Differentiating Instruction
To Promote Rigor and Engagement
For Advanced and Gifted Students

Bertie Kingore, Ph.D.


A demand for increased rigor in learning environments and outcomes is a significant statement heard across our nation. Educators seek to encourage deeper thought among students with a greater emphasis on persuasion and analysis. However, a secondary teacher shared concern: I can't initiate more rigorous instruction. My gifted students will not work on difficult tasks. My special education students try harder than my gifted students. Unfortunately, it is true that some advanced students have learned habits of mind that are counterproductive, but I believe that it is time to help students reset their learning attitude--reset from what is the minimum I can do to get an A to what helps me learn and make connections at ever-higher levels. In a rigorous learning environment, educators exhibit a greater concern for quality and conceptual thinking rather than quantity and memorization because it is the quality of thinking, not the quantity, which defines rigorous learning (Daggert, 2007). The first step is to clearly define rigor and explore how the elements of rigor affect students in high-level learning cultures. The next step is to develop ways to use rigor to differentiate instruction by eliciting higher responses and developing students' autonomy and responsibility for continuous learning.

Rigor and engagement are significant components for all students but differ by degree when nurturing advanced and potentially gifted children. Blackburn (2008) makes an important point when defining rigor as students demonstrating learning at high levels in an environment where students are expected to learn and are supported so they can learn. While that definition is significant for all children, it is not sufficient for the learning profiles of gifted learners who benefit from an increased pace of instruction, in-depth content, and more complex levels of process and product (NAGC, 2010; Sousa, 2009). Thus, I propose the following definition of rigor and engagement to appropriately nurture advanced and gifted learners.

Gifted students deserve a rigorous learning environment in which they are expected to engage at high levels in diverse processes, supported so they can learn beyond grade-level concepts and skills, and required to produce high-end products that evidence relevant, sophisticated content.

This acrostic for rigor organizes five key elements for action.
Recognize realistic and relevant high-level expectations
Integrate complexity, breadth, and depth in content, process, and product
Generate cognitive skills
Orchestrate support systems and scaffolding for success
Refine assessments to guide instruction and benefit learners


Recognize Realistic and Relevant High-Level Expectations

High-level expectations are a popular objective in education. However, educators recognize that expectations must be realistic and relevant. Sullo (2009) admonishes that when students perceive that they cannot succeed, they typically seek power in less responsible ways, such as assuming an I don’t care attitude or becoming a disruption. For students to know that their effort will result in success, verbally guarantee their learning.

I guarantee you will learn in this class! To insure that guarantee, you need to bring three things to class each day: I will think; I will try; I will participate. If you bring those three things, I guarantee that you will succeed.

This technique may seem too simple or even silly yet it sets a tone of shared responsibly and realistic expectations. If a student is not making progress despite thinking, trying, and participating, it removes the burden from the student and becames a clear indication to approach this learning situation another way.

Relevant learning is transdisciplinary and connects real-world contexts and students’ interests through authentic problems, current issues, simulations, service learning, and teaching others. Rigor without relevance can result in students who do well academically but seem dysfunctional in the real world (Daggert, 2007). While students must ultimately determine what is relevant to them, at times, teachers need to facilitate students making those connections to specific content or skills. Hold up a sign that reads 4Me as a gimmick to elicit students’ discussions: What is in this lesson for me, and how will I ever use this? Demonstrating relevance is particularly significant with adolescents who are in the developmental stage of identity formation (Sullo, 2009).

There is a clear link between motivation and engagement, and students respond more positively to high-level expectations when they value what they are doing. Unfortunately, it is true that gifted students are motivated by their work; they may not be motivated by ours. However, what is significant to long-term memory and learning dispositions is not how many assignments gifted students complete, but how they engage in the work (Sousa, 2009; Willis 2007). Increase students’ motivation and engagement by incorporating authentic audiences and student interests.

