5 Expert Tips for Cluster Grouping Success

By Dina Brulles, Ph.D., coauthor of The Cluster Grouping Handbook: A Schoolwide Model: How to Challenge Gifted Students and Improve Achievement for All (Revised and Updated Edition)

The third in a four-part series on successful cluster grouping. Click here for part 1 and here for part 2.

5 Expert Tips for Cluster Grouping SuccessA vast majority of our schools now claim cluster grouping as their primary method for serving gifted students. Inarguably, grouping gifted students together for instructional purposes benefits these students. In this blog series, I describe four main components critical for success in a cluster grouping model: implementing, supporting, teaching, and evaluating progress. Today’s post describes methods effective gifted-cluster teachers employ to engage and challenge gifted students. Gifted students, when clustered together, thrive on opportunities to collaborate and engage in interesting and challenging learning experiences that go deeper than grade-level curriculum and instruction.

Those reading this blog understand and accept that gifted students need to experience rigor and productive struggle in their daily learning in order to advance academically. Gifted-cluster teachers who understand this need recognize the importance of building depth and complexity into their daily lessons. They accomplish this through lesson extensions that incorporate preassessments and ongoing formative assessments, tiered lessons that use Depth of Knowledge (DOK) levels, and modified grading practices.

Here are five steps to follow when teaching in a gifted-cluster classroom:

  1. Use ongoing informal assessments to guide instruction.
  2. Form flexible learning groups.
  3. Compact curriculum to build depth and complexity.
  4. Use DOK levels to tier instruction.
  5. Grade differentiated lessons.

Use ongoing informal assessments to guide instruction.

Since gifted learners need fewer repetitions to master new content, it is imperative that gifted-cluster teachers use formative assessments to gauge the level of mastery students can demonstrate throughout the instructional process.

When introducing new concepts, consider providing preassessments prior to instruction to determine students’ entry points into the material. During the learning process, ongoing formative assessments provide teachers with data that shows how students are progressing while engaged in differentiated lessons. Formative assessments also provide documentation that cluster teachers can use to help form flexible learning groups in the different content areas.

Form flexible learning groups.

Using diagnostic assessments prior to instruction (pretesting) and formative assessments during instruction gives teachers ongoing evidence of student mastery, progress, and areas of challenge. With this information, teachers can readily form (and reform) their flexible learning groups.

The process allows the teacher to know when students need curriculum compacting. Ongoing informal assessments ensure that the learning groups change often and routinely, since not all students are advanced in all areas at the same time.

5 Expert Tips for Cluster Grouping SuccessCompact curriculum to build depth and complexity.

Put simply, curriculum compacting reduces the amount of time students need to learn new material and allows them time to go deeper into the material being studied. Curriculum compacting works in two ways: when the content has already been mastered by students and when the content is new to them.

Gifted learners have many and varied interests, and they often possess enormous amounts of information in certain areas. Preassessment results commonly show that some gifted learners do not need to spend as much time learning “new” content as their peers do.

In these situations, preassessments yield the documentation necessary for teachers to know which students to group together who are ready for curriculum compacting.

Use DOK levels to tier instruction.

Depth of Knowledge (DOK) is a process that differentiates instruction by classifying learning activities according to different levels of rigor and complexity. In this model, all students are working on the same content, but at vastly different levels of complexity based on where they are with the content they are learning.

Gifted-cluster teachers determine students’ learning levels using preassessments and formative assessments. They then form flexible learning groups so that all students can engage in productive struggle with peers working at the same level.

Grade differentiated lessons.

Teachers typically question how to grade student work when students are working at different levels and on varied activities. We can use a variety of tools to document student progress on differentiated lessons. Examples include daily activity logs, record sheets, learning contracts, and rubrics.

Always keep in mind that to motivate gifted students to engage in rigorous learning activities, we do not want to grade them lower on advanced-level work than on grade-level work. We do not want to punish them for engaging in productive struggles where real learning occurs.

Chapters 5 and 6 of The Cluster Grouping Handbook contain numerous instructional strategies and methods for offering preassessments to form flexible learning groups, compact curriculum and instruction, use DOK levels to tier instruction, and grade differentiated lessons. Lesson templates, scenarios, and step-by-step advice guide you through the process. Your students will be thrilled with the learning opportunities that recognize and build on their strengths and interests!

Dina BrullesDina Brulles, Ph.D., is a school administrator and the gifted-education director for Arizona’s Paradise Valley Unified School District. Recognized for her expertise in creating and supervising schoolwide cluster grouping, she also assists districts throughout the United States in developing gifted-education programs, including those districts serving culturally and linguistically diverse gifted students. She holds a Ph.D. in gifted education and an M.S. in curriculum and instruction and serves on the faculty of the Graduate College of Education at Arizona State University. Prior to becoming an administrator, Dina was an elementary classroom teacher, a bilingual teacher, an ESL teacher, and a gifted-cluster teacher. She lives in Peoria, Arizona.

Cluster Grouping HandbookDina is coauthor The Cluster Grouping Handbook: A Schoolwide Model: How to Challenge Gifted Students and Improve Achievement for All Revised and Updated.

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