Teaching Art And Design In Mixed-Age Classes

Published 10 July 2020 by Paul Carney

By Paul Carney www.paulcarneyarts.com

Differentiating Art lessons can be quite tricky, especially when you have different year groups in the same class, as often happens in Primary. But this needn’t be such a problem if you remember that Art and design does not have the same rigid competencies as is the case in core subjects. In Art, we don’t have lists of things you need to know and do year on year and there are no national standards either. All you have to work from are the standards produced in your own school. You can also use the Kapow Primary Art curriculum overview to help you.

Art tasks are very flexible also. I can teach virtually the same mark making lesson to Key Stage 1 as I do to Fine Art GCSE students because it is how the task is approached and achieved that matters. The starting points are often the same. The only time it does matter is when the complexity of the prior knowledge needed to do this new lesson is high or the subject matter unsuitable. So your lesson has to be pitched right, but the gap between two years is unlikely to be an issue. You can usually give year 4 work to year 3 for example, but you would need to ensure that any written handouts and presentations can be read at all levels.

Often, ability in Art makes a mockery of year group and age anyway. Children nine years old regularly outperform adults in artistic ability, so I really wouldn’t worry too much about giving children the same piece of work in the two different year groups sitting in your class. What is likely to be different is the level of sophistication and skill of the outcome. A year is a long time in a child’s development, and a year 4 child born in September might be nearly two years older than a year 3 child born in August. Progression in Art occurs whether or not the teacher actually teaches anything because children grow and as they do so, their dexterity, grip strength and mental cognition improve.

So if the task can be understood by everyone in the room and it is pitched at the right level of complexity it should be fine to teach it to two different year groups. But that is not all there is to differentiating in Art, because as we all know, the level of ability, the outcome and performance will be even greater than it is in a class of the same age. So what can we do to help support and extend learning in these circumstances?


How can we help support and extend learning in these circumstances?

Well, whenever you teach Art there will always be some distinctive areas of ability that emerge:

  1. There will be three main areas of attainment in your outcomes; high, middle and low ability.
  2. There will occasionally be some pupils who will demonstrate ability way higher than that of their peers (Gifted & Talented).
  3. There will be pupils who will find it difficult to access part or all of lessons (often, but not always children with SEND).


Every unit of work you plan should cater for these areas of attainment. When planning a project you should always prepare for this. Ask yourself:

  • What have I got to extend and enrich this project for the more able?
  • How am I going to support the less able?


You cannot simply say: there will be differentiation by outcome because this will not provide a suitable platform for everyone to achieve. If your task is suitably open-ended to enable students to work at their own level of ability then you may not need to think much about extension work, but you will always need to think of support for students who are struggling to access your lesson.

Typically, high ability artists will already be able to draw, shade and colour skilfully without much input from you. High ability thinkers will create unusual and interesting colours, shapes and patterns and have more imaginative outcomes that are not necessarily skilfully produced. Often, some students who are very skilful at drawing and/or painting have little or no imagination. So you need to know if you have high ability thinkers, high ability creators of Art or both. The Kapow Primary Art and design progression of skills document is also useful for helping you to plan progression for Art.


To extend your pupils’ work they should be challenged to push the boundaries and branch out into their own, creative outcomes

For example, if you have asked the class to paint and draw insects for a pattern design, pupils who finish early could be asked to create something using that pattern, such as a dress or clothing. The key is to ask the right questions, such as:

  • That’s excellent work, how would you like to develop this work further?
  • In what way might you build on this work?
  • How might you apply this pattern?
  • Can you think of alternatives?
  • What would happen if you used different colours?


How to support the more able

  • If a pupil finishes their work quickly, ask them to check it and think about how they might improve it.
  • When drawing and painting, pupils finishing early can nearly always improve their use of colour, shading and/or the tone in their work.
  • They should be asked to think about what THEY would like to do next. Pupils who are more able and finish work quickly usually have a head packed full of ideas that they want to express.
  • Have an extension box in the classroom filled with interesting work. Try to build a collection of activities, tasks and objects that can inspire a piece of artwork. You might be able to download many of these from the internet or from photo-copiable booklets.
  • Encourage ‘free drawing time’ which the pupils love! It is also a great gap filler and extension task in lessons.
  • Why not simply allow a pupil some free time to study an Art book of their choice? It’s quick, easy and very educational!


How to support the less able

  • Show them how to ghost draw shapes on the paper to help them.
  • Show them how to sketch lightly with a sharp pencil.
  • Help them to build the drawing from simple shapes such as circles, squares.
  • Provide tracing and copying facilities wherever possible. A piece of tracing paper is a Godsend and it is not cheating.
  • Provide one to one support where possible and do small demonstrations on scrap pieces of paper.
  • Break the task up into smaller sections.
  • Provide good resources on the whiteboard and/or handouts.
  • Think of more simplistic alternatives with strong outlines. Tracing cartoons is a very good way of improving the fine motor skills needed to help the less able.
  • If all else fails then you might start them off with a few basic guidelines. Try not to do too much but just enough to get them going.
  • Put a homework book together of activities to help develop motor skills.


I hope these techniques help you. They are tried and tested in the classroom and have been proven to work in even the most challenging situations. For more tips and techniques on teaching Art, go to www.paulcarneyarts.com.


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