Too often, gifted students are not given appropriate differentiation when it comes to math instruction, both in and out of the classroom. What does appropriate, differentiated learning look like for a gifted math student?
I taught academically gifted students for many years. And for many years, I found myself frustrated with the ‘differentiation’ that was supposed to be given to those students gifted in math.
Instead of math work that was appropriate for their level of critical thinking and number sense/reasoning, students were basically expected to do ‘more math, and faster.’ The entirely wrong belief that gifted students should be doing more work at an accelerated level simply because they typically finish more easily and faster is one that doesn’t benefit the student in any way.
In fact, more and more, it seems as if giving a gifted student more math work and expecting skills to be acquired faster may feel like punishment for the child, particularly if they are a child who is gifted but also suffers from a learning difference that may make accelerated speed difficult.
And while experts do believe there is a benefit to allowing students to accelerate their math skills because they have the ability to do so, the focus needs to also be put on the actual differentiation of learning.
So what does differentiated learning from a gifted math student look like?
First, understand that a gifted math student thinks differently than an average or even above-average math student. He or she may often give out-of-the-box answers based on their unique reasoning skills, and parents and teachers should make room for that thinking.
While standardized testing does not always lend itself to that, a gifted math student should have plenty of subjective assessment and observation done (without being a burden or too laborious to the student) so that the student’s unique reasoning skills can be documented, encouraged and given the opportunity for the right growth.
Additionally, gifted math students seek higher-order reasoning and problem-solving. While in elementary school, this typically still involves using manipulatives (though most likely in a very different way than other students) — this isn’t just about taking advanced courses. Advanced courses can be exciting and be motivating for those students’ brains, but they also crave applying their mathematical abilities to real-world applications, so giving them room to use their talents in projects that involve things that incorporate authentic situations like banking can be just as motivating.
The biggest thing to understand about differentiating math for a gifted student is understanding that often, they do best by taking the lead in their learning and continuing to grow in what interests them. Instead of giving an extra assignment when they finish one early, allow them to pitch projects or research they’d like to do. Their desire will cultivate a process of question-answer they themselves created and will most likely enrich their learning process substantially more than extra work.
Also, understand that while mixing abilities in classrooms has its benefit, often gifted students learn best from each other. If these students can work together on a complex math problem after they’ve finished a regular assignment, they are most likely going to learn more than just advanced math problem-solving. They’ll be able to think out their processes with peers who understand and most likely move at their pace, and will feel validated in their own thought processes.
The key to differentiation for a gifted student is flexibility. Whether it’s in the learning environment or the material being learned, a gifted math student will simply need the flexibility to work through mathematical concepts in their own way. It cannot be assumed that since they are gifted, they’ll just automatically learn concepts easier or better, but it should be understood that they’ll most likely learn them in a different way, and at a possibly different speed than other kids. That flexibility will make all the difference in their learning and enjoyment of school.