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Understanding Differentiation

Differentiation refers to the deliberate modification of the content, process, product or evaluation within the framework of the curriculum. Differentiation was first introduced in public schools as a technique for allowing students identified as having special needs a way to experience success in the regular classroom while working at their ability level. 

Differentiation has transcended to the area of gifted education to serve the same purpose; to allow gifted students to remain in the regular classroom and still benefit from specially designed lessons or activities to meet their unique educational needs. 

Differentiation takes the form of what is taught (content), how the student will learn (process), how the student will demonstrate, apply and extend what they have learned (product), and how the student mastery will be measured (evaluation). At the middle and high school level, the pacing of the class is the first adjustment teachers make. Gifted students can cover material much more quickly. At all levels compacting the curriculum is an appropriate strategy. Compacting involves assessing how much of the material you need to teach has been mastered, and planning for the teaching of material that is not known. This strategy also allows teachers to cover material much more quickly and allows for activities that extend or enrich the curriculum.

Pacing and compacting are only two of many differentiation strategies. Below is a brief description of some of the other strategies teachers use to provide a more challenging learning environment for gifted students. 

Use of resources beyond the textbook. The use of research articles, related literature, guest experts, experiments or investigations allow gifted students to gain more in-depth knowledge of a given topic. 

Pretesting to determine mastery. This involves the administration of an end of unit test prior to the teaching of the material to determine the level to which students possess prior knowledge and understanding of the unit material. Generally, students who score ninety-five or better are provided an opportunity to complete an independent study in a related area while the remainder of the class works through the lessons / activities in the unit

Use of content related themes, issues, and/or problems. The use of real world problems or issues that allows students opportunities to extend and apply skills from one area to another.

Use of higher level questioning strategies. Teachers develop questions that require the student to go beyond simple comprehension of the material, and require more evaluative and analytical thinking. Questions may also be designed to elicit a higher level of creativity on the part of the student response.

Research skill development. Activities and opportunities are selected to allow students to develop and utilize their research skills. This may involve independent research projects in the student's area of interest.

Allow for choice in selection of product. A menu of product ideas is provided from which students may choose how they demonstrate understanding and mastery of concepts and information.

Present / display products to real audience. Students are provided an opportunity to present their products to individuals / groups employed within the area they are studying. This allows students to receive feedback from the experts.

Use of student-generated criteria. Students give input as to how and what they will be graded on for particular projects / assignments.

Opportunities for self-evaluation. Students evaluate their own work, citing specifics related to the assignment of a grade.

Use of different types of evaluative tools. Teachers may use portfolios of student selected work, independent projects, and presentations in place of traditional testing to determine student understanding and mastery of content.

Graduated task and product rubrics. The teacher sets a minimum and maximum grading scale based on the level of depth and creativity with which a student might complete a task or product. Students wishing to obtain a maximum grade earn the grade by completing a more in-depth complete product. Students wishing simply to pass know the minimum required for receiving a passing grade.

Independent Study. The student and teacher jointly plan a method for investigating an area of interest. This area may or may not be connected to the current area of interest. The teacher and the student plan the method for investigating the topic / problem, the type of product the student will develop and the timeline for completing the investigation.

Tiered Assignments. The teacher varies the levels of activity to ensure that all students explore the ideas at a level that builds on their prior knowledge.

Learning contracts. Generally used in conjunction with pre-testing, a contract is formed between student and teacher related to those activities in which the student will be involved while the remainder of the class is involved with teacher developed lessons.