Differentiating for Learners with High Abilities

Introduction toDifferentiating for Learners with Higher Abilities

The first challenge when thinking about high ability* learners is to understand why it’s critical to cater differently for them. If we assume that they will be fine in the classroom or that they learn like other students, we’re likely to put our heads in the sand and ignore them or, worse still, focus on their tricky behaviour, born out of frustration and boredom. Here are some of the misconceptions and why they are unhelpful to educators:

  • Isn’t providing additional support for highly able children elitist? Aren’t they already privileged?
    • The reality is quite different. It’s estimated that as many as 50% of high ability students are underachieving. (^Schultz, 2005) This includes some who are performing well ahead of their peers.
  • Do highly able children need extra help? Aren’t they already doing well?
    • High ability learners have different learning needs to other students and are more likely to reach their potential if they are differentiated for accordingly.
  • Why don’t we use the resources to help children who really need help?
    • School budgets are limited and it’s tempting to think the majority of the resources should be poured into assisting students who are performing below average. However, high ability students’ needs are as unique and specialised as those below average. High ability learners are disadvantaged when we don’t cater for them specifically.
  • Aren’t our classroom programs differentiated to cater for highly able children?
    • Even in classrooms where differentiation is being done well, high ability learners still need to have their learning adapted to suit their specialised needs.

Key Principles for Enabling High Ability Students to Reach Their Potential

1. Reduce Rote and Routine

Higher ability learners need far less routine, drill and revision than others and generally benefit from working at a faster pace. To subject them to the same level of routine as other students or the same speed of progression through the curriculum is likely to be incredibly tedious and frustrating for the students, not to mention a sad waste of their capabilities. Regularly assess FOR learning to find out their knowledge, understanding and skills, and then move them on to the next level of new learning and challenge straight away.

2. Challenge Thinking

Build higher-level thinking into as many learning activities as you can. There are a plethora of ways to do this including taxonomies, styles of questioning, frameworks, techniques and problem-based approaches. The key is to make the learning open-ended so that the high ability learners perform at their highest possible level instead of just doing what you ask of them.

3. Cultivate Creativity

Many high ability learners are very creative and able to make complex links between different ideas. Build in creative aspects to learning activities to ensure these students are using their brains at the level they are capable of. Requiring creative responses from learners also increases their depth of understanding of the topic and ability to apply this in new circumstances.

4. Increase Interest

One of the most worrying threats to achievement for higher ability learners is when they switch off and cease to engage in apparently stimulating learning. This seeming lack of motivation can be baffling to teachers who see enormous potential going untapped. Sometimes the answer is to spread the net of interest wider to ensure that students are naturally (not artificially) engaged in the learning. This can be done by providing more options to choose from (such as content, processes, products or environment), inviting the students’ input into how the learning develops or even adapting specific activities to connect with learners’ personal interests.

This article only touches on the topic of how to differentiate for high ability learners. Contact Pennyfor more ideas about how to cater for gifted learners or to discuss how she can help you with professional learning facilitation.

* High ability in this article refers to who learners who have the potential to perform at a level significantly beyond the average for his or her age (in the top 5 to 10%).

^Hoover-Schultz B, 2005, Gifted Underachievement: Oxymoron or Educational Enigma?,Gifted Child Today, v28 n2 p46-49 Spring 2005.


Penny Willoughby runs seminars, workshops and coaching sessions with teachers on how to differentiate effectively. She receives outstanding feedback on the effectiveness and practicality of her presentations.

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