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If you’re a teacher, you’ve almost certainly heard someone say, “I want to challenge my students.” I used to say it all the time.
But then one of my sixth graders said to me, “Mr. Byrd, I don’t really want to be ‘challenged’.”
This has stuck with me for years.
“Challenging” Is The Wrong Goal
I totally get what this student meant. When faced with yet-another-worksheet, students don’t long for something “more challenging.”
“Challenging” is the wrong goal.
Consider this: you can create a “challenging” task that is also boring and uninspiring. You can give students a “challenging” fill-in-the-blanks worksheet, a “challenging” true/false question, or a “challenging” timed math test.
Something can be “challenging” and also still be at the very bottom of Bloom’s Taxonomy.
Using a thesaurus, here’s what you’ll find for “challenge”:
(n) problem, difficult task, test, trial
(v) disagree with, dispute, take issue with, protest against, call into question, object to
For the most part: yuck. “Challenge” has some surprisingly negative connotations. Yet, those last three words start to get at our true goal. I definitely want “inspired” students. But I don’t want “strained” kids. I want “excited” students. I don’t want my class to be seen as a “trial.”
So here’s the word I use now, whether I’m planning lessons for Byrdseed.TV or running a workshop: interesting.
I want to “interest” students. A student who is interested will work over the weekend simply because they want to know more. An interested student will stay in from recess. An interested student is intrinsically motivated.
A great teacher makes lessons interesting. Their students are surprised when the bell rings because they were so darn interested!
When faced with yet-another-worksheet, students long for something interesting!
Personally, I’ll happily sit through a lecture that I find interesting. I’ll slog through a challenging book… as long as it’s also (you guessed it) interesting! I’m motivated to get out of bed in the morning when there’s an interesting problem waiting for me to work on.
We will gladly face trials, battle through strains, and take on taxing problems once we’re interested. So let’s make that our first goal. And then, once kids are motivated and excited to learn, they’ll take on the challenges.
Tic tac toe menus, 2-5-8 menus, baseball menus… when I first started teaching in gifted education, I saw extension menus everywhere. They seemed like a core tool for differentiation. I made many of them. I even tried to make an app to generate them.
But now, as a withered old man, I have a new perspective: extensions menus lead to lots of low-quality tasks.
1. Choice ain’t that great.
Just because there is student choice, doesn’t mean there’s quality differentiation. I’d say that I used choice to mask that there was no high-level thinking to begin with.
If my class reads about Saturn and then I let them create either a poem, a presentation, or a skit, there is no differentiated instruction happening. Some students are just making a different product – Read more
Differentiation must be about students’ thinking not the product they create. When I would give a bunch of choices, those choices tended to feature the same low-level of thinking and then an option to restate already-known information as either a song or skit or poem.
Choice can be great, sure, but a high level of thinking is my focus now.
2. One is hard, but let’s do nine!
It is very hard to create just one high-quality task for advanced students. I do this full-time for Byrdseed.TV and end up tossing probably two-thirds of my initial ideas because they’re just not good enough.
High-quality tasks must incorporate high-levels of thinking plus thoughtful scaffolding, and advanced resources (that are also accessible to students), plus a culminating product that shows off students’ thinking without being mere fluff, _and _they need to fit into our limited time-frames!
That’s not easy.
So… why on earth did I think I could create nine ideas to fill up a tic-tac-toe menu?
I’ve learned that I’m always better off focusing my resources on my one best idea and tossing the rest into a “maybe later” pile. Read Essentialism for more on that.
One task is hard. Don’t try to create nine.
3. Arbitrary requirements.
So, why did we choose nine tasks? Is it because we know that nine tasks is what’s best for student learning? Have researchers discovered that, when faced with nine choices, students suddenly reach a new level of thinking?
No. I would make up nine tasks because that happens to fit in a tic-tac-toe board. That’s a terrible reason to create that much work.
Filling up a menu with nine tasks is arbitrary. Instead, let’s use what we know about learning to develop high-quality lessons.
4. Buffet or fine-dining?
I look at my old extension menus now and think, gosh there are maybe two seeds of good ideas. But the rest? Just filler.
