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What Is Differentiated Instruction?: Gifted and Talented Education

Updated on March 18, 2014

What Is Differentiation? Why Is It Important?

All gifted instruction, regardless of whether classes are heterogeneously or homogeneously formed, have a wide range of learners, from high achievers to underachievers and everybody in between. Group instruction is not always beneficial for all of the students within any classroom, because of this reality. Consequently, effective gifted teachers often employ the critical components of curricular differentiation. Curricular differentiation has less to do with curriculum and more to do with how one will ensure a thorough understanding of the curriculum by designing lessons or plans and implementing a wide variety of teaching and assessments strategies that maximize both student interest levels and abilities.


Before implementing any gifted instruction that is differentiated, a pre-assessment is often administered. Pre-assessments can be formal quizzes or tests. They can also be informal games, discussions, learning inventories, or other activities. Pre-assessments can even be self-assessments that students take. The goal is to determine what students already know. If the process gives an accurate indication of current student knowledge, the method of pre-assessment is unimportant. In the end, the pre-assessment act as a diagnostic tool that helps the teacher identify what the student already knows and what they should be learning. Why should a student spend time learning a concept he/she already thoroughly understands?


While all students in any class are required to learn the same concepts, gifted students may be able to learn concepts at a higher conceptualization. The teacher may differentiate content by designing lessons or activities that cover different areas of Bloom's Taxonomy. Struggling students may work at the lowest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, including knowledge, comprehension, and application. Slightly more advanced students might work on application, analysis and evaluation areas. Gifted students and high-achieving students who have exhibited a solid understanding of the curriculum might work within the highest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, evaluation and synthesis. Some may consider this a dumbing down of the curriculum. In fact, differentiation actually ensures that this doesn’t occur. While the lowest-performing and average students are meeting state standards, the gifted should be exceeding them. Ultimately, all of the students within a class should be working towards the same standards, just at different levels of comprehension and conceptualization.


Students enter a classroom at different levels. They learn in different ways. With differentiated learning teachers do not teach all of the students in the same way. Pre-assessments may lead to lesson plans that delineate how instruction will be differentiated and based on student needs, learning styles, interests, and prior knowledge. Learning groups are often formed based on this but must remain flexible, because student needs may change. Some students may even choose to work alone during some tasks.


The product is the final assessment. What did the student learn? This can be measured in so many ways and is not limited to a test. Final assessments may include but are not limited to tests, projects, reports, demonstrations, activities, or essays. The assessment may or may not be standardized within a classroom. It is not uncommon to have students taking different assessments based on the process in which they learned a given concept. The goal here is to allow students ample ways of demonstrating that they have learned the concepts they need to learn to progress. Often times, the product (final assessment) mirrors student learning styles and/or interests.

Curriculum Compacting Examples

Curriculum Compacting

Curriculum compacting is a differentiation strategy by which students are pre-assessed to determine their current understanding of the curriculum. If it is determined, through pre-assessment, that a student has mastered a curricular concept, he/she is not required to complete the grade-level work. Instead, alternate activities may be assigned in an effort to maximize instruction.

Once a student has clearly demonstrated an understanding of the curriculum, the next step is to choose alternate activities that can either support a greater understanding of the same material that was tested or provide further challenges that are at higher levels of thinking. While this often seems like a daunting task for many teachers, a multitude of resources are available and ready to help teachers accomplish this, ranging from the Internet to suggested activities that are listed in virtually every teacher’s edition. If additional resources are lacking, independent study in a related area of interest is another possibility.

Tiered Assignments

Flexible Grouping and Tiered Learning

In America, students tend to be grouped based on age. Second graders are typically seven years old and third graders are typically eight years old, etc. Flexible grouping is a short-term grouping method of putting students into groups based on goals, interests, and learning needs, rather than homogenously grouping students by ability or by age. Cross-class or cross-grade grouping is often employed in an effort to place students within these flexible groupings. Unlike classrooms that are typically stagnant, groupings often change as students master concepts and learning needs change. Because of this, gifted students often benefit. As they learn concepts, they may progress into a new group rather and begin mastering different or deeper concepts.

Independent Learning

Independent Projects

When pre-assessments indicate that a gifted student is ready to move on before the rest of the class is ready to do so, independent projects may be a viable, exciting option for a deeper understanding of the curriculum. In an independent project, the student and teacher negotiate a relevant topic, timelines, and assessment. Independent projects may include virtually any method of assessment, including but not limited to a written response, essay, report, presentation, diorama, sculpture, comic strip or book report. The method of assessment could literally be just about anything that truly proves growth and comprehension. Because of this flexibility, independent projects can be a very valuable tool for an instructor of gifted children.

Inquiry-Based Learning

Inquiry-Based or Problem-Based Learning

Inquiry-based learning is a teaching technique whereby a teacher directs instruction by focusing on questions or problem-solving activities that require critical thinking to solve. Inquiry-based learning is based on the scientific method and is intended to help develop critical thinking skills. It is student centered and requires students to conduct investigations that are often independent from the teacher but often based on answering open-ended questions that the teacher asks. With inquiry-based education, students discover things on their own. Gifted students can often be quite inquisitive. Inquiry-based instruction takes advantage of this and drives these students to a greater understanding, one that might not have necessarily been accomplished with traditional instruction. Open-ended questions can be answered in many different ways, so gifted students, regular students, and special-needs students may all be able to participate in the same whole-group instruction while answering the same question with a varying degree of complexity.

Stations (Kinesthetic Learning) - A Real Class Example

Learning Centers or Stations

Learning Centers are areas that are organized with specific curricular goals and various materials and learning experiences. Learning centers are often independent stations that can be set up throughout the classroom. Children typically go from center to center, engaging in learning activity. On occasion, children are given great control over which stations they use and how much time they spend there. Other times, stations or station durations are assigned based on student need. Learning centers typically provide children with opportunities for hands-on learning where they are largely in charge of their own progress. Effective learning centers often incorporate cooperative learning, real-life problem solving, and open-ended activities that are typically beneficial for all students, especially gifted children.

Asking Open Questions

Open-Ended Tasks and Open-Ended Questions

An open-ended task allows students to respond in many different and correct ways. Multiple responses can be given, because there is no single, correct answer for the task. Open-ended tasks often involve critical or creative thinking that goes far beyond regurgitation of facts and requires a deeper understanding of the curriculum. Open-ended activities provide opportunities for different learners to show varying levels of comprehension based on ability level and student interests.

© 2012 arizonataylor

Tell me how you teach gifted children.

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    • DaisysJourney profile image

      DaisysJourney 3 years ago from Midwest, USA

      I love DI and find it useful with all of my students, gifted, gen ed, and sped. students. My personal favorite is differentiated products so students can show their learning in their own creative way. My students enjoy doing RAFT writing (Role Audience Format Topic) for book reports and they love stations. I just wish I had more ideas for anchor activities when my speedy kids get finished before my ones who need more scaffolding. Any ideas you can pass on?

      Thanks for a well-written article.