Learning Differences


Who do you think about when you worry about meeting student needs? I’ll bet you think about those students who are struggling in one way or another to keep up or catch up. So, when you think about differentiating to meet student needs, you think of ways that will work for these students.

I can meet the needs of all of my students while they gain the opportunity to choose their own activity pathways.

But, who are you leaving out? Well, the students who came in to your classrooms and schools knowing the most. These are the students who often stand to learn the least.

As a teacher, I look at my classroom of students and worry about how I can meet the needs of my struggling students, my English Language Learner students, and my special education students because my heart goes out to them; they’re struggling to learn in my classroom, and I want to make sure they do. So I try to differentiate some of my activities and my instruction to better meet their needs. What am I missing? The students who came into my room knowing the most; they are actually the ones learning the least in my classroom. Yep, the students who come into my room knowing a great deal about whatever I’m about to teach are the ones who will learn the least in my classroom.

So, how do I differentiate for these bright, highly able students? Some of the same techniques I use with my other students will work for them also. For example, two of the best ways to differentiate are by student interest and student choice.

I can provide activities that allow students to approach the subject from different interest standpoints. This can be accomplished by providing three different entry points to the subject, for example. Let’s say that I’m teaching a literacy unit on plot. Students could choose to read one of three short stories, each with a different subject matter: Let’s say, one is about a baseball game, one is about ballet dancing, and one is about a student struggling to make friends. All of the students would be taught the basics about plot, but then they would choose to read whichever story they wanted to and designate the elements of the plot of that particular story. Voila! All of my students are learning the basic elements of plot construction, but they can learn about it by reading a story of their choice that matches their interests. To make this even more challenging for my highly able learners, I could have two different versions of each story, written at different complexity levels; so, one story about the baseball game could be written at grade level and one could be written at two grade levels above. That means I would have to find six stories, at different lexile reading levels, but it would be worth the effort because all of my students could learn and grow.  (Actually, I just provided student choice within this little differentiation vignette as well.)

Okay, let’s try some differentiation by student choice specifically. I could develop a “tic-tac-toe” board with nine different choices of activities. The students have the opportunity to choose three activities that are adjacent to each other on the tic-tac-toe board so that they create a straight line through the board. As long as I provide a variety of activities at a variety of difficulty levels, I can meet the needs of all of my students while they gain the opportunity to choose their own activity pathways.

Another similar alternative to this is to create a “cubing” activity. This time, I create six different choices on a topic, and students roll a die to see which number comes up; if the number three is what they roll, they do the #3 activity. Or, I can provide them with a little more choice by allowing them to roll twice and pick whichever activity out of the two rolls. Again, I need to provide activities at different complexity levels, and, hopefully, appealing to different learning styles and interest areas as well.

Now, those are methods of differentiation that will work for all of my students. If I specifically want to address the needs of my highly able or “gifted” students, there are a number of other options I might want to try. An important caveat to all of these options is that they need to be options that students do INSTEAD OF other options or activities, NOT IN ADDITION TO other options or activities. In other words, it’s important that whatever I provide for differentiation is qualitatively different, NOT quantitatively different—not More Of The Same (MOTS). That said, here is a list of possible options that you can do in individual classrooms:

  • Create alternative assignments, at different levels of complexity
  • Create tiered assignments where there is a tier for those students performing at grade level, a tier for those performing below grade level, and a tier for those students performing above grade level
  • Create learning contracts where students sign that they will do a particular activity or activities by a set date
  • Have students teach a lesson
  • Have students act as roving assistants (but only if they would like to do this, and not as their only choice)
  • Group students homogeneously at times (“cluster group”) with other students of like ability
  • Create mentorship opportunities for students, to work with experts in their field of interest or expertise (and get credit for doing this)
  • Offer students the opportunity to “buy out” some of the curriculum and substitute more challenging curriculum in place of it or buy some time to work on an area of their interest
  • Offer students the opportunity to compact some of the curriculum, taking less time to complete the required curriculum than the regular grade-level pace requires

With the help of a school policy set-up, you can also offer the choices of accelerating in a subject, participating in higher grade level math classes, for example, or accelerating an entire grade level. There is also the alternative of setting up a pull-out program, but this is the last alternative I mention because it is often not administered appropriately. A quality pull-out program allows students to go deeper into subject matter or subjects of interest and is coordinated with the regular classroom activities and teachers (so the student does not have to do the regular work plus the pull-out work). Generally, I don’t advocate for a pull-out program because the elements I just mentioned are not necessarily put in place and/or the activities in the pull-out program would actually be good activities for all students.

It is possible to differentiate for your high academically able students in your classroom, with a little forethought and planning. In this way, the students who actually stand to learn the least in your classroom can also advance and progress in their learning.

Welda Simousek is the owner of Welda Consults LLC, a customized professional consulting company, https://weldaconsults.com. She has also been a talented and gifted program coordinator for three school districts and the educational consultant for talented and gifted programming for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

Contact Us

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.