.  It is in this area that the CLIL approach to language scores, and it could also be the very reason why I seem to be quite good at it.

 

25 years of bilingual education in the Netherlands

The Netherlands isn’t the only place in the world where you can encounter bilingual education. There are many countries where, for varying reasons, this approach of teaching is used. It offers an array of subject areas taught in a non-native language for the learner. The aim is the speeding up and adding an extra depth to language acquisition. It is a broad approach that has its strength in immersion in the target language for the large of every school day.

logo

What is certainly true of the Dutch language experiment with secondary education is that it very definitely no longer an experiment. It is now established and embedded widely across the whole country with around 130 secondary schools offering the bilingual approach and pilot programs in primary education underway.

Yesterday the European Platform, the organisation that oversees and coordinates the bilingual schools, marked the occasion with an afternoon of presentations and reflections on the project so far, and a look towards the future. It seems a healthy future, as one of the contributors pointed out, many educational initiatives come and go, but the bilingual star in the Netherlands seems to continue to rise.

One of the reasons for this success might well be the fact that it is largely a bottom up initiative, starting with schools who decide that they want to join the process, rather than an organisation (or government) telling schools that they have to join. It remains a branch of education that is peopled by teachers and school leaders who want to be involved.

My own bilingual experience goes back fifteen years. In a sense I was in the right place at the right time. I arrived in the Netherlands in the early 1990s and five years later got my teacher training qualification just at the moment that the bilingual train was really starting to pick up momentum. I left the course and walked straight into my first bilingual teaching job. I was a rare commodity, a native speaker of English, qualified to teach a subject other than English (art in my case).

In the meantime, now twenty five years on, there probably aren’t that many teachers in the country who have taught as many bilingual classes as I have. My ‘native speaker’ credentials mean that I don’t ever have to teach a Dutch language art class, a benefit of working in a large bilingual department. If there is a weak link in the whole set up within the schools it is that the quest for native speakers to join and strengthen the departments is a constant hunt and not an easy one to be successful in.

I wrote two posts ago about the enthusiastic meeting I chaired for the European Platform of bilingual art teachers. They were a group of people who by offering to teach the bilingual classes have in effect said, yes, “I am prepared to do more than just teach my subject content, I am prepared to take on more and teach a language at the same time”. It says sometime about the mind-set of my Dutch colleagues who take this step, it is a fairly thick extra layer on top of regular classes. I have this too of course, but with the extra luxury that it is my first language, but like it or not, I am to a significant degree a language teacher.  Having struggled hugely at school with French and German, and yet now being able to speak Dutch fluently, I am also an example as to why immersion is the best method of language acquisition.