I created a buffet-style experience for my students. Nothing was particularly great, but there sure was a lot of it!
Imagine if I had, instead, used that time to take the best idea and flesh it out. Add scaffolds. Find fantastic resources to support student thinking. Create high-quality examples (and low-quality non-examples) to guide students.
Nowadays, I want each task to be like a dish at a fine-dining restaurant. Every single element should be carefully thought out. Pieces that aren’t so great get improved or simply tossed out.
Focus on one idea.
So. My advice: focus on creating one outstanding task rather than banging out many mediocre tasks to fill up an arbitrary shape. That one task can certainly include (high-quality) choice, but choice isn’t our goal. Our goal is to get students thinking.
I’ve had quite a few folks in gifted education ask me for recommendations for book studies, reading groups, or personal growth. So I thought I might write something up!
Now, I don’t actually read much that’s explicitly about education. I think that reading widely helps me to think better and see education through a clearer lens. So most of these aren’t “education books,” but I think they’ll get you thinking in new ways:
Why Don’t Students Like School? – Really fun read. Contains an unforgettable image of Dick Chaney and Joey Tribbiani. Written by cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham.
Made To Stick – Need to convince people (say students or parents or administrators or teachers) that something’s important?
Essentialism – Is it possible that you’re trying to do too much?
Nudge – Focused on changing behavior without just making a rule and punishing people for not following it. Pairs nicely with Made To Stick.
The Hungry Mind – A great book about curiosity, both at home and in schools.
Trendy, But Have You Actually Read Them?
The books Mindset and Grit are cited so frequently, but I have a sneaking suspicion that very few folks have actually read them. So read them! They’re not hard. And be aware of how both authors’ work gets misunderstood and over-applied.
Want to really dig into how to get kids thinking? You gotta get out of the edu-echo-chamber and read some classics. Find anything written by these folks. Papers, books, crusty old scanned PDFs, whatever! There’s way more out there than what I’ve linked below (especially if you have access to research papers).
When planning a lesson, it’s helpful to think about where your content lands on the spectrum of abstraction. On one end of the spectrum, we have highly specific facts. On the other end, very abstract concepts. When we move back and forth along this spectrum, it unlocks opportunities for really interesting thinking.
A Spectrum of Abstraction
Here’s a spectrum of abstraction starting with my own car. Each step becomes more abstract.
And each level is an example of the more abstract concepts. “Vehicles” are examples of “transportation” and “systems.”
To get more abstract, we can ask ourselves (or our students):
What is this idea an example of?
What category or group does this belong to?
What big idea or saying does this fit with?
We could also move back down and get more specific. We might break “vehicles” up into more specific categories: cars, trucks, boats, motorcycles, bikes (?), roller skates (?) (note that by getting more specific, I am thinking in new ways – what exactly is a “vehicle?” Heck, what exactly is a car?).
There is value in getting more abstract as well as getting more specific. It’s the movement that matters.
To get more specific, we can ask:
What are some examples of this?
What’s the definition of this?
What might we find in a folder with this label?
Beware Staying At One Level
You’ve probably experienced teachers or presenters who focused too much on one end of this spectrum. Neither side is good by itself:
Too many specifics: endless examples, graphs, anecdotes, without a clear message to guide it all
Too much abstraction: big ideas that sound nice but leave you wondering “what would that actually look like?”
To really understand an idea, we have to understand its context within the spectrum of abstraction. We need specific examples, but we also need the broader, more abstract connections. We need to move students up and down the spectrum to activate thinking.
Yes, students need to know the steps to perform addition, but they also need to understand that the concept of addition is related to subtraction and multiplication and division. They’re all operators. You put two numbers in, something happens, and a new number pops out.
This leads to interesting ideas like “addition and subtraction are opposites… yet they are closely related.“
Then you can take that idea and abstract it further:
Class, are there any other examples of things that are opposite,… yet also closely related? Let’s go beyond math. Think about it tonight and let me know what you come up with.
You might hear ideas like:
Ice and vapor
Carnivores and herbivores
Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker
Anna and Elsa
My little brother and me!
