Differentiating Homework for Gifted Students

Expat Educator Homework

As part of Mary St. George’s New Zealand Gifted Awareness Week Blog Tour, this post addresses homework for the gifted student.

Admittedly, as a classroom teacher, I avoided differentiated homework for many years. The idea of finding, assigning, grading, and following-up with multiple assignments seemed prohibitively time-consuming. Until I tried it.

This post begins with essential understandings and ends with some practical ideas.

Essential Understandings

1. Homework for gifted students should not be ‘more of the same’. If you want your class to spend their homework time reviewing the process of adding fractions, gifted students will not learn anything additional if you give them 20 computation problems while the other students do 10.

2. The homework objective should align with the class objective. Let’s say you’re studying groups of people native to your country of origin. You want the class to use a few websites or book pages to locate information critical to the understanding of the natives’ culture. You have a student in your class who is a font-of-all-knowledge on the topic. Assigning the student to research modern Estonia won’t lead the student to a deeper knowledge of native cultures. Asking the student to make a video portraying his or her knowledge of the culture may help the student learn more about tech skills than native culture. You want to further this child’s understanding of native cultures – the same objective you have for others.

3. You don’t need to create a new differentiated assignment each day for each subject. You can’t. You just can’t.

4. Make sure the student (and parents!) know that the gifted child is not expected to spend any more time on his or her assignment than you expect of the rest of the students. One of my favourite Australian phrases is “Have a go.” Some gifted students will pressure themselves to find a correct answer the next day (After all, the other students have to have all their answers correct the next day). Ask the gifted student to work on the alternate question or topic for 20-30 minutes. The next day, the student can tell you what he or she thought about or tried. If you have multiple gifted students who did the same alternate assignment, they can meet together to come to share thinking and come to consensus on an answer.

Option 1: Add a thought-provoking question.

In my ground rules example, I mentioned a homework assignment for practicing the addition of fractions. With gifted Year 5 students, the directions change. Say,

“Instead of doing all of these problems, pick two – just so I know that you know you remember how to add fractions. But I’d like you to spend the remainder of your homework time thinking through one of my dilemmas: We teachers tell you that fractions and decimals are the same. I’m not sure if that is true. When I add 1/3 + 1/3 + 1/3, I get 1. When I add 0.333 [repeating] + 0.333 [repeating] + 0.333 [repeating], I get 0.999 [repeating]. Those aren’t exactly the same. Can you help me figure out why? What happens to the extra 0.001?” – or

“We’ve been working on the rules of divisibility for 2, 3, 5, 6, and 10. Can you figure out rules for 4, 7, and/or 8?”

Many teachers get stuck on the idea that students have to turn in something to be graded. If a gifted student has grappled with a difficult question, write anecdotal notes about your conversation(s) with them. You’re holding them accountable by having the follow-up conversation.

Option 2: Give the student choices as to how to extend knowledge

Returning to the example of the student who could give a college lecture on many aspects of native culture, consider giving the student a few other homework choices that deepen knowledge or add complexity. The conversation goes something like this…

“Look, Jung Ho, I now that you already know everything in the reading assigned for tonight. I’m wondering if there is anything else you might like to know.

  • If I set up a Google hangout with an historian or a person of Aboriginal descent, what questions would you want to ask that person? How ’bout you spend tonight thinking about those questions and we’ll discuss them tomorrow?” – or
  • I’ve been thinking about the apologies made to the Aboriginals by the Australian government. Have countries like New Zealand, South Africa or the United States made similar apologies? What, if anything, might they need to apologise for? Would you say the colonists’ treatment of native Australians is better or worse than the treatment of those native to New Zealand, South Africa or the United States? Would you like to look into that?” – or
  • I watched the All Blacks do the haka before yesterday’s football game. It made me wonder about all the ways the Maoris’ culture is similar to or different from the culture of the Aboriginals. Would you like to look into that?” – or
  • I’ve been thinking about all the explorers who encountered native cultures from different countries. If you were a native, which explorer would you have most wanted to ‘discover’ your country? Which one would you dread the most?” – or
  • “When I was in Mexico, I went to an art gallery and saw pictures of the native Mexicans’ encounters with Cortez. The natives were visibly oppressed. Then I went to Spain and saw Spanish artwork of Cortez’s encounter with the Mexican natives. The natives were smiling. Would you like to look into some artwork depicting colonials’ encounters with natives and see if you notice other things?”

