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Gifted and Talented Students: Differentiating in Math

Teachers know one of the most challenging aspects of teaching is meeting the needs of a variety of learners. Each year, 20 to 30 students with a diverse set of needs walk through our doors, from learning styles to varying levels of content knowledge and preparedness, to learning accommodations. It seems that some of our students even come with a user guide. It can be incredibly challenging to navigate through this changing reality, but there is hope. In today’s post, I’m sharing seven ways to differentiate for your gifted and talented students.

When I reflect on my own time in the classroom, I always felt more comfortable differentiating for my lower achieving students than the higher achieving ones. I’m not sure why, but it just came easier to me. Over the years though, I started to find ways to help increase the level of rigor for my gifted and talented students. Many teachers translate differentiating for these students to mean more work; however, best practice suggests that more is not better. In fact, many gifted and talented students dislike the label because it often results in more homework and higher expectations.

While I understand the logic, it’s important that we consider common characteristics of gifted and talented learners. Most learners in this group catch on fast, so fewer repetitions and practice are preferred. This directly contradicts the notion that these students should receive more work rather than more rigorous work. So, if more work is not the answer, what is?

How to Differentiate for Gifted and Talented Students

The author of Good Questions: Great Ways to Differentiate Mathematics Instruction in the Standards-Based Classroom offers three elements to effectively differentiate instruction.

  1. Focus on the big ideas of the unit or lesson.
  2. Evaluate student understanding, either formally or informally, to determine student needs.
  3. Provide choice by differentiating the content, process, or product.

One of my favorite ways to differentiate in the classroom is through menus. (Read more about using menus in the classroom here!) However, there are other ways to differentiate. Marion Small (2017) states, “to differentiate instruction effectively, teachers need manageable strategies that meet the needs of most of their students at the same time” (p. 6). She recommends the use of two strategies to do this, open questions and parallel tasks.

Clipart by Krista Wallden.

Open Questions

Open questions are those where “a variety of responses or approaches are possible” (p. 7) which allows them to be accessible to a variety of learners. Strategies for creating open questions include:

  1. Reverse a question by providing the answer instead of the question. For example, instead of asking for the sum of 452 and 798, give the sum of 1,250 and ask students to provide two, or three, 3-digit addends to equal the sum.
  2. Analyze for similarities and differences. For example, how are additive patterns and multiplicative patterns alike? How are they different?
  3. Allow students to choose the numbers. For example, provide a word problem without numbers. Then allow students to select the numbers and solve the problem.
  4. Create number sentences. This could be as simple as rolling a few dice and asking students to create a target number with the numbers rolled or by giving students numbers and words to create a sentence. For example, when given the numbers 7 and 8 and the word more, students may write “the square of 8 is more than the square of 7” or “7 times 8 is two more than 9 x 6″.
  5. Use “soft” words. This strategy encourages critical thinking about numbers and requires the use of “soft” words instead of absolutes. For example, instead of asking for two numbers with a product of 96, ask for two numbers that have a product around 96.
  6. Change the question. For this strategy, change up a question you are already using. For example:
    • Question 1: What is the volume, in cubic meters, of a rectangular prism with a width of 3 meters and a height that is five times more than the width?
    • Question 2: The volume of a rectangular prism is 15 cubic meters. What could be the dimensions of the prism?

Parallel Tasks

Parallel tasks are sets of two or three questions, or tasks, which are designed to meet the needs of a variety of learners. They are focused on the same big idea and concept but are accessible to all students and can be discussed at the same time. For example:

  • Task 1: When two numbers are divided, the quotient is 12. What could be the dividend and the divisor?
  • Task 2: When two numbers are divided, the quotient is between 10 and 20. What could the be the dividend and the divisor?

Through the use of open questions and parallel tasks, differentiating for our gifted and talented students doesn’t have to be daunting. In fact, you can sometimes use the same materials for your gifted learners as you do with the rest of your class with a few modifications. As you prepare your next math unit or lesson, give some of the ideas above a try for your gifted and talented students or high achievers.

Freebie Alert! Grab your differentiation chart using the form below.

Looking for ready-made, standards-based resources to challenge your students? Each of my Focus on the Core learning packs includes one! Check out the series and grab a free sample here.

Sound Off! How do you differentiate for your gifted and talented students? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Reference: Small, M. (2017). Good questions: Great ways to differentiate mathematics instruction. New York: Teachers College Press.

Shametria Routt Banks

Shametria Routt Banks

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