Friends, this is thinking! When we move from specific to abstract, we open up opportunities for new ideas, unexpected connections, and (in my opinion) lots of fun.
There’s so much we could do with this idea that “opposites can be related.”
If Vader and Luke had to pick, which one would be addition and which would be subtraction? Why?
Which is more like addition, carnivores or herbivores? Why?
Is Anna or Elsa more like an herbivore? Why? Give me specifics.
To Get Started
So, to start, look at your next lesson. What’s the content? Is it abstract or specific (it’s probably pretty specific)? Can you move your lesson towards the other end of the spectrum?
Let’s say you have to teach:
The water cycle. Well, this is a system that repeats. So, what other systems are there in nature that repeat? What about human-made systems?
The electromagnetic spectrum. Oh! This is an example of a paradox! It is both helpful and deadly at the same time. What else do we know about that is a paradox?
Irregular plurals. This is an example of how rules can have exceptions. What other rules do we know about that have exceptions?
Solving for a variable in algebra. These steps are all about preserving balance. What other situations involve preserving balance?
The causes of the War of 1812. This was a war where neither side was in a great position to fight a war. What other events have occurred where no one wanted it to happen, yet it happened?
When we move the content towards abstraction, it sets the stage for comparing and contrasting, categorizing, forming opinions, and even creating new ideas. We open up all of Bloom’s higher order thinking skills.
Now (based on those earlier examples) we could ask:
Which repeating system is the most likely to fail?
Which paradox is most paradoxical?
Which rules’ exception most strongly violates the rule? Is it fair to have this exception?
When is it ok to not preserve balance? When is it harmful to preserve balance?
Rank your ideas based on how positive the outcome was for all of these events.
These all began with grade-level, specific content, but I’ve raised the ceiling, connected across disciplines, and given my advanced students something to really chew on.
What will they come up with? I don’t really know! And that’s how you know they really have an opportunity to think.
Something I’ve been trying to incorporate into recent Byrdseed.TV lessons is to ask students to regularly generate more than one idea. E. Paul Torrance used to term “Fluency” to describe being able to come up with many ideas.
What are TEN ways to…
Fluency is a key trait of high-level thinking. Your brain works very differently when you try to come up with five or ten ways to solve a problem rather than just a way.
Think about how it feels to approach these tasks:
What are seven ways to group 12 objects?
Come up with ten different ways to teach this lesson.
Write five sentences to describe this photo. Use a different style each time.
Categorize these animals into 3-5 groups. Now do it again using different groups. One more time!
Come up with five possible themes the author was trying to get across.
Perhaps the first couple of ideas come quickly. Then you hit a rough spot (this is where we practice pushing through and feeling our brains start sweating). Then, sometimes, that 9th idea turns out to be the best — and sometimes it doesn’t.
Not All Ideas Will Be Great
Asking for many answers is also a tool to fight perfectionism. When students have to create just one idea, there’s so much pressure to make it the best it can possibly be.
But when they need to create ten ideas, well, some of those ideas are probably going to stink. But we need to get those stinkers out on paper so that the real gems can rise to the surface.
Not every idea is going to be great — or even good. And that’s ok!
Ideas Need Room To Evolve
We’re so used to enjoying finished products (whether its a song, a movie, a book, or an app), but those songs and movies went through many (sometimes terrible) iterations to get there. An app may have had a dozen different designs before something finally worked.
I love reading the [early versions of The Lord Of The Rings] because it’s incredible how different the story once was. I mean… Frodo Baggins (the main character) didn’t appear until the third draft. And his name was Bingo!
We also see this in early ideas for characters (like [Buzz and super-creepy Woody]) or demos of songs. Some ideas don’t work out, but they help us get to the good ideas.
Once students start generating many ideas, you can easily push them up Bloom’s Taxonomy. Ask them to categorize their various ideas (you wrote five sentences, how might you group those?), or pick and defend their favorite (which idea was the most surprising), or synthesize the best of multiple ideas to form an ultra-idea.
Torrance’s trait of Fluency is just another classic tool to make sure that students are thinking and not just remembering. Take any question and ask for a whole bunch of answers instead of just one.
