A typical classroom includes students with a variety of ability levels, learning styles, readiness, interests, and talents. Instead of teaching to the middle, educators should strive to meet students’ individual academic and emotional needs. This is true for our gifted and high-achieving students as well.
To differentiate instruction, educators must first recognize students’ varying background knowledge, readiness, language, preferences in learning, and interests. Then, they must react responsively by altering the content itself, how the students are learning the content, and how students show their learning. Below are some general tips for differentiating instruction.
1. Find out what objectives students have mastered before beginning instruction. You might administer a pre-test; have students complete a KWL chart listing what they know, what they want to know, and later what they learned about the topic; or gauge their knowledge based on an oral discussion. Then, provide accelerated, self-paced, or enriching activities when appropriate so that students do not become bored reviewing what they already have mastered.
2. Create challenging activities for gifted students by altering the substance of the lesson. Simply assigning more work decreases motivation, as does focusing on repetition and rote memorization of factual information. Gifted students’ motivation will increase when they engage in student-centered, problem-solving activities.
3. Provide parameters and guidance but also choice and flexibility. Although many students prefer structured, one-size-fits-all assignments, gifted students typically react more negatively toward such confinement. Allow them opportunities to direct and evaluate their own learning. You might give students a list of activities of various types and levels from which to choose. Or, even better, you might encourage gifted students to create their own independent study project and, within the parameters you set, choose their own topic, decide how to present their learning, and create a grading rubric.
4. Make the content meaningful to students’ lives and interests. All students will want to know how the subject relates to real life, but gifted students especially will commit to learning the objectives and completing the tasks if the connection to their lives is strong. For instance, instead of assigning a research topic, have students pick a related topic that directly relates to their individual life, campus, or community. You might even have them conduct in-person, telephone, or e-mail interviews; pair with a mentor in the field; or engage in a related community service activity as part of their research process.
5. Allow gifted students time to work together with their gifted peers in small groups. Clustering gifted students increases their academic achievement, whereas placing them in mixed-ability groups stalls achievement and sometimes serves as a detriment. Working with intellectual equals gives gifted students greater opportunity to broaden and extend their thinking, thereby increasing motivation. Placing gifted students in mixed-ability groups oftentimes facilitates their dominating the activity, hiding their intelligence in order to fit in, or serving as a tutor for others, all of which stall achievement and learning.
6. Avoid praising gifted students for tasks completed well but that involve little challenge. If gifted students receive constant praise or awards for activities requiring minimal effort, they may continue to seek praise by never taking risks or stretching their limits. Furthermore, they may develop the false idea that they succeed in everything and not know how to handle future challenges. Instead, praise them for taking risks and for the effort they put forth during challenging tasks.
7. Understand and respond to gifted students’ sensitivities. Because gifted students typically show heightened sensitivity toward real-world problems including but not limited to poverty, homelessness, domestic violence, animal abuse, and disease, sometimes they feel helpless, even depressed, when they realize these problems will continue to exist no matter what they do. Let them know you are glad they care, and encourage them to make small differences by raising money for a cause, volunteering in a soup kitchen or hospital, or organize an event on campus. Even better, create a service learning component as part of your curriculum.
Hall, T. (2002, June). Differentiated instruction: Effective classroom practices report.
National Center on Accessing the General Curriculum. Retrieved from www.cast.org/system/galleries/download/ncac/DifinstrucNov2.doc