Providing Challenge for High-achieving Learners in the Regular Classroom

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Simplify differentiation through expectations and choice.

Most schools have some services provided specifically for students labeled as gifted. But what about those students who are high-achieving and not labeled? And even when a student is labeled, what about when they aren’t working with the teacher of the gifted? As a system, are we providing the appropriate challenge for these students? In many cases, the answer is no. With the intense pressure on teachers to make sure all students are passing mandated tests, high-achieving students often become collateral damage with little or no attention paid to their learning needs.

Sometimes teachers use them as peer tutors; sometimes they are simply left alone because teachers feel “they can figure it out on their own,” or “they’ll be okay.” These ideas are myths and are not borne out in the lives of the students. But figuring out how to make adjustments in the curriculum for these students can be a challenge. Simply copying the worksheets out of the “enrichment” section of the teacher’s edition isn’t enough-and rarely are these truly enriching activities anyway.

So how do you make it happen? The specifics, like the students, are going to be unique. But here are some basic shifts in thinking and practice that can make it easier.

First, accept the premise that fair is not the same thing as equal. This is one of those statements that we have all heard and many of us have used. However, in the classroom, many teachers feel afraid to not ask or expect the same thing from all students. On the one hand, we are worried that high-achieving students may not appreciate being given “more work,” while on the other hand we worry that if we don’t give the same work to everyone, we are selling our struggling students short. And then on top of that, we worry what parents might say or think if they see students getting different work. But students are not all the same, so if we continue being uniform in our assignments and expectations we aren’t actually helping any of them. Once we come to terms with the idea that being fair in the work we assign means that it may not always appear equal, we can move forward to thinking about what that work might actually be.

Differentiation can be a complicated task-and the more complicated something is, the less likely we are to engage in it on a daily basis. On the flip side, simplicity can empower us to continue working. To make differentiation simpler, try to start by doing it in your expectations. While it is true that we should have high expectations for all of our students, we are doing a disservice to them if we arbitrarily decide to have the same expectations for everyone. If you have built a strong relationship with your high-achieving students, simply looking at their work and asking, “Did you push yourself to do or learn something new here? Can you show me where?” or simply stating, “I like what you have here, but I think you can do more,” can make a huge impact on their level of engagement and production. If a student comes to you already above grade-level, simply having grade-level expectations for them will not push them to make gains. Just like all students, most high-achieving students will raise their efforts in order to meet your expectations. Expect more from them and watch them become more engaged learners.

Another simple way to add in differentiation is to make room for choice. This choice can be in product or process. Mandating that all students complete their projects or assignments in exactly the same way doesn’t allow for students to explore and grow. For example, if you are having students create a presentation to show their learning on a topic, don’t limit students to one medium (i.e. Microsoft PowerPoint). If most of the students have never used PowerPoint, spending time teaching them how to use the software effectively is really important. But for those few students who have personal experience with the program and don’t need the lessons, requiring them to sit through the lessons and complete their project the same way as everyone else means they aren’t really learning anything new or growing as a learner. By allowing them to use a different presentation tool, they can explore and expand their knowledge. If you are using a rubric to grade the projects, it should be simple enough to adjust the rubric to accommodate a different presentation software. After all, the ultimate point of education isn’t the uniformity of our students but their own personal growth and knowledge.

So remember, differentiation doesn’t have to mean additional lesson plans and extensive projects to grade. While those things can provide a needed challenge for many students, they aren’t sustainable for teachers to do every day. Use them when they make sense, but look to the simpler ways of changing expectations and giving students choice in order to help meet the needs of all your students.

What are some of the simple ways you have found to differentiate for the learners in your classroom?