I get lots of questions from overwhelmed folks who have suddenly landed in a new job in gifted ed and have had little training (heck, sounds a lot like me on my first day!).
“Where do I even start!?” is a very common cry. Here are three places to begin differentiating for gifted kids.
Pre-assessment is key! Without it, you’re setting out on a journey with no map and no compass. You have to know where your students are at before you differentiate.
I once did a survey and the most common reason for not pre-assessing was, “I don’t have time.”
Now, I understand the sentiment, but this is like finding your car’s fuel tank at empty in the morning but saying, “I don’t have time to fill up with gas” and then driving to work. Yes, you’re saving a little time up front, but you’ll end up wasting a huge amount of time later!
When you pre-assess, you get to skip content. You get to work with smaller groups. Your students are more likely to work on something interesting to them. A small investment up front saves you lots of time in the end.
There’s tons written on pre-assessment (even on this very site), so I’m not going to go into implementation details here. But, just to re-iterate: you need to pre-assess (not every lesson or every chapter at first, but start somewhere).
Once you see where your students are at, the simplest way to differentiate is just to go faster! Acceleration can happen at many levels:
Just teach faster! Fewer examples, fewer practice problems, and less teacher talk. Let kids go as fast as they can. Sometimes, my students could fly through lessons in half the recommended time. They just got it faster than the textbook expected. Sure, some students needed more help — and I’d pull them over after the lesson for additional support — but try really pushing the pace once you see that students are getting it. This requires checking for understanding during your lesson, of course!
Skip lessons, chapters, units. Is there a lesson coming up that just reviews content from last year? Does your class really need it? (psst check your pre-assessment data to find out!) Your “spiral curriculum” probably has a few too many spirals in it for your advanced students! You can differentiate by simply skipping or compressing this content.
Move kids to the next grade for a subject. This is, like, the easiest solution if you have a handful of students who are advanced in a certain content area. Just have them go to a classroom a grade up for that subject. Tamara Fisher has a great piece on this type of acceleration.
Some people get weird about letting kids go as fast as they can. But school is here to serve students, not the other way around, right? If we have a student who can fly through 3rd grade, why on earth would we stand in their way?
3. Give Complex Work, Not Merely Difficult Work
Many of you have attended my full-day workshop on the difference between difficulty and complexity. I think this difference is key for planning quality differentiated tasks that aren’t just more work.
Here’s a very brief summary of difficult vs complex to get you thinking:
- Difficult: One right answer. Often one correct (and already known) way to do it. Hard, but gets easier with practice.
- Complexity: Many starting points, many ending points, maybe no known solution or one best way to approach the problem. Stays complex even as you gain experience.
I contrast shooting three-pointers during basketball practice (which is difficult) with actually holding the ball during an NBA game (a complex situation). I’m terrible at shooting three-pointers, but if I practiced every day I’d improve. For someone like Steph Curry, this “difficult” skill is actually quite easy. But, even Steph faces a high level of complexity every time he holds the ball during a game. There’s no correct path. No known solution. It’s interesting every time.
Difficulty feels like drudgery. Complexity is fun (and often requires less planning on the teacher’s part)! Here’s my favorite example of giving kids a complex task.
And this post on “high ceilings, low floors” covers complexity in more detail.
Three Starting Points
Alright! There’s three starting points for differentiating for gifted students: you’ve got to pre-assess (start small!), let kids go as fast as they can, and beware mere difficulty. Hopefully that’s helpful. Do send me an email if you learned something useful!
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