Differentiation for high-ability

This page provides information on differentiating, the process of responding to difference in your classroom.

Differentiating is the process of responding to difference in your classroom. There are a range of frameworks and approaches available: for example, the Maker model, Tomlinson’s model, the developmental approach and extending outcomes. You can use these to guide you as you differentiate for your high-ability students.

Differentiating for high-ability students will need:

  • use of advanced, in-depth and complex content and processes
  • intellectual rigour
  • complex thinking using the Victorian Curriculum - Learning areas and Capabilities
  • opportunities for students to pursue interests outside the curriculum
  • use of technology to extend content, product or process
  • explicit teaching of skills for independent learning.

Differentiation models

The Maker Model

This model differentiates learning into the four key areas of content, process, product and environment.

Content: What students are expected to know, understand and be able to do

Content should be modified based on:

Abstraction: going beyond the facts
The focus here is on abstract concepts, generalisations and theories. These foci should be part of discussions, presentations and reading materials. This will ensure content is presented at a higher level than to the 'general cohort'.

Complexity: greater breadth or depth
This provides an opportunity for an in-depth study of selected content. Complexity is determined by:

  • the number of concepts and disciplines that must be understood or integrated
  • the difficulty of concepts and disciplines that must be understood or integrated

The emphasis is on the inter-relationships within content.

Variety: exposure to new ideas and content
Students can work on different aspects of a broad theme and in their areas of interest. Content is expanded beyond material presented in the general program.

Study of people: relate content to humans – past and present
Students study individuals or people. They investigate how they have reacted to various opportunities and problems.

Methods of Inquiry: understand how to think and act like an expert
Students use procedures and processes used by experts working in their fields. This includes the methods of inquiry used:

  • in different disciplines
  • at during different times
  • in different locations.

Content differentiation in practice

The following illustration of practice is based on Year 9 English. Students are studying a unit on biography and autobiography titled ‘Great Asian Thinkers'. Students will consider the purposes of both biography and autobiography. They will review the different forms that these can take. Students will analyse the language conventions used in these texts. They will consider how the biographer's stylistic choices vary depending on audience, context, and purpose. The modifications included here have been developed for the high-ability students in the class.

Content Modifications

Abstraction

  • Students look for patterns across autobiographies and biographies to understand the underlying features that characterise the genre. 

Complexity

  • The biographies selected deal with complex content - philosophical, historical and social. For example, Gandhi's autobiography tackles the issue of violent vs non-violent protest. 

Variety

  • Students are introduced to psychological theories about memory such as 'deep and shallow processing' to support their conceptual investigation. They are provided with life stories in many formats and from many disciplines. They consider how biographies and life stories are used in different disciplines for different purposes.

Study of People

  • Selected life story extracts pertain to great Asian thinkers. They include those who posed theories on the human condition, and those who struggled to overcome adversity.

Methods of Inquiry

  • The methods used in Psychology to study memory.
  • The research methods used by biographers. 

Process: How students learn the content

Process should be modified in terms of:

Higher order thinking skills: complex and critical thinking skills
Use a hierarchy of thinking verbs such as Bloom's Taxonomy or the revised Bloom's taxonomy to teach higher levels of thinking. Include activities that involve challenges such as analysis, evaluation and creation. Students should use logic to solve problems and their imagination to brainstorm possibilities.

Open ended processing: divergent thinking
Students consider problems and questions that have no single solution. Instead, they need deeper thinking and research. This encourages students to learn:

  • there is often no one correct answer
  • problems and questions can be complex

Proof and reasoning: provide reasons and substantiate
Students justify their response to a problem or task. They also learn about other students' approaches to problem solving. Activities are designed so students learn to evaluate reasoning processes.

Freedom of choice: opportunities for student voice and choice in their learning
Provide choice of activities, concepts, methods, products and environments. This can be motivating and encourage self-regulation.

Interactions with like-ability peers: group interactions
Grouping together (flexibly) like-ability students can provide both intellectual and social stimulation.

Variable pacing/compacting: differentiating the pace of learning
Allow students to move through lower order thinking quickly. This will give them more time to focus on higher order thinking tasks, or move students through the learning progression at a faster pace.