If you’re a subscriber over at Byrdseed.TV, hopefully you’ll note that some newer lessons are including a “come up with another idea” component.
Friend and occasional business-partner, Lisa Van Gemert, released her second book recently and gave me a copy. Living Gifted: 52 Tips to Survive and Thrive in Giftedland is written to be read by (or to) the gifted.
Each tip consists of two pages:
A brief write up
A worksheet/activity page
Here’s Tip #4: “Add a Layer of Service.”
Tips cover a diverse range of topics, from understanding one’s own strengths, to learning others’ names, to giving people better praise.
This is a style of book that I really appreciate. Yes, it’s short and to the point. But it’s also wide-ranging. I feel like Lisa read a hundred books and condensed the most essential bits into this one helpful book. As I flip through it, I know I’m benefitting from her voracious reading.
I could see having a copy in a classroom for students to puruse, but it would also be great for parents at home.
One of the most significant barriers to differentiating for gifted learners is a misunderstanding of the purpose of grade-level standards.
People see grade-level standards as a maximum of what they are allowed to teach a student. The truth is the complete opposite. Grade-level standards are a minimum not a maximum. They’re a floor, not a ceiling. They’re what you must do not what you can do. You should go beyond your standards whenever you have the opportunity.
We Don’t Teach THAT In Second Grade
At a workshop, a second-grade teacher mentioned teaching “energy,” and I pointed out that she could extend the topic to include potential and kinetic energy. She scoffed and said, “Oh we don’t teach that in second grade.”
Friends, just because a textbook doesn’t include certain information doesn’t mean your students’ heads will explode if they hear it. How can you possibly differentiate for advanced kids without going beyond the standards?
I’ve run into this mindset over and over: a mistaken belief that you can only teach kids certain things at certain ages. Sure, it’s unlikely your third-graders are going to master calculus, but it sure doesn’t mean you can’t expose them to advanced ideas.
In fact, those advanced ideas are often exciting and tantalizing, especially if you present them as material for older students.
Something From The Future
One of the few things I remember learning in 8th grade was the term “ethnocentrism.” Why do I so clearly remember Mr. Horning teaching it to us? Because it was presented as information “for 11th graders.” He challenged us mere middle schoolers to remember it and brag to our high school history teacher Mr. Wu once we got to 11th grade that we already knew about “ethnocentrism.”
I pulled the same stunt on my 6th graders. I told the class they could stay in from recess and I’d explain the forbidden, 8th-grade knowledge of negative exponents. Guess what? I had a group of students give up recess for an extra math lesson!
Heck, most of what I remember from being a sixth grader is the lines from Macbeth. Mrs. Price didn’t water it down (although she did shorten it). We memorized and performed Shakespeare’s real words from 1606 in front of an audience.
Important note: in each case, the claim was true. It was honest-to-goodness advanced content.
Go Beyond Your Standards
Standards are the basic expectation, not the upper limit. If we want to differentiate for advanced students there’s no choice but to take them beyond the grade-level standards.
In a previous article, I cataloged anti-patterns of differentiation: common tactics that look like differentiation but are actually quite the opposite. This article is about an additional and very common anti-pattern: choice.
“Choice” is not differentiation. Just because students are doing different things doesn’t mean we have differentiated instruction.
If my class reads about Saturn and then I let them create either a poem, a presentation, or a skit, there is no differentiated instruction happening. Some students are just making a different product. My advanced group didn’t learn any additional content, they didn’t think at a higher level, and they didn’t access more advanced resources. We only gave them a choice about their final product. That isn’t differentiation.
Or if I give students the choice to learn about Jupiter, Neptune, or Saturn, I’m still not differentiating.
Differentiation Is About Thinking
When we differentiate, it needs to be about students’ thinking. Are we pushing our advanced students to think at a higher level? This doesn’t happen at the product stage. It’s too late. Differentiation needs to be planned from the beginning when you’re writing your students’ learning objective.
A differentiated lesson objective should thoughtfully adjust:
students’ thinking skill
the content they’re learning
the resources they can draw from
the product they make
I wrote [an article long ago about these four levers to differentiate a task statement] if you aren’t familiar with them.