Convey to students a sense of an authentic audience beyond the classroom. As one example, students in a Spanish language class incorporate essential learning standards as they write primary-level books in Spanish to send to rural areas in Costa Rica where children have no books to read or to use to learn to read. While most students benefit in some ways, meaningful projects and appropriate support provide advanced students an incentive to strive for excellence beyond grade levels while simultaneously integrating targeted concepts and skills. An archive of more than 400 authentic projects has been compiled by Expeditionary Learning Schools (www.elschools.org).

Egan (2009) poses a provocative question related to reaching high expectations through student interests: What if every student were charged with becoming an expert on something? Gifted students typically have learning passions--topics about which they want to learn everything. These students are willing to spend considerable time in school and out of school learning and working on something they care about once teachers guide them to connect and apply those interests. As students demonstrate commitment to their research, teachers facilitate students’ incorporation of the essential elements of rigor into their transdisciplinary work.


Integrate Complexity, Breadth, and Depth in Content, Process, and Product

Increased complexity, breadth, and depth in content, process, and product are likely when teachers facilitate students’ investigations of real-word problems with fuzzy, transdiscipline solutions. To elicit maximum opportunity for rigor, students must be responsible for designing the process, content, and products rather than merely completing a learning task provided by the teacher. For example, students devise a procedure for testing consumer products, such as the flavor of peanut butter or the absorbency of paper towel brands, collect and analyze data, and then organize the results using graphing calculators and computer spreadsheets (Jones, 2010). As another example, students identify a school-related problem, such as a dangerous traffic crossing, and devise procedures using digital cameras to record data, edit and organize the data graphically, identify the person with the power to initiate change, and write a persuasive report to that person.

Inquiry learning exemplifies this degree of complexity in learning. The process begins with teacher-directed experiences to develop foundational skills and continues as students move toward increasing independence in developing these learning opportunities that elicit autonomy, research skills, and productive habits of mind. The complexity and depth of the inquiry process rests on the teacher’s skill in planning and preparing foundation level tasks and the availability of resources and technology for students. International Baccalaureate’s (IB) emphasis on the process of inquiry is an excellent example of using inquiry to generate cognitive skills and nurture the natural curiosity that leads students to solutions for complex problems. IB stresses that inquiry is not merely a novel way of repackaging subject-specific content. Rather, it is a way for students to use a range of subject-specific knowledge, concepts and skills in order to develop a deeper understanding of transdisciplinary themes (http://www.ibo.org).

If gifted students are to be held to high expectations in complexity and depth, appropriate materials beyond grade level must be available. Nurture gifted students’ higher responses by increasing text difficulty and concept density. To ensure continued learning growth, instruction must challenge students to work slightly above their comfort level rather than at or below their current achievement level (Sousa, 2009). This level of instruction necessitates that gifted students work with intellectual peers at times rather than solely engage in whole-class instruction.

Facilitate students as they access web sites that enable advanced exploration of their interests and topics of study with greater complexity, breadth, and depth, such as the websites in Figure 1. All of these sites are active at the time of publication and present a sampling of the resources available for students’ pursuit of beyond grade-level information. They are proposed as a useful starting point for explorations and individual projects. Nearly all of the sites have hyperlinks to related sites to expend the value of the information.

Figure 1: Websites for Complexity, Breadth, and Depth


Generate Cognitive Skills

Cognitive skills require the sort of mental activity that enables students to:
• Scrutinize, evaluate, and assimilate text and ideas coherently;
• Communicate clearly, logically, and concisely;
• Substantiate precise, strategic scientific and mathematical thinking; and
• Engage in reflective thought, problem solving, and decision-making.

The main point is that any topic or content area can foster cognitive skills if it is taught in intellectually challenging ways. Noddings (2009) admonishes that today’s specific objectives or standards may reduce content to Cliffs Notes for everything and foreclose learning to think. Educators need to emphasize specific strategies such as questioning and high-level thinking to generate cognitive skills.

