Meeting the Needs of Your Gifted Student: Differentiating Content 3/6

Welcome to the third installment of Meeting the Needs of Your Gifted Student! If you haven't done so already, I would recommend reading this post, which is an overview of differentiated instruction, and this post, which is aimed at pre-assessment.

Definitions and Urgency 

As the title indicates, today I'll be writing about how to meet student needs by differentiating content.  When you're thinking about differentiating instruction for your gifted learners, you can change what information your students are learning (content), how they're learning it (process), and how students show the learning (product). You can also differentiate the learning environment as well as the way you assess student learning.

When we differentiate content, we make changes in what students learn in relation to what they need to know, understand, and must be able to do at this moment in their instructional journey. We can also differ the ways in which we allow children to access new learning as well. This could mean using a variety of different materials from which the students can learn, like providing multiple texts on a variety of reading levels, videos, audio recordings, primary source documents, and artifacts, magazines, travel brochures, etc.

“It is what a student should come to know (facts), understand (concepts and principles), and be able to do (skills) as a result of a given assignment of study (a lesson, learning experience, a unit).” 
-Carol Ann Tomlinson, 1999, The Differentiated Classroom

We can differentiate in response to readiness, interest, and learning profile, or some combination of the three.  Given the strict mandates that many (most?) teachers face about what students must know each year in school, you may be thinking that it sounds strange to consider offering students access to content that is different from that which appears on your district's curriculum map and/or pacing guide. However, it's not that you'll be omitting information that the student must know because they're gifted, it's that often, your gifted student already knows up to 80% of that information. So if you think about it, it's really counterproductive to make a student who has demonstrated mastery (or is capable of demonstrating mastery) in a particular area of learning to sit through hours, days, or weeks worth of instruction on those same skills when they came to your classroom already having that knowledge. The potential end result of  allowing forcing a student to "learn" the same content at the same pace as other students in the class is that the student will be bored, frustrated, sad, inattentive, and otherwise creative in filling the time he or she has been left with during instruction. I'll go ahead and let you use your imagination for the many, many schemes a gifted child is capable of concocting to fill their "down time." Not to mention, as teachers, we all have a responsibility to each of our students to help them grow, starting from where they are in their learning journey. This is just as true for our students who struggle the most with learning as it is with our high potential children.

Options for Content Differentiation

There are several go-to strategies for differentiating content, but they all begin with finding out first what it is that students already know, what they're interested in, and/or what their learning profile is. After you learn about who your students are and what they know, you're ready to start differentiating content. If a student demonstrates mastery (usually between 80-90%) on a particular topic or skill, then you (and ideally, the student) have some choices to make about how this will be accommodated in the classroom. 

Curriculum Compacting

One way to make that accommodation is by using Curriculum Compacting. This strategy was developed back in the early 1990s by Joseph Renzulli at the University of Connecticut. It is a strategy meant to help teachers and students really optimize the time they have together in the classroom each day. Once students demonstrate mastery on a particular subject, skill, or topic, they should be exempted from spending time learning this material again. In a way, by scoring high on a pre-assessment, they "buy back" time in the classroom and can now spend this time working on new learning. Students should still be expected to participate in lessons and activities for which they have not demonstrated yet mastery, but the rest of the time, they should be allowed to work on other things. One of the best things you can do for yourself and your student is to DOCUMENT all of this information along the way. I created a simple page to track student mastery levels and alternative assignments, which you can grab for yourself below by clicking on the picture.

Flexible Pacing/Accelerated Learning   

Similar to compacting, flexible pacing (which, for gifted students often--but not always--results in accelerated learning) is a way of allowing students to access new content at their own pace, with the help and support of a teacher or mentor. In a 2011 study*, students (gifted and not gifted) were surveyed about their preferred method of differentiation. Self-pacing was the favorite among 90% of them, many citing that they wanted more time to dig into the really difficult material when they encountered it. Implementing flexible pacing in your classroom means documentation of mastery, as well as determining a way to guide your students and keep them accountable for their learning. Working together with the student(s), it is important that you create expectations for what is a reasonable amount of time to spend learning new content, as well as expectations for how the learning will be evaluated. Creating and using a learning contract is one very effective way to manage this process. 

Mini-lessons/Individual Conferences/Small Group

We can also modify content for our students by creating a classroom environment which allows for small-group instruction. Holding mini-lessons or individual conferences with students is a way to meet their needs for content differentiation in all three areas (readiness, interest, and learner profile).

Anchor Activities/Interest-Based Learning Centers 

These are activities that the teacher sets up for students to work on independently when they've completed required work, have tested out of regular classroom instruction, or to use during small group time.  The activities should be relevant to current themes or topics of study, meaningful and interesting to students, and leveled appropriately to student needs. Giving students interest surveys a few times a year can help you plan for these kinds of activities.

Independent Study

Independent study almost doesn't need its own category, truly, because it's so closely tied in with Curriculum Compacting, Flexible Pacing, and mini-lessons/conferences. Again, students use the time when classmates are learning something that student has already demonstrated mastery on. Just to emphasize something I mentioned before--just because a student is ready to learn new material on their own doesn't mean he or she has the skills and/or tools it takes to do so effectively. However, once you've established expectations for students, and students have decided upon something they'd like to explore. These studies can easily take an aspect of the topic or theme that your class is studying and turn it into an in-depth study of the topic's origin, a comparative analysis of similar themes or topics, or real world applications of the same or similar ideas.

Thanks for reading! You can click here to read the next post in the series: How does a differentiated classroom actually work? 

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  • Curriculum Compacting: A Systematic Procedure for Modifying the Curriculum for Above Average Ability Students,  by Sally M. Reis and Joseph S. Renzulli,  The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, University of Connecticut
  • Deferential Differentiation: What Types of Differentiation Do Students Want? by Lannie Kanevsky, Gifted Child Quarterly 2011 55: 279 


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