I get lots of questions from overwhelmed folks who have suddenly landed in a new job in gifted ed and have had little training in the field. I think this describes how most of us started.
Naturally, “Where do I even start!?” is a 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 must know where your students are at before you can differentiate for them.
I once put out a survey asking why people don’t pre-assess. The most common response was: “I don’t have time.”
Now, I understand the sentiment, but this is like finding your car running on fumes in the morning but saying, “I don’t have time to fill up with gas” and then driving off to work.
Yes, you’re saving time upfront, but you’ll end up wasting a tremendous amount of time later!
When you pre-assess, you get to skip lessons. You get to work with smaller groups. Your students will get to work on something more interesting to them.
A small investment early on saves you lots of time in the end.
How do you start pre-assessing? I have some practical pre-assessment tips here.
You don’t need to pre-assess every lesson or even every week (at first), but you do need to pre-assess when you work with gifted kids.
Start small, but do start!
2. Go Faster
Once you have your pre-assessment information, the simplest way to differentiate is just to go faster! The fancy name for this in education is “acceleration,” and it can happen at many levels:
Just teach faster! Fewer examples, fewer practice problems, and less teacher talk. If you’re using a textbook lesson, that lesson was not designed for gifted kids. You can go faster! You have my permission.
The goal: let kids go as fast as they are capable of until they hit a roadblock — then you can dig in and actually teach. You’ve finally hit their Zone of Proximal Development.
Sometimes, my students could fly through lessons in half the recommended time. They just got it faster than the textbook expected. Sure, some of them needed more help — and I’d pull them over after the lesson for additional support — but try really pushing the pace when you see that students are getting it. This requires checking for understanding throughout lessons. Monitor kids’ understanding while you teach. Little, personal whiteboards were my favorite way to do this. If they’re getting it, then move along.
Skip lessons, chapters, units. Is there a lesson coming up that simply reviews content from last year? Does your class really need it? (psst check your pre-assessment data to find out!) Your “spiral curriculum” definitely has too many spirals in it. You can differentiate by simply skipping or compressing this content. If you realize later that you went to fast, just go back and fill in the holes.
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 one 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?
Sure, everyone has heard of someone who knew someone who had a bad experience with acceleration (for me, it’s an uncle), but years of research shows that acceleration works when it’s implemented correctly.
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 tasks have one right answer and often one correct (and already well-known) way to do it. These tasks are hard, but they actually become easy with practice. A five-digit long division problem is difficult.
- Complex tasks have many starting points, many ending points, and perhaps no known solution or best way to approach the problem. They stay 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 a pro 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 are 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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