Process differentiation in practice

This illustration of practice is based on Year 9 English. Students are studying a unit on biography and autobiography titled ‘Great Asian Thinkers’. Students will consider the purposes of both biography and autobiography texts. They will review the different forms these can take. Students will analyse the language conventions used in these texts. They will consider how the biographer’s stylistic choices vary depending on audience, context and purpose. The modifications included here have been developed for the high-ability students in the class.

Process Modifications

Higher order thinking skills

  • Blooms (revised) command terms are included in the design of each activity. This should focus on the higher levels of this taxonomy.
  • Provocative moral and ethical questions related to human memory are posed. Students look at the problem of relying on their memory. For example, in the context of a police line-up where research shows memory is unreliable.

Open-ended processing

  • Students have opportunity to engage in open-ended discovery tasks. These tasks have many solutions and pathways. For example, students have the opportunity to design an experiment for testing the reliability of memory. Students use an inquiry framework.

Proof and reasoning

  • Multiple opportunities are provided for students to use proof and reasoning skills. Justifications are first modelled by the teacher in class discussions.

Freedom of choice

  • 'The Great Asian Thinkers' unit contains a self-directed study. Students choose from a series of extracts to focus their analysis. They use an inquiry framework to guide their investigation.
  • Students have the opportunity to select extracts that are not provided in the teaching materials. But they must be able to show how these materials link to the learning they are undertaking.  

Product: What students produce to show their learning 

Products should be modified to include:

  • Real-world problems: authentic problems and scenarios. Direct students to solve real-world problems. Students use structured approaches that impact individuals and communities.
  • Real-world audiences: authentic assessment evaluated by others. Use a range of assessment formats for both summative and formative assessment. Provide time for students to work on long-term products in class. Teachers track and help with students' planning, research, quality of thought, and production. Provide opportunities for students to present their products to authentic audiences. They can seek feedback and evaluation.
  • Evaluation: involve students. Encourage reflection on self, peer, and teacher feedback. Include students in the design of the assessment criteria and rubric.
  • Transformations: applying learning to new contexts. Provide students opportunities to apply their knowledge and skills across learning areas and beyond the classroom.

Product differentiation in practice

This illustration of practice is based on Year 9 English. Students are studying a unit on biography and autobiography titled 'Great Asian Thinkers'. Students will consider the purposes of both biography and autobiography texts. They will review the different forms these can take. Students will analyse the language conventions used in these texts. They will consider how the biographer's stylistic choices vary depending on audience, context and purpose. The modifications included here have been developed for the high-ability students in the class.

Product Modifications

Real-world problems

  • Students navigate the problems faced by professional biographers. They make choices about what to include and exclude in a biography of a great thinker (assessment item).
  • Students grapple with the concept of memory and reliability as they interrogate primary sources.

Real audiences

  • Students prepare a biography for inclusion in an anthology of “Great Thinkers” for self-publication. It can be catalogued in the school library OR published online.

Transformations

  • Encourage students to consider other fields or disciplines. Focus on the notions of 'truth' and 'memory'.
  • Students may re-work their biography into a negotiated, alternative format.  


Environment: The physical setting in which students learn 
The learning environment should be modified to provide opportunities for:

Student centred learning
Focus on the student's interests, input, and ideas.

Independence
Foster student independence and initiative. Skills of independence are explicitly modelled and taught.

Acceptance
Encourage acceptance of others' ideas and opinions. 

Complexity
Include a rich variety of resources, media, ideas, methods, and tasks.

Varied groupings
Encourage movement in and out of groups, desk settings, classrooms, and schools.

A teacher from Mill Park Secondary College reflects on the ways in which he extends high-ability students through, in part, linking learning to real-world problems.

 

Environment differentiation in practice

This illustration of practice is based on Year 9 English. Students are studying a unit on biography and autobiography titled 'Great Asian Thinkers'. Students will consider the purposes of both biography and autobiography. 

They will review the different forms that these texts can take. Students will analyse the language conventions used in these texts. They will consider how the biographer's stylistic choices vary depending on audience, context, and purpose. The modifications included in the 'Environment' table have been developed for the high-ability students in the class.

