Differentiation in a Choice Based Cirriculum

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Waking up to discover a follow from @cherrylkd and the subsequent blog reading that followed, reminded me of the current focus for our choice based curriculum. Her post differentiation is not ‘teaching all kids badly’ particularly struck a chord with me.

Over the last 18 months we have been on a fascinating journey developing our ‘Art Explorers’curriculums at KS3. As with any new curriculum it needs to run through three or more times to get right. Tweeks and re-vamps a plenty, lots of reflection, student feedback, meetings & discussions with colleagues… The list goes on…

Student enthusiasm for the choice based approach has been resoundingly positive throughout. We recognised that we had to take a ‘hit’ on the technical quality of outcomes initially. This was something that Katherine Douglas (@twoducks) had laid bare from the outset. With so many different projects going on in the same class it is not always possible to give thorough technical guidance to all initially. Have we become too accustomed to protecting our students from failure? Trial and error being an essential approach to learning, right?

It’s more complexed than that. There is no doubt in my mind that opportunities for students to choose, work independently and try things out for themselves are essential in modern education. But students respond in vastly different ways to choice and error. Some with too much choice can struggle to make decisions,  others thrive. Some relish the challenge of a trial and error approach and keep going until they master a skill. Others become despondent and switched off by their first unsuccessful attempt, some even fear failure so much that they don’t want to start, others become easily bored… Which is where differentiation becomes so important.

It’s been an uneasy realisation that our approach has not been as differentiated to meet the needs of all learners as we initially thought. With students free to choose their own project stimulus, I had subscribed to the notion that there would be plenty of opportunities for them to find and be guided towards projects that suited them. I still stand by this, but it is not the only factor at play.

Our curriculum is not a complete ‘free for all’ where students do absolutely what they want. The choice elements come from the artists, themes, materials, media, techniques & processes they decide to respond to. We have however implemented common project structures for them to follow, which has been led by the creative processes students need to adopt at higher levels. We came up with the idea of ‘creative loops’ to structure projects around.

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Each phase of the loop requires different tasks to be completed. We wanted it to be ambitious and challenging, which it certainly has been. Essentially it requires good project management skills and provides plenty of opportunities for all students to develop such skill sets. The most organised and resilient students have really flown with it, but many have become overwhelmed and confused. This has required simplified approaches and a ‘crossing out’ of some tasks on their ‘to do’ lists.

It seems obvious to say it now, but it was slowly dawning on us that we were entering a new phase of differentiation within the projects. As experienced teachers it has been a bit of a kick yourself moment, but ours is a profession where often it can be hard to ‘see the wood for the trees’. It has however been a liberating realisation which has re-invigorated our enthusiasm for the project. It has also been very timely for us with our school’s new ‘life without levels’ framework coming in. We have an opportunity to blend success criteria with differentiated tasks matched to higher, middle and lower order thinking skills.

Where previously our approach was to typically ask all to complete the following project tasks:

1. Create presentations on your favourite 3 Art movements from the specified list.

2. Use the differentiated writing frames to research & analyse your favourite artist found.

3. Create a project plan.

4. Produce some observational drawings & photos relating to your ideas.

5. Produce a series of experiments in your chosen media.

6. Produce your final piece.

We now have the option for some to take a simpler route:

1. Find a picture by your favourite Artist from the given list of Art movements & talk about it with your teacher.

2. Produce a final piece that is your own interpretation of their work (in a technique demonstrated to the class by your teacher)

This being an example of ‘entry level’ tasks which give students the opportunity to build confidence through success. Once these tasks are complete they can look to see which tasks are required to reach the next level. Not a new approach by any means in the grander context of the differentiated educational history, but one that now blends well with our choice based approach we hope.

We have still a way to go before the curriculum is where we want it, but it feels like it’s moving in the right direction.