A Differentiated Saturn Task
If most of my class is learning the basic facts about Saturn using our textbook, I’m going to carefully craft a way to push my higher-ability students. This means adjusting thinking skill, content, and resources before I worry about the product.
Perhaps they’ll compare and contrast with another ringed planet and then form an opinion about which is most useful to humans (this is content and thinking skill). They’ll reference a more advanced book about the planets that I grabbed from the library (that’s the resource). Then, I’ll consider their product. Yes, perhaps they’ll have a choice there, but that product choice isn’t where the real differentiation happens.
Without any planning for how I’ll push my gifted students’ thinking and content knowledge, product choice becomes mere decoration, not differentiation.
Ethics, Multiple Perspectives, and Change Over Time
In this section, we introduce my personal favorite tool of depth and complexity: Ethics. This prompt draws students attention to the good and bad within a topic. It should spark opportunities for debate and chances to think from other points of view.
For that reason, I also like to introduce the Multiple Perspectives prompt with Ethics. Multiple Perspectives asks students to consider how another person would think about a topic. It pairs nicely with Ethics because, to really understand an ethical issue, it helps to see that problem from a different view of the problem.
The Ethics prompt asks students to think about the pros and cons of a topic. It’s perfect for surfacing controversy and problems. With ethics, we ask students to explore what’s good and bad. What are the predicaments, dilemmas, and ambiguous issues within the topic?
We may love eating hamburgers because of their delicious taste, but they have downsides — health concerns, increasing prices, animal rights, religious objections, and so on.
Biking is a healthy and environmentally-friendly alternative to driving, and it’s faster than walking. I bike to work every day. But what are the downsides?
You’re very familiar with the ethical issues present in education — those tricky debates without clear solutions. Ask students for the ethical problems they face at school, and you’re sure to get an ear-full.
Ethics In Content
You can apply ethics across nearly any content area for an instant boost in depth. What ethical issues does a character face… or cause? What ethical problems happened because of an event in history? Or what problems led to an event. What are the issues with the periodic table? Or with a specific element on the periodic table?
Which ethical issues did George Washington handle most successfully? Or more poorly?
You can apply Ethics to questions of fairness or justice. Even a question that seems silly can lead to some interesting discussions: is a food web fair? Which form of natural disaster is least fair? Is it fair that poetry doesn’t have to follow the rules of prose?
In math, I use the ethics tool to draw students’ attention to common errors, dangerous shortcuts, or confusing aspects of a topic.
For more power, combine Ethics with another tool, like Rules. I love posing the question: What ethical issues caused a new rule? And what new ethical issues did that rule then create?
Multiple Perspectives prompts students to think about a topic from various, specific points of view. This tool adds complexity by encouraging a broader view rather than just going deeper.
Once again, school is a perfect topic for introducing multiple perspectives. A student may see school in one way, but a teacher, principal, or custodian will see that same school quite differently.
The hamburger takes on an entirely different perspective when viewed from the perspective of a vegetarian, a chef, a rancher, or a Hindu.
Multiple Perspectives Of Content
Multiple Perspectives adds complexity to nearly any content area. In a story, students might analyze the conflict from various characters points of view. Or they might consider how different people might interpret a story’s moral. How would a character from another story have handled the same Ethical problem?
Historical events take on new complexity when we think about them from multiple perspectives. What was the American Revolution like from John Adams’ perspective compared to a regular colonist? What about someone living in France? How did different groups of people interpret the events of the Boston Tea Party?
A biome takes on new meanings when we think from multiple perspectives. How is the importance of the rain forest different when viewed from the perspective of a medical company compared to a local logger or a real estate firm?
Don’t be afraid to get creative! We can think from an animal’s perspective, or a planet, or a chair, or a building.
What is school like for a chair compared to a desk?
What does the moon think of the earth? The sun?
What would a cumulus cloud think of a cirrus cloud?
Look for several ethical issues within a topic. Rank them in order of importance.
Compare and contrast two points of view about a problem.
Explore how ethical problems can lead to new rules.