Environment 

Student-centred

  • Students have opportunities to contribute their ideas, pursue areas of interest, and negotiate the learning at multiple points in the unit. 

Independence

  • Students have structured opportunities to work independently or inter-dependently. Skill development is scaffolded and supported.
  • Encourage students to link new learning with other areas of interest, knowledge, and/or concepts. They negotiate new learning pathways as appropriate.

Accepting

  • Provide multiple opportunities to consider differing viewpoints. Encourage students to provide supportive and evaluative feedback.

Complex

  • Provide students with a rich assortment of (sophisticated) extracts. These should come from autobiographies and biographies of great Asian thinkers such as Ghandi: An autobiography. Texts should take a variety of forms, for example: lectures, film, and text.

Varied groupings

  • The classroom is highly flexible with students moving in and out of groups, as required. Students can find resources from other locations within the school, such as the library.

Tomlinson's Model

Differentiate according to the content, processes and products that connect to your students':

  • readiness: a student's current level of knowledge which affects their ability to complete a specific task at a given time
  • interests: a student's passions
  • learning profile: a student's preferred approach to learning.

For more information on Tomlinson's model read 'How to differentiate instruction in academically diverse classrooms' (Tomlinson, 2017). Differentiation: An Overview (ascd.org) 

In this short video, a Year 5/6 teacher from Warrnambool Primary describes the importance of knowing her students and differentiating based on interests.

 

Developmental model of learning

A developmental approach to differentiation requires teachers to:

  • understand where each student sits on the progression of learning for their particular learning area
  • develop learning activities that are appropriate for moving students along the progression.

View Planning at the point of need for detailed guidance on how to implement this approach to differentiation.

Extending the success criteria

Learning intentions and success criteria can be extended to add depth and complexity to the learning. This can be achieved by adding higher order thinking verbs. This can be done by using one of the many tools that align verbs with the different levels of either Bloom's Taxonomy or the Revised Bloom's Taxonomy.

Extending the success criteria in practice

Curriculum links: Levels 7 and 8 Civics and Citizenship
Describe how Australia is a secular nation and a multi-faith society. (VCCCC024)

Learning intention: We are learning about the way Australian identity is often represented in popular culture and how this can exclude some people.

Success criteria

I can analyse text to see who is included and excluded in representations of identity.

Success criteria (extended)

I can create texts that are inclusive representations of identity.

In this example, the thinking required of students has shifted from analyse to create. Create in this instance requires students to synthesise their learning in order to produce the appropriate texts. This makes the outcome more challenging for students without changing the curriculum. This process is adapted from Chandra Handa's Learner centred differentiation model.

Formative assessment to support differentiation

No matter how you approach differentiation, you will need to use formative assessment to guide the process. Formative assessment offers continuous feedback. This enables high-ability students to move their learning forward. It also supports teachers to consider the impact of their teaching. Moment by moment in the classroom, teachers check their students' understandings and adjust their teaching. The focus of formative assessment is to inform ongoing teaching and learning. Formative assessment is at the heart of differentiation. It can also equip students with a means to personalise their own learning. They can track their own progress and make decisions about how they learn. This promotes self-regulated learning.

Using formative assessment for differentiation with high-ability students in the classrooms

Following are some points to illustrate how both students and teachers can use formative assessment. This will help guide differentiation to meet the needs of high-ability students (adapted from Charteris, 2021).

Sharing learning goals (learning intentions) with high-ability students

High-ability students can:

  • use previous assessment information to decide on an appropriate learning intention
  • determine why the learning goal is relevant to them
  • identify a context where they can transfer the learning to other settings
  • identify a context where they can apply new knowledge to other problems

Teachers can use formative assessment information to:

  • plan for learning intentions that are challenging and link with real world issues (for example, climate change)
  • write learning intentions that high-ability students can transfer across contexts
  • use a question as a learning intention that targets a complex problem
  • differentiate goals to accurately address high-ability students' point of need
  • share the learning intention and the relevance for learning it with high-ability students
  • assist high-ability students to make connections with prior learning and their lived experiences

High-ability students know and recognise the standards they are aspiring to achieve

High-ability students can:

  • use models and examples to understand what the aspired level of achievement looks like
  • co-construct assessment criteria with their teacher.