Option 3: Work with the student to develop a learning contract.

The beauty of a learning contract is that the student both plans it and completes it. Your input is critical, but the onus of the contract (especially for older students) lies directly on the student(s).

Homework contracts may contain any of the following:

  • Overarching question
  • List of sources to investigate
  • Journal pages to document investigations and thinking
  • Presentation format or picture of the end product
  • Timeline of due dates (most important!)

Projects can seem overwhelming for some gifted students. Also, gifted students sometimes get so engrossed in reading and research that they never get to information synthesis or presentation.

You’ll want to hold the student accountable for an end product but also allow the due dates to be fluid. As students continue to research and think, a final project may morph into something completely different. Your goal is to make sure students are working and to push their thinking.

Option 4: Make worksheets two-sided.

Worksheets are most prevalent in math. One side of a sheet could comprise computational problems that help students review the day’s lesson. The other side could extend the concept with a problem-solving situation or a thought-provoking question.

As much as possible, align the mathematical strand with the problem-solving concept. One side might be the addition of decimals. The other side might ask students to make an organised list to find the number of possible combinations of coins could pay for a $5 load of laundry.

The key is that students can choose. Many students not identified as gifted will want to ‘have a go’ with the challenge problem. Some parents will require their child to do both sides, even if you’re explicit that students should only spend x-number of minutes per night. It doesn’t hurt them.

Final Thoughts

If you ask students to do ‘more of the same’ or you require them to do things they already know, you teach them that homework is pointless. You want to teach gifted students that homework can be valuable for them too.

Need more ideas? Check out Dr. Sarah Eaton’s post on Alternatives to Traditional Homework.

What have you found to be successful strategies for differentiating homework for gifted students?

Expat Educator Gifted Blog Tour

From Pre-Assessments to Differentiated Instruction

Once you have enough information to clearly determine the knowledge and skills students already possess, you quickly realize that you can’t teach exactly the same lesson to all students.

  • Some students need a full lesson and repeated practice to master the objectives.
  • Some students can learn the objective in half the class time.
  • Some students have fully mastered the objective and need something more complex to further their learning.

Early in my teaching career, the two latter groups of students really got the shaft. I made them sit through a lesson and demonstrate learning they had already mastered. Then, to keep them busy, I’d assign them more of the same.

What Differentiation is Not
Differentiation does not mean permanent groupings. When you have a permanent “high” group, those students may miss important objectives they have not yet mastered. Students in a permanent “low” group may have areas of strength that need to be challenged.

Differentiation is not an excuse to have students work in complete independence. When I was in school, my teachers had me “work ahead”, submitting assignments at my own pace and rarely interacting with me. Teachers have a responsibility to help students who have already mastered grade-level objectives reach their learning potential. Students who have mastered grade level content deserve teacher interaction and facilitation. For more information on teaching gifted students, click here.

Differentiation is not the sole responsibility of learning specialists. Learning specialists tend to serve large numbers of students in multiple classrooms – each with a different schedule. Students deserve much more frequent differentiation.

Differentiation is not a complete second or third set of lesson plans. Students who have demonstrated knowledge/skills on a pretest do not necessarily skip an entire lesson. Rather, they receive the lesson at a different level of sophistication.

Examples of Differentiation in Math
In math, we are working on graphing ordered pairs. Many students have experience graphing coordinates where letters are placed on the x-axis and numbers on the y-axis, as they are in the game of Battleship. Students are introduced to the (x,y) ordered pair and they demonstrate the ability to graph such coordinates.