Questioning is central to intellectual pursuits. While many resources address different types of questions, such as factual, convergent, divergent, and evaluative, teachers must also address the issue of the competency and skill by which students pose quality questions. Rigor should challenge advanced students to pose essential questions relevant to the real world more than accumulate simple correct answers from the past. Socratic Seminars&endash;a method of intellectual engagement founded upon questioning skills&endash; provide rich opportunities to model and apply the art of questioning. Implement Socratic seminars in which students take the leadership roles in preparing and conducting the seminars. In classrooms today, the intent is for students to think critically, address ambiguity, analyze multiple possibilities, and communicate among themselves with clarity, confidence, and respect.

Bloom’s Taxonomy is widely incorporated for organizing high-level thinking, but a problem emerges when printed resources suggest that teachers differentiate instruction by requiring remember, understand, and apply for struggling to grade-level students while requiring analyze, evaluate, and create for grade-level to advanced students. I caution against this interpretation, as I firmly believe all students can and should be involved in high-level thinking as often as possible. Wiggins and McTigue (2005) remind us that knowledge and skills are necessary but not sufficient elements of understanding for long-term retention and achievement. Hence, I consider two points crucial when the goal is to generate cognitive skills.
• Engage all students in high-level thinking as frequently as is feasible.
• Raise the complexity of high-level thinking for advanced and gifted students.

To promote complexity for gifted students in mixed-ability classrooms, differentiate instruction by tiering analyze, evaluate, and create from more simple, concrete to more complex, conceptual thinking adaptations. Using an example for social studies, Figure 2 compares analysis tasks at two tiers of complexity. Both tiers require students to analyze. However, Tier 1 incorporates somewhat simpler and more concrete analytical tasks when compared to the analytical challenges prompted by Tier 2. Tier 1 provides relevant high-level thinking opportunities for all students; these are valuable prompts to engage students in analytical responses. Simultaneously, Tier 2 invites adaptations with greater complexity through more sophisticated content and information processing, increasing the likelihood that gifted students are analyzing more complex content with more complex thinking. When teachers tier high-level thinking, they promote complex and in-depth responses from advanced and gifted students as they generate cognitive skills.

Figure 2: Tiered Thinking Prompts: Social Studies


Orchestrate Support Systems and Scaffolding for Success

Rigor involves high expectations for students, but it also requires educators to build the scaffolding and provide the encouragement that enable students to fulfill these expectations. Students need support for their efforts to learn. An effective support system that promotes high levels of achievement includes personalized relationships between adults and students, effective scaffolds that bridge the gap between what is known and what needs to be learned, and productive collaboration among students. Sagor believes that students need continuous encouragement, and he challenges educators to ask themselves two questions every day as students exit the classroom: As a result of today’s experience, will these students be more or less confident that their futures are bright? Will students walk out of the classroom feeling more capable than when they walked in? (2009, p. 53).

Teachers are a major influence on the learning success of students. Students differ in their degree of independence and skill, but all learners benefit from a teacher’s instruction, modeling, interaction, guidance, support, encouragement, coaching, and feedback&endash;even gifted students whom some educators perceive as always making it on their own (Kingore, 2007b). While teachers feel overwhelmed at times by the stress of helping struggling students succeed, no teacher intentionally wants to ignore any members of the class. As a faculty or instructional team, network and develop realistic ways to support advanced and gifted students in mixed-ability classrooms. The ideas in Figure 3 are provided to prompt decisions regarding support that is practical for busy teachers to provide.

Figure 3: Supporting Gifted Potential in Mixed-ability Classrooms

Sullo (2009) asserts that teachers must create a needs-satisfying environment that responds to students’ five basic needs: belonging/connecting, power/competence, freedom, fun, and survival/safety. When these basic needs are being met, all students are more likely to be engaged in learning and less likely to demonstrate management problems. Every classroom activity does not need to meet each need, but across a segment of time, teachers should ensure a reasonable chance that all those needs are met.

