The False Hope of Differentiation for Gifted Students

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If you haven’t read James R. Delisle’s article, Differentiation Doesn’t Work in EdWeek go read it when you’re done here. The link is at the bottom of the page.

The first time I heard the term differentiation as it relates to gifted education was when my daughter was still in pre-school. We knew she was gifted because we’d had her tested when she was three and were beginning to think about schooling options.

Differentation for gifted students offers false hope

Differentiation Offers False Hope for Gifted Students

A friend of a friend had a gifted child and she’d been down this path a few years before. We met over coffee (her) and Diet Coke (me) and I heard her story. It’s a familiar one to me now but then it was all so brand new. Gifted child who isn’t having needs met in school. By now we all know the drill.

She’s the one who clued me in on some key terms I should become familiar with as I began my search for an appropriate school.

“Make sure there is differentiation for gifted students in the classroom. That means they’ll meet each student where they are so they’re learning at their own pace.”

It was like being given the secret password to making sure your gifted student is adequately served in a mainstream classroom. Sweet! My hopes of not having to worry about my daughter’s educational needs were on the verge of being fulfilled.

I had bought into the false hope of differentiation.

When my daughter started school I really thought this whole differentiation thing would be THE answer. There would be no need for an expensive private school because the public school principal assured me that all the teachers differentiated the curriculum. The professionals had this all under control.

I can hear you chuckling but I believed.

And then it didn’t happen.

I suspect (know) that we had it easier than many others. I’ve heard the horror stories and this isn’t one of them. Our story is merely disappointing and frustrating. My daughter did benefit from subject acceleration. She was double-promoted (grade skipped). She attends a pull-out gifted program once a week. She’s used for math, well it was EPGY back then, as subject enrichment. It wasn’t, and still isn’t, enough.

Who’s to Blame?

The thing is, I don’t blame the teachers. I’ve been in charge of a bunch of kids before and it seems I spent the bulk of my time just putting out fires. Figuratively, not literally. But remember, I’m not a professional teacher or child wrangler. So when I hear that teachers can’t develop individual learning plans that fit the wide range of abilities they find in their classrooms, I get it.

I don’t expect teachers who have no training identifying gifted children to realize that the quiet boy in the back row or the girl who can’t still may need a differentiated curriculum. Not all wiggly kids have ADHD and not all straight-A students are gifted. My point is, teachers need more training in knowing what gifted is when they see it.

I don’t expect teachers who have zero training in how to serve gifted children to know how to provide meaningful learning opportunities for them. Once they know who the gifted students are they have to know how to serve them. Those extra worksheets don’t count. They can’t rely on those pull-out gifted programs to provide 100% of what these kids need.

I really don’t expect teachers who have to be concerned about the hungry kids, the ill-cared for kids, the kids in the margins of society and the margins of their classrooms to recognize that maybe that one gifted kid in the class is bored out of her ever-loving skull.

Because, reality.

If all the education theorists and all the classroom teachers can’t figure out how to make differentiation work I’m not sure I can do any better. But, maybe there could be some baby steps…

  • Take a chance and group the gifted kids/high-achieving kids together. Doesn’t cost anything and you’d have some pretty happy kids.


  • Spend less time raising the bottom of the class and just a little more time letting the top of the class fly. I really believe that all kids will surprise you when expectations are reasonably high. Set the bar higher for those who show high potential. They just might amaze you.


  • Use some of those standardized tests to justify moving kids more quickly through the curriculum. If a student is several grade levels beyond everyone else in math or reading/comprehension my guess is that they can absorb information more quickly than the slowest member of the classroom. Keeping them to the same on the same schedule seems grossly unfair.

I know, I know. There are a bazillion factors I’m not considering. I’m just considering what’s best for my child because someone has to.

Go read James Delisle’s article. He’s a bona fide expert and much more eloquent than I am on the false hope of differentiation for gifted students.

Have you had success with differentiation in the schools? Share your experiences in the comments or on Facebook.

10 Responses

  1. Suzanne Lanzon says

    Spot on. I’m a primary teacher and have been taught to differentiate; give work that is appropriate to each child’s current level and take them onto their next level of learning.