Other students have graphed coordinates but have difficulty remembering to first move along the x-axis. Those students quickly master (re-master?) the concept. As an extension, I ask these students predict what would happen if the x-coordinate was doubled. What if the x-coordinate was negated? What happens if we do the same to y-coordinates? Can they use math vocabulary to explain their reasoning?

Another student was able to easily explain effects of changing x- and y-coordinates. I pulled him aside, helping him connect equations such as y = 3x + 2 to ordered pairs and the graphing of lines. I then asked him to play around with different multiplies until he could explain what happens to a line when the multiple changed.

Same basic lesson – but at varying levels of sophistication.

Examples of Differentiation in Literacy
Students recently wrote Realistic Fiction stories. A couple students were able to, in a short amount of time, create a story that met all unit objectives. As most students continued their rough drafts, I asked those two students to conference together, discussing how their stories might incorporate symbolism. To what extent does each story have a message? A dynamic character? How would the story change if the character was given one magical power?

In reading, similar skills can be taught with varying levels of text sophistication. While some students are learning to use headings and paragraphs to understand nonfiction texts, others can study essays of Nobel Prize winners or famous speeches. How did those authors organize their work without clear headings?

How to Differentiate
1. Start slowly. You’ll quickly burn out if you try to differentiate every lesson all by yourself. Aim for one or two lessons each unit and add a few each year.

2. Work with colleagues. Working together, groups of teachers can add to the files of differentiated resources. If you have a teaching partner or colleague who teaches the same units at the same time, have one teacher take students who need the regular lesson and the other teacher can take those who need extensions. The next day, one teacher takes those who need re-teaching or pre-teaching while the other teacher follows up with the regular and/or extension group. If learning specialists are involved, the differentiation is even more powerful.

3. Flip lessons. Videos take time to make, but they can be used over and over again. Video lessons do not replace the teacher – but they can get groups of students started while the teacher is working with another group.

When videos are used in the classroom, groups of students can watch them together, pause, reflect, and synthesize ideas. Students are then given a project, a mini-project, or a task to complete. Be clear what students need to accomplish and show the teacher when he/she arrives.

Differentiated instruction takes practice. It requires new structures of classroom management. How do you manage differentiated instruction?

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Differentiation for Gifted Students

I catch the tail end of twitter chats. Because I live in Asia, educational twitter chats tend to happen somewhere between Dreamland and my taxi ride to work.

The most recent #elemchat focused on teaching gifted students. I’m writing this post as I read through the #elemchat archives. I’ll be incorporating a “writing as thinking” process of learning where a take a large amount of information and try to synthesize it, inserting my own thoughts as I go.

My thoughts are based on my experiences with international students. Thoughts are also influenced by courses I took in graduate school, led by an educator who has an IQ that tests are not able to measure.

What is Gifted?
I’m not convinced anyone has properly defined “gifted”. The National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) says that “Gifted individuals are those who demonstrate outstanding levels of aptitude or competence in one or more domains.”

What constitutes outstanding? How widely do we define domains? All teachers can say is “We know it when we see it.” To complicate the issue further, the NAGC also states that “Giftedness, intelligence, and talent are fluid concepts and may look different in different contexts and cultures.” I have a classroom comprising Third Culture Kids with at least five different cultural backgrounds. What does “gifted” like in a class of students with diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds?

Teachers could double as detectives.
I’ve stopped trying to define “gifted.” Perhaps that is because I have a aversion to labels. It may also be because I don’t pretend to understand gifted students’ thinking – nor do I completely understand all the cultural contexts.

That said, I want to know who knows what before I teach every lesson.