As always, the way to tell if you’re using Depth and Complexity well is to ask, “Is this changing my students’ thinking?”
In this section, we’ll learn about two more prompts of Depth and Complexity that pair beautifully: Rules and Patterns. Because they share some similarities, I like to introduce them together and lean heavily on what makes Rules and Patterns different.
The Patterns thinking tool prompts students to look for repeating elements within a topic – ideas, events, thoughts, actions, etc. that tend to happen over and over.
At school, we usually follow the same daily schedule. After school we might have a pattern of getting home, eating a snack, then starting homework, and then enjoying free time before dinner. Hamburgers have many patterns. They are often served with french fries, topped with lettuce and tomatoes, and sold at fast food joints.
But, patterns don’t have to always repeat. Some school days don’t follow the usual schedule at all! Sometimes we don’t go straight home after school. And some hamburgers break the usual patterns. They’re paired with fancier toppings, served on lettuce rather than a bun, or sold at an elegant restaurant.
In fact, when a pattern breaks, it’s often the most interesting moment of all! Why did the pattern break? What were the effects? Will the pattern resume again? I love emphasizing broken patterns in lessons.
So, patterns often repeat, but they don’t have to repeat.
Patterns In Content
We can see patterns in peoples’ lives, patterns within a story, patterns in the periodic table, or patterns in a math topic.
A character might follow a particular pattern that defines who they are, then suddenly break it! This is an interesting moment to study. Or you might go larger and look at how several characters follow similar patterns. A story’s protagonist, for example, usually starts in a lowly position, meets important friends, develops a previously unknown talent, and ends up taking some heroic action.
One US President might follow a pattern in their lives, but we could also draw students’ attention to patterns across historical leaders. What patterns can we find in Cleopatra, George Washington, and Martin Luther King, Jr.?
In science, all of the creatures living within one biome are likely to follow similar patterns. Planets and starts follow patterns. Extreme weather follows repeating patterns.
Math is rich with patterns. Just explore a hundreds chart or Pascal’s triangle and look for the dozens of patterns that repeat.
You can ask students to search for patterns in nearly any context. And remember: broken patterns are often very interesting. Why does Pluto not fit the pattern of other planets? How does Cleopatra not fit the pattern of other leaders? How does the platypus break familiar patterns?
Rules, on the other hand, have to happen – or there are consequences. Rules can include laws and requirements, but also norms and hierarchies. Perhaps there is no “official rule” that we can’t jump from desk to desk in the library, but you’re definitely going to get kicked out if you do! An employee treats their boss in certain ways (even though there’s no “official rule”) or they quickly find themselves without a job.
So I do want to emphasize that a rule doesn’t have to be written out and posted. There are many things that must be done that we don’t explicitly call out.
The school day is a perfect opportunity to contrast Patterns and Rules. At school, we follow a schedule, but that schedule can change depending on assemblies, music classes, or shortened days. It’s a pattern. However, there are also rules at school. We always have to have lunch. We have to keep our hands to ourselves. Teachers must take roll every day.
Rules In Content
In a story, a character may break a pattern of thought or behavior, but they’ll stay true to certain rules they choose to follow. An author may break expected patterns in their story, but some rules of writing must be followed our the story becomes incomprehensible.
You might note the rules of certain poetry, of research writing, or specific rules of grammar.
Social Studies is rife with rules. We see new laws introduced, social codes, hierarchies within governments. Within a city, what rules does a building have to follow? This is different than the patterns we usually see in buildings. What are the rules of traffic in different countries?
Within a biome, animals may follow certain patterns, but they have to follow the rules. They must consume energy in some way, for example. An animal in the tundra must have a way to keep heat in.
In math, there are many examples of patterns, but rules are different: they’re things we must do. Rules is perfect for highlighting algorithms and steps that students must follow.
Tasks for Rules and Patterns
Here are three ideas for incorporating rules and patterns into a task:
Compare and contrast the rules vs. patterns within a topic.
Examine broken patterns within a topic. What are the effects of a broken pattern?
Look at the causes and effects of a rule. What would happen without the rule? What happens now because of the rule?