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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