How do I know whether or not individual students know the concept or process? I draw from a number of sources:

  • teacher-created pretests that cover the major unit objectives
  • student interviews (i.e. Can you show me how you would…?)
  • portfolio evidence, including writing samples, reading inventories, and project samples
  • conversations with students’ previous teachers
  • observations of students as they work

Here is an example of a math differentiation model that my teaching partner and I use:

If a student already knows the content or process I am about to teach, I need to provide him or her an alternate activity. Ideally, the chosen activity builds upon the concept the other students are learning.

If I think a student already knows the content or process I am about to teach, I need to compact the assignment and provide an alternative activity after the student has demonstrated understanding.

If a student is only missing a piece of a content or process, I need to do a quick reteach, have the student demonstrate understanding, and provide an alternate activity.

If a student doesn’t have the content or process, the student participates with the class. The students may be pulled out for re-teaching or additional instruction.

Differentiate between “rate” of learning and “level” of learning.
Quick learners are not necessarily deep thinkers. Deep thinkers do not necessarily work quickly. In the above scenarios, the alternate activities for deep thinkers and quick learners may not be the same.

Take, for example, the concept of subtraction. Many of my students enter my class knowing how to subtract. Can those students use 1s, 10s, and 100s blocks to explain how trade first looks? Can they subtract left to right using the partials method? Can they subtract in Base 5? Which of these extensions is most appropriate for which students?

@JudyBrunner and @tcash asked the question: Do gifted students demand gifted teachers? As in the example above, gifted students need teachers who can determine what a student knows and what constitutes the next level of challenge for each student. And, gifted students need teachers who can manage a classroom with multiple learning activities.

As @JoAnnJacobs68 stated, “Gifted does not necessarily mean across the board in every subject or even academics.” I’d add that “gifted” does not mean a student is gifted in every part of a given subject. For example, a student may be gifted in geometrical reasoning yet have difficulty with computation.

@GTconsultant suggests teachers create “menus” of extensions for gifted students. One great in-house PD opportunity is to allow time for groups of teachers to create such menus. Teachers need sheltered time to collaborate with peers, sharing strategies that work (@flourishingkids).

Keep the goal in mind.
A gifted child may need more lessons on emotional/social topics than on academic topics. My professor, Dr. Beranek**, said that one of the greatest lessons a teacher taught him was to openly state his confusion and needs. While he was able remember any sort of academic content, he could not get his head around some basic social interactions. He shared a story about the time he and his wife started dating. At the beginning, his wife would engage in normal, coy, flirtatious behavior. Because a teacher had taught him to verbalize his confusion and state his needs, he was able to tell his [then] girlfriend, “Please don’t make that face. I don’t know what you mean by it. I need to you tell me directly what you want.”

As @Begabungs stated, we should help students with social skills, self-confidence, patience, and project completion. @dbatty1 added, “It is so important to support social and emotional development and understanding.”

I think of Dr. Beranek’s story when I watch the character of Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory. Below is one of my favorite scenes. What I like most is that, from 1:01-1:20, Sheldon’s mom needs the lesson in respect. From 1:30 – 2:05, Mrs. Cooper reminds Sheldon about the social graces related to hospitality.

@vr2ltch wondered why we push gifted students to explain their thinking when, for them, knowing something is like breathing. I think we push gifted students to explain their thinking when we want them to improve their communication skills. They should not have to explain all the time. They should, however, be expected to continually improve their communication skills.

Teachers of gifted students must keep asking the question about the goal. Is my goal that the [gifted] student learn a math skill, learn a communication skill, complete a project, or some combination of those things? 

Consider both intelligence age and biological age.
@begabungs said, “Please treat gifted kids by the intelligence age and not biological age.” That is true for academic learning. If students can cognitively operate two or more grade levels higher, provide them with material and instruction that will meet their needs.

But gifted kids most often need to be taught social and emotional lessons according to their biological age. My university instructor told a number of heart-wrenching stories about what it was like to grow up gifted. In one story, he talked about engaging in an inappropriate classroom behavior. His teacher looked at him and said, “You’re smart. You should know better than that.” He was crushed.

