A friend in higher education and professor in an art teacher preparation program recently wrote to say, “I have some questions and want your feedback on the topic of differentiation in the art room.” She went on to explain that differentiation has come to the forefront as an issue, not just in preparing art teachers, but in all of the teacher preparation programs at her university. And well it should!
For years I have shared frustrations with, and made efforts to support art teachers in my school division as they have struggled with an annually growing number of students in their classrooms with special needs. I can’t tell you how many of them feel they have just not been sufficiently trained to support the variety of abilities (and disabilities) in their classes. Whenever we are able to offer professional development on the topic, the seats fill quickly, and it is an ongoing effort. As much as we (especially in the arts) would like to think teaching is about our content area, I have come to believe that understanding differentiation is what it means to be a teacher.
So, yes, I had some things to say in response to my friend’s email. Here are six things you need to know about differentiation in art.
1. Differentiation is for all students.
At the core of differentiation is (should be) a mindset that every child can succeed and it is our job, as teachers, to do whatever we need to, for each child to make that happen. The philosophy in my school division, and language often used by our superintendent is “every child, by name and by need.” This means we figure out what each individual child needs to succeed so that we can provide it. While this may not be very difficult to wrap your mind around when you consider an elementary classroom teacher with 24 students, it becomes more challenging for a secondary teacher who likely teaches 150 students each semester, a much more daunting task for an elementary specialist (art, music, or physical education teacher) who may have more than 500.
2. There is a difference between Accommodation and Modification
An important distinction to understand and recognize in the context of differentiation is the difference between accommodations and modifications. Accommodations can include any strategies, scaffolds, or individual differentiation that is provided to students that help them access the grade/course level curriculum. Each course has expected learning outcomes defined by standards or a program of studies. If a teacher takes extra steps to help a student try to achieve those outcomes, she is differentiating instruction by making accommodations. Accommodations include those described in an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a 504 plan (and therefore required by law) and those made for any other student. It should be noted that accommodations required by an IEP or 504 cannot count against a student’s grade. If they succeed when the teacher provides those accommodations, then they succeed. In the case of a student without requires supports, a teacher may consider how much support was required when assessing the student, but ideally the differentiation provided helped the student to grasp the content. That end result is what we are looking for and what we should communicate in a progress report.
Modification, on the other hand, is when you adjust the curriculum to meet the needs of the student. Rather than trying to achieve the goals outlined in the standards or program of studies, instruction focuses on achieving goals in the student’s individualized learning plan. These may include anything from fine and gross motor, to communication and executive functioning goals.
3. Teachers must be proactive through planning.
The best way to not be overwhelmed by the individual needs of students is to plan instruction to include a variety of supports and scaffolds for all learners. Providing visual representation of ideas and vocabulary doesn’t only support language learners. Designing artmaking challenges that allow students to find a personally relevant connection to complex ideas does not only support advance learners. And breaking down instruction and process steps into easy to follow chunks doesn’t only support students with processing deficits. All of us in supervision, administration, and higher ed need to help our teachers plan this way, AND understand that when they do, they are planning to support all learners.
In addition to developing this meta cognitive awareness, the most pressing need based on what I have seen in classrooms is understanding how to chunk instruction. There are way too many art teachers who give everything at the beginning of a class session and then let the students work all the way to completion of the project without additional content. This is not a good method for any level. Rather, they should plan to present new content and skills in digestible pieces that all students will be able to manage. This is just one example of how a teachers planning is designed to support all students.
4. There are resources to support differentiation.
Teachers often struggle to find enough time to pull together their lesson plans, but to facilitate the planning recommended above, it is well worth the time and effort to find resources that will support differentiation of instruction at the same time. There are a variety of resource available, from adapted student-facing resources to instructional strategies designed to meet the needs of students with differing abilities. In our division, the electronic curriculum and resource tool includes a wealth of possibilities in addition to those available through books and the web.
A couple of books that may help you get a better handle on these topics are Differentiated Instruction in Art from the Art Education in Practice Series, by Heather L. R. Fountain, and Leading and Managing a Differentiated Classroom by Carol Ann Tomlinson and Marcia B. Imbeau. The second is not focused on art, but it addresses some important topics like Learning Environment, Classroom Routines, Common Sticking Points about Differentiation, and a Teacher’s Toolkit.
5. Differentiation should be built-in to teaching resources.
In our division, we have recently started developing “Teacher Notes” documents for art teachers as a part of planning and pacing guides for our art courses. These articulate one model of how instruction could be delivered to meet the expectations of our local art curriculum. The Teacher Notes are basically a new lesson plan format that includes a number of things our old format never did. Among these are scaffolds and supports which address supports for four categories of students: All Learners, English Learners, Students with Disabilities, and Advanced Learners. Using these four categories, while still over simplified for the reality of teachers, addresses important variations on what differentiation can look like. It’s not always providing accommodations for a “student with disabilities.”
6. Differentiation is not just for students who are struggling.
You’ll note, among the categories above, are supports for Advanced Learners. This represents another shift in mindset for many. Differentiation is not just for students who are struggling. We also need to differentiate for the students who are ready to move forward. Nevertheless, we need to make sure our thinking about differentiating for advanced learners isn’t keeping others from experiencing the best we have to offer.
Strategies historically reserved for “gifted” learners are strategies that are good for all learners!
In order to be successful, all students should be exposed to rigorous curriculum, be given opportunities to solve difficult challenges, and grapple with complex ideas and concepts! Those latter two phrases (opportunities to solve difficult challenges, and grapple with complex ideas and concepts) are how I would define “rigor.” We need to avoid perpetuating an idea that rigor, or advanced academics means MORE work. It shouldn’t be MORE, it should be RICHER! And RICH curriculum is for all students. How can we expect students not placed into advanced academic programs to succeed if we are not providing them with rich learning experiences?