Teachers can use formative assessment to:

  • guide the range and sophistication of work samples to guide students in their learning
  • assess the readiness of high-ability students to use the internet to source their own examples.

Feedback is valued and provided from multiple sources

High-ability students can:

  • use criteria to shape and guide the feedback they provide to peers
  • actively seek feedback from like-ability peers using established criteria
  • use questioning to provide feedback on the work of like-ability peers (peer assessment).

Teachers can:

  • explicitly teach the use of questioning that stimulates higher order thinking to provide peer feedback
  • use feedback from moment by moment classroom observations to:
    • make decisions about how to move students on as they gain new skills and knowledge
    • make decisions about curriculum compacting
  • plan time for peer feedback
  • enable high-ability students to adjust their learning goals on the basis of peer feedback
  • use comment only marking that provides descriptive feedback (rather than including a grade). This supports high-ability students to engage with the feedback and make informed decisions about their own progress.

Self-assessment and peer assessment

High-ability students can:

  • see the value of providing feedback to themselves
  • self-assess:
    • their own thinking processes
    • their capacity to use strategies and skills
    • how well they have applied new knowledge and skills to new or unknown contexts
  • use criteria, rubrics and/or models to gauge strengths and weaknesses in own work
  • create digital portfolios of work samples. Students can speak to these in student-led conferences with family/caregivers.

Teachers can use their knowledge of student progress (gathered through formative assessment) to:

  • provide appropriate tools for high-ability students reflect on their learning.

Review and reflect on formative achievement data

High-ability students can:

  • compare their outputs with criteria, work samples, and exemplars. They can focus on quality and set new goals.
  • learn the value of seeking and using data to track and check their own learning and achievement
  • interpret assessment data in partnership with their teacher to determine a pathway forward for their learning.

Teachers can:

  • analyse high-ability student pre-test and achievement data on their own and with colleagues. This will help determine areas for further instruction
  • differentiate learning intentions with high-ability students using observation and pre-test data
  • involve students in the analysis of the data
  • teach high-ability students about the use of data in learning and help them to interpret it to set goals
  • invite high-ability students to have input into planning for learning based on their own data analysis.

Making visible what we value

Making visible what we value through assessment is a key aspect of professional practice. A teacher's approach to assessment can determine the nature of relationships. This includes both student/student and teacher/student relationships. Formative assessment can provide a means to recognise the high-ability student's:

  • need for autonomy
  • need for self-expression
  • capacity for originality and decision making.

Formative assessment practices can give important messages to high-ability students. It can help them understand their capability to improve their own learning, influence how they see themselves as learners, and influence their peers' perceptions.

For further information about differentiation visit: High impact teaching strategies in action: Differentiated teaching.

References

Anderson, L.W., & Krathwohl, D. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Allyn & Bacon, MA (Pearson Education Group

Chandra Handa, M. C. (2009). Learner-centred differentiation model: A new framework. Australasian Journal of Gifted Education, 18(2), 55.

Charteris, J. (2021). How do I assess, provide feedback and report on learning? In Sharp, H., Weatherby-Fell, N., Charteris, J., Brown, B., Hudson, S., Lodge, J., McKay-Brown, L., Sempowicz, T., Buchanan, R., Imig, S. Introduction to education. Knowledge, practice, engagement (pp. 238–256). Melbourne: Cambridge University Press

Earl, L. (2003). Assessment as learning: Using classroom assessment to maximize student learning. London: Corwin Press. Google books.

Klenowski, V. (2009). Assessment for learning revisited: An Asia-Pacific perspective. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy and Practice, 16(3), 263–268.

Maker, J. (1982). Teaching models in education of the gifted. Aspen Systems Corp. Teaching Models in Education of the Gifted - C. June Maker - Google Books

Tomlinson, C. (2017). How to differentiate instruction in academically diverse classrooms. Alexandria, Va Ascd. Differentiation: An Overview (ascd.org)

Wiliams, D (2011). What is assessment for learning? Studies in Educational Evaluation, 37(1), 3–14.