When “Differentiated” Becomes Disconnected From Curriculum

Winter 1994 Masthead

E. Jean Gubbins
University of Connecticut
Storrs, CT

A common phrase in the field of gifted and talented education is “differentiated curriculum.” Sometimes the adjective “differentiated” becomes disconnected from the noun “curriculum,” and we find program offerings for high ability students that do not focus on curricular options. Students just have different things to do without any consideration for their entry level skills or behavioral characteristics. The assessment of such skills or characteristics is usually achieved by an elaborate screening and identification system that includes behaviors, anecdotes, performances, portfolios, tests, or ratings. Whatever form the records on each student may have taken, careful thought and documentation are integral to the process. Once the identification process is finalized, however, the data sometimes become inert. The data are not always the basis for future educational opportunities. It is important to pose the following question as part of the identification process:

How are these data going to be used to develop curricular options for high ability students?

Years ago, Virgil Ward (1961) coined the term differential education for the gifted. He laid out a series of principles to guide the design of curriculum that would challenge the minds and abilities of students whose talents represented a wide spectrum. In later years, differentiated education or differentiated curriculum were the popular terms, as educators discussed educational opportunities for students. Differentiation gained a permanent place in the educational lexicon with the publication of the Marland report (1972). The report stipulated that gifted and talented students “require differentiated educational programs and/or services” (p. 2). This requirement was not explained in great detail. Educators “filled in the gaps” by rethinking earlier ideas or proposing new plans for differentiation.

The literature in the field is now replete with descriptions of differentiation. Categorical approaches of content, process, product, and affect are used by Kaplan (1986). These categories provide the basis for learning experiences. The resulting learning experiences are considered differentiated because they are a match among student needs, abilities, interests, and educational purposes. Kaplan reminds us, however, that “differentiation of curriculum and individualization of the curriculum are not similar. Once the curriculum is differentiated, it needs to be individualized for students”(p. 192).

Lists of principles of differentiation are also popular. Kaplan (1979) developed a framework for designing or developing curricular options. The principles included:

  • Allow for in-depth learning of a self-selected topic within an area of study
  • Develop productive, complex, abstract and/or higher level thinking skills
  • Encourage the development of products that challenge existing ideas and produce “new” ideas

Putting these principles into action is not an easy task. Curricular systems and models have been developed to address these principles and others to varying degrees (see Renzulli, 1986). We can adopt or adapt the systems and models as necessary, but the extent of this practice is in question. Results from several research studies conducted by The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented have documented the limited extent to which curricular options are made available to gifted and talented students.

The Curriculum Compacting Study (Reis et al., 1993) illustrated that teachers could successfully identify students whose academic needs warranted curricular modifications. They could also use the compacting procedures to eliminate a modest to substantial amount of curriculum and still ensure the maintenance of skills over time. Teachers were very adept at the identification process and the instructional strategies, but, in some cases, they needed more help with designing or developing challenging curricular options.

The Classroom Practices Survey (Archambault et al., 1993) and the Classroom Practices Observations (Westberg et al., 1993) also pointed to the lack of attention to curricular options for students in third and fourth grade classrooms across the country. Archambault et al. (1993) summarized the results of survey data as follows: “It is clear from the results that teachers in regular third and fourth grade classrooms make only minor modifications in the curriculum and their instruction to meet the needs of gifted students” (p. 115).

Westberg et al. (1993) extended the survey to classroom observations. The observations supported the survey results. The researchers concluded that “despite several years of advocacy and efforts to meet the needs of gifted and talented students in this country, the results of this observational study indicate that little differentiation in the instructional and curricular practices is provided to gifted and talented students in the regular classroom” (p. 139).

Is it a matter of not knowing how to design curricular options, or are there so many competing priorities that attention is driven away from creating options and towards meeting the basic requirements of the district’s curricula? Oftentimes, the coverage of material has become the standard for accountability without the recognition of the entry level skills of students and their concomitant educational needs. We have to shift our mindset to “less is often more.” In-depth study of a fewer number of topics can be more meaningful than a cursory glance at numerous topics.

We continue to look at the results of former studies in light of emerging findings of current studies. As new findings become available, we reflect on the growing body of research. We still see a need to raise the following questions about all the data collected in comprehensive screening and identification systems:

  • Where have all the data gone?
  • How can these data be used to develop curricular options for high-ability students?

We addressed these questions with our first satellite presentation in 1992 on Curriculum Compacting as one approach to the differentiation of curriculum. This was followed by a second approach in 1993 that used the Six-Phase Model for the Explicit Teaching of Thinking Skills. We will continue to emphasize the importance of developing challenging educational experiences for all students. We will follow Feldhusen’s advice for our next satellite presentation and develop “fast-paced, high-level, conceptually oriented learning activities, in large, challenging chunks taught in a dynamic and interactive style . . . .” (p. 55). Look for our upcoming satellite presentation on “Curricular Options for High-End Learning” on Wednesday, May 11, 1994. We hope to reconnect the term differentiated to curriculum.

Archambault, F. X., Westberg, K. L., Brown, S. W., Hallmark, B. W., Zhang, W., & Emmons, C. L. (1993). Classroom practices used with gifted third and fourth grade students. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 16(2), 103-119.
Feldhusen, J. F. (1989, March/April). Why the public schools will continue to neglect the gifted. Gifted Child Today, 55-59.
Kaplan, S. (1986). The grid: A model to construct differentiated curriculum for the gifted. In J. S. Renzulli (Ed.), Systems and models for developing programs for the gifted and talented (pp. 180-193). Mansfield Center, CT: Creative Learning Press.
Kaplan, S. N. (1979). Inservice training manual: Activities for developing curriculum for the gifted and talented. Los Angeles, CA: National/State Leadership Training Institute on the Gifted and Talented.
Marland, S. P. (1972). Education of the gifted and talented. Report to the Congress of the United States by the U.S. Commissioner of Education. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Reis, S. M., Westberg, K. L., Kulikowich, J., Caillard, F., Hebert, T., Plucker, J., . . . & Smist, J. M. (1993). Why not let high ability students start school in January? The curriculum compacting study (Research Monograph No. 93106). Storrs: The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, University of Connecticut.
Renzulli, J. S. (Ed.). (1986). Systems and models for developing programs for the gifted and talented. Mansfield Center, CT: Creative Learning Press.
Ward, V. S. (1961). Finding the gifted: An axiomatic approach. Columbus, OH: Charles E. Merrill.
Westberg, K. L., Archambault, F. X., Dobyns, S. M., & Salvin, T. J. (1993). The classroom practices observational study. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 16(2), 120-146.


Back to Newsletter Articles Page