Developmental learning and high-ability

This page provides guidance for supporting the developmental learning of high-ability students.

The importance of developmental learning and high-ability

There is evidence that high-ability students are often not stretched and challenged. Students in the middle and bottom percentiles are likely to have work set at their level which is not necessarily true for high-ability students. These students may be achieving high grades but not growing in their learning. A developmental model of learning can help teachers to ensure all students work in their Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD).

What we know

Griffin's (2014) developmental model of learning combines the theories of:

  • Glaser
  • Rasch
  • Vygotsky.

This model assists students to progress through stages of increasing competence. If a teacher can determine what a student can do, they can build on their current stage of competence to help lift them to the next level in their development. The developmental model of learning draws on Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). Vygotsky (1978) described the ZPD as "the distance between the actual developmental level... and the level of potential development." (p.76)

The ZPD is:

  • the range of skills between those that a student can do on their own and those the student cannot
  • an intermediate zone where the student's performance is inconsistent
  •  the stage at which the student is most ready to learn
  • where intervention can have the most impact.

High-ability students are often not provided the opportunity to work in their ZPD. This means they won't learn at the rate they are capable.

Students should also continue to practice and consolidate the things they can do. These skills sit in their Zone of Actual Development (ZAD). This will help students to transfer their skills to new contexts without support.

From theory to practice


The Victorian Curriculum describes what teachers should teach at a specific year level. Yet, not all students are working at the expected curriculum level for their year group. Curriculum can be considered in three ways:

  • the Victorian Curricula is a statement of the 'expected curriculum'
  • what teachers select to teach from the expected curriculum is the 'implemented curriculum'
  • what students learn is the 'achieved curriculum'.

These curricula are often not the same. Some students may be working well above the expected level and some well below. The expected curriculum is a continuum. It maps out the expected growth pattern for students as they progress from year to year.

Learning continuums (or developmental progressions) are stages of competence. They are ordered from low to high. For students who fall either side of the expected curriculum, the implemented curriculum will need to be adjusted to reflect their actual progression. This will mean selecting content from above or below year level in the curriculum continuum.

Teachers should have a clear picture of what their high-ability students know, understand, and can do. With this information, teachers will then know the students' next learning point on the learning progression. Teachers can use a variety of assessment evidence to identify what the student is ready to learn. The following questions may help teachers to identify a student's ZPD and their point of need:

  • What does the student know how to do? What does the student do well and with confidence?
  • What is the student on the verge of learning? What might the student do with scaffolding, or modelling?
  • Is there other available information that can be used to develop a rich understanding of the student's knowledge and skills? This could include work samples or observation of the student's learning behaviour.

Pre-assessment can also help to identify the students' level of competence. The pre-assessment:

  • is done before beginning a unit or module of work
  • should include questions from across a learning progression.

 If a student can show all skills in the pre-assessment, it would be appropriate to assess the student at a higher level to locate their ZPD. Collating and sorting pre-assessment data into a chart can help teachers. Students at a high level on the progression can be identified, as can gaps in student knowledge.

Ongoing formative assessment is required to track changes in students' ZPD. It can be used to plan teaching and learning activities at the student's point of need. It can also be used to add a level of challenge and complexity for the student. This can mean targeting a high-ability student's higher order thinking skills within their ZAD.

Remember, the ZPD for the high-ability student is likely to extend beyond the year-level curriculum expectations.

Strategies and tools

Strategies that can help teachers to support the developmental learning of high-ability students include:

  • using knowledge of the curriculum to develop a learning progression. This should cover the broad range of knowledge and skill levels in a class
  • using many forms of assessment to map students across a learning progression
  • pre-testing before any unit of work
  • using ongoing formative assessment to track ZPD changes.

Tools that can help teachers support the developmental learning of high-ability students include:

Focus questions for professional learning

  • How does a focus on developmental learning benefit high-ability students?
  • How can high-ability students be supported to learn within their ZPD?
  • What assessment data can you use to help you determine a high-ability student's ZPD?


Glaser, R. (1981). The future of testing: A research agenda for cognitive psychology and psychometrics. American Psychologist, 36, 923–36.

Griffin, P. (2014). Assessment for teaching. Cambridge University Press.

Rasch, G. (1993). Probabilistic Models for Some Intelligence and Attainment Tests. Copenhagen: Neilson & Lydiche.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher mental process. Harvard University Press.