    So, 30 students are broken into say, 6 groups for each subject. That means, every lesson I teach, I have to plan 6 different activities that are at the right level for each group. I teach about 6 lessons in a day. So, that’s planning for 36 different activities for one day, 180 or so for the week. Some lessons don’t really need as much differentiation (art, sport, drama) so I exaggerate a little.


    Then, I have to explain to each group what they need to do, set them to work and keep everyone on task. I agree with your proposal that we could ‘spend less time raising the bottom of the class’ however in practise, it is often (but not always) the case that that’s where behaviour issues lie – at the bottom of the class. Left alone for 5 minutes, these children can assist each other to lose a limb or two.

    Where are the gifted kids? In the top group of course with the other bright children – only they are further ahead from the others in their group than the top group is from the bottom group. Oh so, not only do I have to plan 6 lessons for each subject now, I also have to plan another lesson that is possibly 2 or 3 years ahead as well. When do I get to sit down with that gifted child, explain what to do, assist them with it (because it’s challenging enough for them to need a little assistance) and then go through their finished work with them?

    I’m a pretty good teacher but that kind of ideal is beyond me. I admit it. I can’t REALLY differentiate. I do the best I can but it’s not good enough. I can’t expect any teacher to be able to manage it if I can’t. In addition, I only know a thing or two about giftedness because I have given myself a crash course when a year ago I realised my now nearly 3 year old was gifted. So I am left with…where do I send her to learn other than at home where she is the only child in the ‘classroom’?

    • The Common Mom says

      Thank you for the thoughtful comment. I love that you actually did the math, it really puts the notion of differentiation into perspective. It’s just not realistic in most classrooms that have students at so many levels. It’s given me so much respect for those teachers that look out for these kids. It’s so easy for them to slip through the cracks. I wish you luck with your little one, it’s never easy…

  2. We had a great situation with differentiation. My son was early accelerated to kindergarten and spending half the day (all the academic subjects) in first grade with another kindergartener. There were 15 students total in the class (13 first graders, 2 kindergarteners) and there was a teacher and an aide for when they were together. The teacher herself was gifted, hardworking, and well-trained. Differentiation worked great. We haven’t had that experience since, even in classes of just 7 kids.

    • The Common Mom says

      So nice to hear when things worked the way they’re supposed to. Nice that he had an age-mate who was in the same situation. Thanks for sharing!

  3. I did it when I was a teacher. But I was (am?) gifted myself. It takes a 55 hour work week, great management and access to advanced materials. Given that I could reasonably teach a 6 year span. I was a third grade teacher so I taught down to non readers and up to 6th grade level.

    • The Common Mom says

      You can’t become ungifted so I think it’s safe to say you are :). Those long hours could be one of the reasons differentiation doesn’t always happen. Grateful for educators like you!

  4. Great article. Differentiation sounds great in theory. And good teachers always differentiate to some extent. But it is a pipe dream to assume that teachers can differentiate enough every day to meet the needs of a diverse group of students. It is unfair to teachers and is impossible to achieve. Advocates who claim gifted children’s needs can be met through differentiation clearly do not understand gifted children.

    • The Common Mom says

      Pipe dream – that’s the perfect term. I’ve not met one gifted educator who buys into differentiation being the answer. Thank you for your kind comments.

  5. I love this post. As a school psych, I had seen how differentiation was a code word, but a code word that fell far short of the mark, in countless scenarios (not just gifted). So when our son’s test results came in and I was at the meeting and THE ONLY thing I heard was “differentiation” I knew we had to jump ship. They threw that code word around but didn’t even have a plan as to what it might look like. At one point, I asked how they would teach my son math in a K-3 building when his math skills, in K, were estimated to be approaching 4th grade. The psychologist said to me, “We’ll just have someone walk over with a math book.” Someone? Math book? What? We have so much research on what will work and everyone is too afraid to actually do it. Thank you for this!

    • The Common Mom says

      It took me a while o figure out the differentiation thing. I just don’t buy it, at least for the vast majority of situations. At least they offered him a book – they flat out told me once she exhausted 4th grade math she was out of luck! Glad you stopped by – I think we’re on similar paths 🙂

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