One definition of differentiation is: making lessons in the classroom different so that all children’s needs are met; the teacher doesn’t just “teach to the middle” but finds ways to incorporate all levels of ability.

It can be particularly challenging to differentiate or adapt instruction to respond to the varying student needs in the heterogeneous, mixed-ability classroom. In such a class it is not surprising to find students at both ends of the learning curve: those performing multiple years above grade level, as well as those still struggling with concepts learned in prior academic years (while the majority of students in the class will have abilities falling somewhere in between). At the same time, these students will all have different favorite areas of, as well as differing methods for, learning.

In such a setting it is impossible to develop any one-size-fits-all template or cookie-cutter curriculum; a teacher will be compelled to employ a variety of learning options designed to engage the students’ varying interests, learning profiles, and ability levels. It is important to note, however, that the differentiated classroom is not one where the primary instruction is similar for all students and adjustments to accommodate learning levels merely consist of varying the degree of testing or reporting. Nor is it appropriate to give more advanced learners extra work or extension assignments when “normal” class work is completed. It is crucial that their instruction be substantively different in that it allows them to investigate material with greater depth and complexity as appropriate. Additionally, pre-assessment is an effective tool to identify students who have already mastered the material and who could benefit from accelerated curriculum compacting. When planning, a teacher should try to keep the following in mind:

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  • 1. Provide multiple opportunities for creative outlets through open-ended projects and products.

  • 2. Provide depth in content areas and subjects of interest to high ability students, helping them move beyond the curriculum.
  • 3. Allow high ability students to work together a portion of every day. This will stimulate them to achieve more than if they work alone or in mixed-ability groups.

  • 4. Make sure high ability students are not punished with MORE work or a lesser grade because they take a risk. Replace the standard curriculum with more challenging opportunities and/or an accelerated rate of instruction.
  • 5. Provide higher-level activities and lesson options on a regular basis, including divergent and evaluative thinking.

  • 6. Allow time for high ability students to explore their passion areas and express them in varied disciplines and mediums.
  • 7. Provide opportunities for high ability learners to be challenged and encourage perseverance in the face of obstacles.
  • 8. Encourage independent study and research skills, including the use of multiple resources and the reading of original documents.
  • 9. Reduce the amount of lecture, worksheets, drill, and practice.
  • 10. Remember: BOTH enrichment and acceleration are necessary

Engaging Students' Thinking

Educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom developed a classification of intellectual behavior levels important in learning. He identified six levels, from the simple recall or recognition of facts, as the lowest level, through increasingly more complex and abstract mental levels, to the highest order of evaluation. This breakdown can be used to understand high ability learners better when we recognize that they process thoughts and information in the upper levels of the scale.

In an analysis, Bloom found that over 95% of the test questions students encountered in school required them to think only at the lowest possible level... the recall of information. Engaging high ability thinkers in this way does a disservice to students who spend their time processing at the upper levels of the taxonomy. Rather than requiring students to regurgitate information, teachers should be encouraged to allow high ability students to utilize the top three levels of thinking in a fashion similar to the following:
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