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Differentiation in the Gifted Classroom

November 9, 2009

Jeffrey Shoemaker is a new contributor to the High Ability Blog. A Gifted Intervention Specialist for the Lima City School District, Shoemaker also taught 6th Grade Social Studies for 6 years. After earning a Bachelor’s and a Master’s Degree from The Ohio State University specializing in Elementary Education, Shoemaker also earned a Master’s Degree from Bowling Green State University specializing in Gifted Education.

One of the big topics in education is differentiation. Although there are many definitions and interpretations of differentiation out there to comb through, it is something that gifted intervention specialists shouldn’t be scared of. Differentiation is something that should be “taken by the horns” and used in the classroom to give students that individual learning experience they honestly need and desire.

Will The Real Definition of Differentiation Please Stand Up?

So what is the real definition of differentiation? My favorite definition is from the resource Teaching Gifted Kids in the Regular Classroom by Susan Winebrenner: differentiation is “providing gifted students with different tasks and activities than their peers—tasks that lead to real learning for them” (p.5).

For teachers who already differentiate their lessons I would like to say “great job!” That is the best way for gifted children to learn. Many times regular education teachers think that since a student is labeled gifted they should give them extra work or have them tutor students who are struggling. Both are wrong. Differentiation allows for: 1 – students who get the initial concept to be able to dig deeper with it and 2 – these students to experience divergent thinking.
Stop limiting gifted children and they will surprise you. And never put the gifted child in the role of a teacher (they already have enough stress at school just trying to fit in).

Differentiation in the Gifted Classroom

How is differentiation supposed to look in a gifted classroom? The gifted intervention specialist has so many different tools at their disposal no matter if they are in a pull-out resource room or embedded in the regular classroom. These tools work and gifted students will experience learning through them. Here are two differentiation tools that can be used in the classroom, but realize this is just a short list and there are many more tools available.

Tic-Tac-Toe Boards

My favorite is the Tic-Tac-Toe board. I use Tic-Tac-Toe boards the most in my classroom because it fits my style of giving students a chance to take charge of their own learning. If you haven’t used Tic-Tac-Toe Boards before let me describe them to you. Tic-Tac-Toe boards are divided into nine boxes. Each box has an assignment in it. I usually spread out the assignments so that there are different levels of difficulty in each row. The student has to choose three assignments that are across each row, column or diagonal (just like in the game Tic-Tac-Toe).

Students love the choices they have. They feel like they are in command of their education. If you haven’t tried this strategy, try it! This is one strategy that is easy to implement, and to change when you go from unit to unit.

Independent Study Menus

This is my second favorite strategy for differentiation. I have done this several times in different ways. You just have to find ways that suit your comfort zone and teaching skills, which will benefit the students you teach.

One way I have executed this strategy is by giving the students a topic and allowing them to pick products off a menu that they would like to do. Again, I honestly believe that if you give students a stake in there education they will be successful, and meaningful learning will take place.

The other way is to set very few parameters and allow students to pick a topic they are either interested in or passionate about and allow them to pick products from a menu. The products would match the types of products from the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.


Differentiation is an important part gifted classroom. Gifted education teachers / intervention specialists should see themselves as a facilitator more than a teacher. You are there to help them learn in different ways, and let them experience learning in a way that is exciting, challenging, fun, and meaningful.

If you have never tried differentiation in your classroom, take it slow. Be comfortable with one strategy. Then implement another. Doing it this way will definitely improve your teaching, and will give you another tool to use to help your students succeed.


Coil, Carolyn. (2004). Standard-based activities and assessments for the differentiated classroom. USA: Pieces of Learning.

Roberts, Ed.D, Julia L., & Inman, Tracy F. (2009). Strategies for differentiating instruction: best practices for the classroom. Wako, Texas: Prufrock Press Inc.

Winebrenner, Susan. (2001). Teaching gifted kids in the regular classroom. Minneapolis: Free Spirit Publishing.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 15, 2009 1:54 am

    I absolutely agree with Independent Study. When a student cares about what they’re learning about then the sky is definitely the limit – add a bit of inspiration and you simply can’t hold them back.

    I’m actually going to post about this topic soon.
    Stop by…

  2. December 6, 2009 1:17 am

    I’m reminded of when I was in the 5th grade many years ago, our math teacher’s way of running her class was YOYO: You’re On Your Own. It was all independent study; we could work our way up through various assignments as fast as we wanted to. There was probably a minimum expectation, but I don’t remember that being a problem. It was a system of pre- and post-tests. The concepts we missed we delved further into. Thinking back it reminds me of a lot of eLearning courses I’ve taken in previous years.

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