Cash in on Learning: What’s So Different About Differentiation for the Gifted?

Now that “differentiation” has become a common term in the general lexicon of education, we need to differentiate the practice of differentiation. The idea of differentiation has a long history in general terms. In the 1930s, as the reach of public education broadened to include more than just the elite, it was found that some students had academic needs beyond those provided in the general curriculum. These “gifted” students, it was said, required a “differentiated learning experience” to ensure their continued academic growth.

More recently, Carol Ann Tomlinson, professor of education at the University of Virginia, led the charge for using the methodologies of differentiation in all classrooms with all children. The implementation of differentiation has a profound effect on meeting students where they are at in the learning process (readiness), getting students engaged in learning (interest), and focusing instruction on how students like to learn (learning preferences). This is all accomplished through the content (what we teach), process (how students come to own the information), and products (how students show what they have learned).

Well, if differentiation is now considered a practice to address all learners’ needs, we should make sure that when we differentiate for gifted students we implement specific practices that are effective with these students. This is exactly what Diane Heacox and I did when we wrote Differentiation for Gifted Learners: Going Beyond the Basics. We suggest that the essential characteristics of differentiation (content, process, and product) can be adjusted to meet the needs of gifted students through:

  • advancing the levels of the content through interdisciplinary concept development
  • advancing the levels of the process through embedding sophisticated levels of thinking
  • advancing the levels of product creation by requiring authentic products for authentic audiences
  • advancing student involvement in the learning

Examples of advancing the levels of the content through interdisciplinary concept development:

  • Link course work through concepts that are relevant to the life of the student
    • Power
    • Conflict
    • Desire
  • Use essential questions that seek answers for the betterment of humanity
    • In what ways has power influenced our lives?
    • How do systems support or undermine certain power structures?

Examples of advancing the levels of the process through embedding sophisticated levels of thinking:

  • Use complex problems that require students to work collaboratively
    • Activity: Consider a local issue that includes the struggle or complexity of power. What’s the issue and what recommendation can your team make to solve the problem?
  • Develop student thinking by teaching critical reasoning strategies and creative thinking tools
    • Activity: Analyze the similarities/differences of lead characters in Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream and define a common principle of power that links them all together.

Examples of advancing the levels of product creation by requiring authentic products for authentic audiences:

  • Create products that have value to others:
    • After the study of myths, legends, and folktales, create a new myth, legend, or folktale that represents the benefits or responsibilities of power and produce a book for younger students.
    • Make a report to the school board and school district after a public meeting that shares representations of the distribution and sharing of power.

Examples of advancing student involvement in the learning:

  • Require students to act within the discipline as a disciplinarian using scholarly disposition, being:
    • Open- and fair-minded
    • Inquisitive
    • Flexible in thinking and acting
    • Interested in seeking out reason
    • Immersed in acquiring more information
    • Respectful of and expecting diverse points of view
  • Allow for the study of topics of interest not addressed in the core content
  • Develop advanced levels of self-regulation
    • Goal setting
    • Monitoring
    • Reflecting

Keep in mind that there are also three critical practices that must be incorporated into the education of gifted students:

Critical Practice #1: Accelerated Pace

Pace is related to the instructional practices and management within the classroom environment. For advanced learners, instructional pace is increased or accelerated by spending less time on developing background knowledge, offering fewer examples on how to do particular methods, and providing less teacher-led practice. Students are expected to develop independence more rapidly than in the regular classroom setting.


  • Move students toward taking greater responsibility for their own learning by using the techniques embedded within the Teaching and Learning Continuum (TLC).

R Cash TLC differentiation graphic (c) Free Spirit Publishing

Critical Practice #2: Sophisticated Levels of Complex Thinking

Complexity is defined as the levels of thinking used by the students within the learning activities. For advanced learners, activities require them to use more sophisticated levels of higher order thinking (analysis, evaluation, and synthesis), creative thinking, critical reasoning, decision making, and problem solving. Situations are more abstract and infuse greater levels of ambiguity. Students are expected to perform within the course using various formulas to find answers. There is a greater need for students to work together and be able to clearly and succinctly communicate results. In most cases, complexity is considered the breadth of thinking and doing within a discipline of study.


  • Utilize the higher levels of thinking and require students not only to answer such questions, but also to ask those levels of questions.

© Free Spirit Publishing and Richard Cash-Complexity Graphic (

Critical Practice #3: Increased Discipline Knowledge and Practice Through Depth

Depth is related to the degrees to which a student explores the content and develops a greater understanding of the discipline. For advanced learners, the content offers greater abstractions of the concepts and connections to other content areas. Students will learn and use the principles (rules) and theories of the discipline. In advanced courses students will investigate topics that have authentic applications in real-world situations.
(c) R Cash Depth differentiation graphic (c) Free Spirit Publishing

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

Suggested Resources
Differentiation for Gifted Learners: Going Beyond the Basics by Diane Heacox and Richard M. Cash. Find ideas on meeting the needs of gifted students in many diverse classroom environments. Offers ideas on a progressive program model, how to address the Common Core State Standards, how to design a true honors course, meeting the needs of twice-exceptional learners, facing the challenges of diversity, using the co-teaching method, and more.

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2014 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved.

About Richard M. Cash, Ed.D.

Writes the "Cash in on Learning" post series for Free Spirit Publishing.
This entry was posted in Gifted Education, Professional Development, Teaching Strategies and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Cash in on Learning: What’s So Different About Differentiation for the Gifted?

  1. Reid Paul says:

    This was a loveely blog post

  2. Pingback: Is There a Framework for Creating Greater Autonomy?

Leave a Reply