While educators must assure survival/safety for all students, several of these basic needs have implications when differentiating instruction for gifted students. For the gifted student:
• Belonging/connecting requires respectful interactions in class and, through technology, to participate in virtual teams with intellectual peers as well as age peers;
• Power/competence requires a learning environment that promotes responsibility and autonomy through opportunities for students’ decision-making and continuous learning beyond grade-level mastery;
• Freedom requires choice and the right to be passionate about personal talent areas without apologies (Siegle, 2011); and
• Fun results from engaging learning tasks with people who care.


Refine Assessments to Guide Instruction and Benefit Learners

Nationally, only one out of four educators think that standardized testing is increasing student competence (Neill, 2010). Neill asserts that a healthy assessment system would include limited large-scale standardized testing, extensive school-based evidence of learning, and a school-quality-review process. Teachers have the power to lead this need for assessment balance by documenting assessment evidence within their classes. Indeed, teachers exercise a simple way to increase rigor and relevance when they implement more complex forms of assessment that challenge students to think and more fully explain demonstrations of understanding beyond simple recall of answers. When appropriate, use assessments that elicit beyond grade-level responses. Extended work, such as research projects, narrative assessment logs, self-evaluative questionnaires, demonstrations, and portfolios are likely to yield far more accurate information when assessing the range, depth, and quality of gifted students’ accomplishments and changes as learners (Neill, 2010; Sousa, 2009).

Refine assessment beyond testing and the recording of grades. The purpose of assessment is to gather information that guides instruction and benefits students. High expectations for quality, more purposeful applications of rubrics, and incorporations of self-assessments result in a clearer, more comprehensive view of gifted students’ learning, and can greatly augment summative assessments.

Communicate realistic high-expectations for quality work. Work with gifted students to generate a set of criteria that promote high quality so students can document their approximations to excellence when pursuing replacement tasks. Criteria, such as complexity, content depth, and conceptual thinking, communicate that content and understanding are more important than appearance or flash value. These criteria become the main ideas for the evaluation of learning tasks. As adults work with students to develop rubrics that incorporate these criteria and specify levels of proficiency for each criterion, educators need to clarify for themselves the differences among student responses that meet grade-level expectations, demonstrate advanced-level responses, or are typical of gifted-level responses, as modeled by Figure 4.

Figure 4: Rubric for High Quality

While most often implemented as a valued standard for evaluation, rubrics should also provide a guideline to quality by describing the requirements to achieve various levels of proficiency on a learning task (Kingore, 2007a). For a more purposeful application of rubrics, use rubrics three ways to promote personal growth and high achievement for gifted learners:
•Students use the rubric to goal set before beginning the learning experience;
•Students use a second color to mark self-assessments of their achievement level on each criterion when they complete the task; and
•Teachers conclude the process by using a different color to evaluate the student on the same rubric copy (Kingore, 2007a).
Using rubrics these three ways promotes an atmosphere of collaboration.

Self-assessment formats, such as rubrics, learning logs, narrative responses, and checklists of concept and skill applications, escalate achievement, necessitate students’ increased involvement, and nurture a sense of ownership in evaluative procedures. Through consistently evaluating their own achievement, students become better achievers with a greater incentive to improve (Wiggins & McTigue, 2005). When pursuing replacement tasks and research projects, require gifted students to daily self-assess their learning behaviors, effort, and results. Review these self-reflections and debrief with students as appropriate to facilitate and support their learning. Ensure that gifted students maintain records of progress and personal changes as learners rather than solely gauge their results through comparisons with grade-level peers.


A Parting Thought

Rigor eludes gifted differentiation when we fail to respond with different levels of instruction to students’ different levels of readiness. In today’s school climate, it seems politically correct to say All children are gifted, or I teach all children as if they were gifted, but what does that imply? Do all children actually learn in the same way, at the same pace, at the same level? Are we debasing learning differences and interests? It is time to respectfully recognize that children differ and exhibit a wide range of capabilities, interests, and needs. Adults model the art of education when they respond to those differences so all students, including the gifted, experience continuous learning at their highest capabilities. Rigor should guarantee continuous learning.



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