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Differentiation for Gifted and Talented Students

Whether teaching at primary, intermediate, or secondary level, it should be the mission of every teacher to seek and support individual differences. Willis and Mann (2000) remind us, "without differentiated instruction, any child who varies from the norm will suffer." To do this requires getting to know each student.

We must take into account the following differences that each student brings to our classroom:

· different learning styles
· different rates of learning,
· different activities,
· different interests,
· different expectations,
· different motivation,
· different outcomes,
· different abilities,
· different resources,
· different reading skills,
· different tasks, and
· different levels of parental support

Carol Ann Tomlinson (1999) reminds us that in regard to individual students, "teachers in healthy classrooms work continually to … see who they really are, what makes them unique in the world." This appreciation of each child as an individual applies to all students, including our gifted and talented students.

Recognizing individual strengths, abilities, qualities, and interests in our gifted and talented students necessitates acknowledgment of physical, intellectual, cultural, social, and emotional uniqueness. This also means that regular curriculum might not fit. A mismatch might indeed occur for our gifted and talented students. Our goal in individualization should be to seek and obtain a better fit or different style, size, and design. The buzzword for this tailoring of the curriculum is differentiation.

Differentiation is the "process of assessing individual needs and responding with appropriate learning experiences." Tomlinson reinforces this idea, stating that when differentiating, "teachers begin where students are." For gifted and talented students this requires recognition of the unique characteristics and behaviors they bring to the classroom. As a result teachers need to provide an education, which is "different and appropriate." So, differentiation requires teachers to:

· build on past achievements,
· provide opportunities for success, and
· remove barriers to learning

Gathering momentum toward potential means students must have teachers who stride toward differentiation. Tomlinson (1995) states that differentiation "taps into" student readiness levels, interests, and learning profiles. She also presents a dichotomy of what differentiation "is" and "is not" as presented in the chart below.

Differentiation is: Differentiation isn't:
  • Adjustment of the core content
  • Acknowledgement of individual needs
  • Articulacted, high level goals reflecting continuous progress
  • Assessment to determine student growth and new needs
  • Adjustment of curriculum by complexity, breadth, and rate
  • Educational experiences which extend, replace, or supplement standard curriculum
  • More problems, questions, or assignments
  • Get it on your own
  • Recreational reading
  • Independent reading without curriculum connections
  • Free time to draw or practice your talent
  • Cooperative learning groups where the gifted "kid" gets to be the leader
  • Activities that all students will be able to do
  • No interest centers unless linked to core content and at a complex level
  • Marking some students harder than others


Differentiation is NOT extra work, peer tutoring, busy work, or the "teacher's helper." Differentiation IS acceleration, enrichment, tiered assignments questioning techniques, curriculum compacting, independent study, cluster/flexible grouping, learning/interest centers, and most of all...NOT MORE, BUT DIFFERENT.

In most regular classrooms there is a wide range of learner needs, interests, and abilities. Students differ in readiness levels and their approaches to learning. In differentiated instruction, teachers provide multiple avenues to learning so that the classroom is a good fit for varied learners - including those who are advanced.


Differentiation defined
Differentiation is "a method through which educators shall establish a specific, well-thought-out match between learner characteristics in terms of abilities, interests, and needs, and curriculum opportunities in terms of enrichment and acceleration options which maximize learning experiences." Differentiated experiences for the gifted student should extend, replace or supplement learning beyond the standard curriculum.


Why differentiate instruction?
When learning tasks are consistently too hard, students become anxious and frustrated. When tasks are consistently too easy, boredom results. Both boredom and anxiety inhibit a student's motivation to learn, and - eventually - harm achievement as well. Differentiated instruction helps teachers avoid student anxiety and boredom that can be evident in one-size-fits-all curriculum.


What is appropriately differentiated curriculum for gifted learners?

The term differentiation implies action or change. Teachers actively modify lessons to meet the needs, interests, and abilities of all students. Careful consideration of assessment data, student interest, and student learning profiles provide the information necessary to adapt the curriculum elements of content, process, and product.

· Content refers to concepts, principles, and skills teachers want students to learn. (Core Content)

· Process refers to the activities that help students successfully grasp the ideas and skills being taught.

· Product refers to the culminating projects that allow the students to demonstrate and extend what they have learned.

Differentiated curriculum enables gifted learners to stretch beyond their "comfort zones." This is achieved through materials, activities, and /or projects that are:

· abstract
· complex
· open-ended an/or
· multi-faceted.

Gifted learners thrive from instruction at various rates that challenges students to explore more deeply, develop more independence, and solve complex problems that require greater mental leaps. Giving gifted students more work of a similar nature (for example, ten math problems instead of five) is not appropriate differentiation.