One of my favorite lines from #elemchat was from @Becky_Ellis_. She shares, I focus on the question “How do we need to BE?” e.g. effective listeners need patience, thoughtfulness, generosity. At first, I wondered whether she was referring to teachers or students. Then I realized the statement applies to both.

If we teach the gifted solely according to their intellectual age, we may miss the fact that “Gifted children need as much attention, maybe more than others, to keep them engaged as learners” @theASIDEblog.

Giftedness does not equate with achievement.
The ability to retain information is completely separate from the ability to manage time and complete tasks. One topic that was missed in #elemchat was the need to very carefully assign “grades” to gifted students.

Does the math grade I assign a student reflect knowledge of material or self-motivation? How can I communicate to the reader of the report card (future teachers, college admissions officers, and parents) that a student demonstrated exceptional knowledge of content AND the same student attended class sporadically? I suspect it is easier to account for two such extremes in a self-contained classroom than in a subject-specific classroom where only a single letter grade is assigned.

A division-wide math focus group of teachers and administrators recently concluded that roughly 50% of our international school students receive or could receive math extensions during most math lessons.* So the next question is this: Are we unintentionally imposing an artificial ceiling on students’ math learning? What about other learning? These are important questions for all schools to ask.

Dealing with the Tiger Moms
I’d be remiss if I didn’t speak to the reality of the Tiger Mom in an Asian setting. Whether full “Tiger Moms” or not, @kyleredford mentioned that “Very often it is the parents of my students who say that they want or need extensions.”

My first couple of years overseas, I spent hours explaining to parents the differences between “giftedness” and “achievement.” Then my practical side took over. The argument is ultimately about labeling which, as I stated before, I try to avoid.

I now do the following:

  • Acknowledge the feelings of the parent (they want more work or harder work)
  • Include a way for students to demonstrate “extended understanding” in their projects.
  • State school homework policy. Teachers are allowed to assign x-minutes of homework for children of that age (Thanks, admin, for setting that policy!)
  • Differentiate homework. However I feel about homework, it is an expectation in my environment. So, I tend to give double-sided sheets of math homework. The first side has the “regular” work – work that reinforces the daily lesson goal. The second side has an extension (different work, not more work). Students should work for x-number of minutes, but they can choose the side. If parents force more work upon them, that is a parent choice, not one that I make.
  • Lead parents to the Gifted Parenting Support Blog and John Hopkins Center for Talented Youth.

Technology and Gifted
I’m in the beginning stages of learning about Flat Classrooms. I connect it to what @brettelockyer said that it’s “easy to extend and challenge with project-based lesson, linking students with mentors and cognitive peers.” I think one of the major strengths of the Flat Classroom idea is the ability to link gifted students in one setting with gifted students in another setting.

I like to think of flipped lessons more than flipped classrooms. Teachers can work together to create flipped lessons for groups of students, depending on student needs. Teachers can also have groups of students watching the “flipped lesson” videos” within the classroom setting while the teacher differentiates instruction with another group of students.

Did I miss anything or misrepresent anyone? If so please correct me. And, feel free to continue the conversation here :).

Websites cited in the #elemchat…in no particular order…
A practical idea for teaching greater self-expression to gifted students who are introverted.

Layered curriculum

Cybrary Man: Twice Exceptional Children, Tech Integration for Gifted, and Differentiated Instruction

Three categories of teachers

University of Connecticut NEAG Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development

Unwrapping the Gifted

Texas Association for the Gifted and Talented

How to support gifted students in your classroom

Horizons Program for the Gifted

National Association for Gifted Children

Bright Lights: The Gifted Challenge Centre Program in Vancouver

33 Resources for the Gifted and Talented

*Email me if you’d like to know the data we analyzed and basic protocols we followed to reach that conclusion.

**I’m unable to locate the location or recent work of Dr. David Beranek. He taught adjunct courses at Western Oregon University between 1993-1997. If anyone can locate his more recent work, I’d appreciate the information.

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