How can a teacher differentiate instruction for gifted learners?
There are instructional strategies teachers can utilize to appropriately challenge and interest gifted learners. Among them are:

· Exploring laterally …
Providing parallel topical studies to core curriculum areas that extend and enrich comprehension

· Constructing connections …
Providing an integrated or interdisciplinary study of the core curriculum by making within, between, and across discipline relationships

· Pursuing to intensity …
Providing independent research project learning opportunities that supplement the student's giftedness and core curriculum

· Using advanced text materials

· Assigning activities at different levels of complexity

· Encouraging students to help set criteria for quality

· Providing expert-level goals for student products

· Encouraging and supporting independent study

· Pre-testing students and exempting them from practicing skills they already have mastered

· Varying homework by student need

· Encouraging student choice of topics for investigation

· Varying working groups, including opportunities for work with other advanced students and opportunities to work alone


What is the role of parents in supporting differentiated classrooms?
Parents can play essential roles in encouraging appropriate differentiation by:

· Asking teachers to specify ways in which differentiated instruction will be provided

· Understanding that teachers can not (and should not) differentiate all assignments and materials every day

· Encouraging students to let teachers know when assignments are a good fit and when they are not

· Encouraging students to compete against themselves rather than comparing themselves to peers

· Volunteering in the classroom

· Helping secure a range of classroom materials

To read further about each of these, check out Carol Ann Tomlinson's article Differentiating Instruction for Advanced Learners in the Mixed-ability Middle School classroom.


How can a teachers be responsive to individual learners' needs ?

Ask yourself, as a teacher, if you practice the underlying principles of differentiation for all students, including the gifted and talented.
Contemplate your answers to these questions (adapted from Tomlinson).

· Do I focus on the essentials? Do my lessons highlight the essential concepts, principles, and skills of each area of the curriculum? Do my students find subjects of study meaningful and interesting?

· Do I celebrate individual differences? Do I unconditionally "accept students as they are and …expect them to become all they can be?"

· Do I assess and instruct inseparably? Is assessment used as a tool for growth, rather than for pointing out mistakes?

· Do I modify content (what I teach), process (how I teach), and product (how I measure student learning), according to student readiness? Do I adapt these elements to suit individual student characteristics?

· Do my students engage in "respectful work"? Do I respect readiness, expect growth, match essential understandings to levels of skill, and provide tasks that are "equally interesting, equally important, and equally engaging?"

· Do I facilitate student learning? Do I collaborate with students in their learning? Is my classroom student-centered?

· Do I balance group and individual expectations? Do I allow and encourage each student to be the best he or she can possibly be?

· Do I work flexibly in my classroom? Am I flexible in grouping, outcomes, pacing materials and resources?

If you answered "yes" to all of these questions you are a teacher who is responsive to individual learners' needs. Principles of differentiation, like flexible grouping and ongoing assessment, guide your teaching. The content, processes and products of your teaching are determined according to individual readiness, interests, and abilities. And you might not need to read any further …

But stop a minute and think. What do you provide for the student who completes his or her work quickly and accurately? The little boy or girl who masters 18 of 20 on the pre-test for your social studies unit? The student who answers your questions and questions your answers? The talented youth whose cultural performances leave shivers down your spine? The student who masters tests of achievement well beyond the norm? The young student who writes his own novel, creates a web page, designs a flying machine? While the principles outlined above apply to all students, in all classrooms, it is important to look at how to make this happen for gifted and talented students. This requires a close examination of our teaching principles and practices.

To incorporate these principles into our classrooms does not mean "more of the same" differentiation. It requires a qualitative shift in differentiation - not a quantitative shift. We must examine the following aspects of our day-to-day teaching:
· Content - what? Concepts, ideas, facts
· Process - how? Methods and strategies
· Product - why? Outcomes

To be teachers who differentiate successfully we must:
· identify the core content (curriculum framework);
· assess student knowledge of that content (pre-assessment); and
· identify and plan core and complex content, basic and higher level processes, and a variety of products.

Regardless of the existence of these criteria the curriculum must be tailored to fit the needs of each child based upon assessment of that child's characteristics, needs and interests. This checklist may be useful:


Content Process Product




organized around concepts

study of gifted

study of methods of inquiry



higher level thinking processes


group interaction

pacing and variety



appropriately evaluated

results of real problem

addressed to real audience

represents transformation of knowledge via originality

Tomlinson, Carol Ann. “Differentiation Instruction For Advanced Learners In the Mixed-Ability Middle School Classroom.” ERIC EC Digest #E536, October, 1995 [Online] Available , September 6, 2005 .


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