Sandra Kaplan

Sandra Kaplan is an Associate Professor of Learning and Instruction at the University of Southern California. She is also a consultant for several state departments and school districts nationwide on the topics of education for gifted students, differentiated curriculum in depth and complexity, and thematic interdisciplinarity.

Dr. Sandra Kaplan

Effective Differentiation

I think that characteristics of effectively differentiated curriculum for gifted students probably depends on who you’re talking to, in some ways. Which is probably one of the really important things to consider. Because there is a body of knowledge that talks about what is effective that generalizes over peoples’ particular proclivities for curriculum or peoples’ particular expertise in curriculum. But it seems to me, if you were to analyze the body of knowledge, one of the things that you would start to realize is that it can be divided into four areas. One area is the area that relates to thinking skills and the development of those thinking skills that enable one to be a better problem solver and critical thinker and creative producer.

The second area would be the area relating to content, or subject matter acquisition. And you would see within that body things that relate to understanding the natures of disciplines, understanding how to develop an awareness of things in a more in-depth and complex manner, understanding what we call “big ideas” or generalizations, principles, and theories, understanding universal concepts such as change and systems and their application to content, and understanding interdisciplinary connections–how they’re forged, what we mean by those connections. And, I think, a third area, that’s kind of, for me, starting to emanate that might be a real effective concern in the content area would be to really understand how you can see areas that connect within disciplines not just between disciplines. So when I talk about interdisciplinary, I don’t want to miss the opportunity of intradisciplinary kinds of connections.

And I think the third area is the area that has to do with research–being able to be an investigator, to be able to use multiple and varied references to access material, to look at its authenticity and so forth.

And the last one is product development. That students at this point in their gifted development should be able to do the work of a true disciplinarian. So a lot of the gimmicky things, like making dioramas, unless they can be related to the work of the disciplinarian, will kind of fall by the wayside.

Gifted Education and the Core Curriculum

I can certainly remember when I was a young teacher of the gifted, one of the things that was discussed was, “don’t worry about the regular curriculum, that’s too paltry, it’s not significant enough, it doesn’t really have any bearing on what we want to do for gifted children.” That’s terribly different than what we know now, because of the standards movement and, I think, the real thorough examination of what is important for kids to be able to understand and do, etc., has really helped us understand that anything we do for gifted children should be based on an assessment of where they are in their relationship to the core curriculum.

Essential Aspects of Differentiated Curricula

What we absolutely, positively have to have is some sort of philosophical orientation to what is differentiation. In the contemporary sense, people talk about differentiation as an organizational structure, there are those of us who talk about differentiation as a curricular structure, there are those of us who talk about differentiation as an instructional structure, and basically, we really need to clarify our nomenclature so that differentiation has at least a common base. Otherwise, in the name of gifted children, we’re doing all kinds of different things. Some people think that if you’ve rearranged the classroom and have small groups, you’ve differentiated. It’s what’s inside that rearrangement, that organizational pattern, the content, the thinking skills, etc., that are really important. So, a common understanding and a philosophical base that drives that understanding is really important.

Secondly, I think it’s time for scope and sequence. If think as we look at gifted children and we look at their matriculation in gifted programs over the years, it seems to me that there’s a tremendous amount of redundancy on the part of what they have to experience and what the teachers are teaching, obviously. And so we need to think about, well, if we want to create students who are able to be researchers, what are the expectations for research at primary, upper elementary, middle school, and high school, and be much more definitive about this sojourn for gifted kids.

And I think the third thing that would be terribly essential would be the idea that we understand that there are times when gifted students have to be part of the regular curriculum, times when they have to be part of this differentiated curriculum, times when they have to work alone, times when they work with a group, times when they are teacher-directed, and times when they are inquiry-based. And that we don’t slant the experiences of gifted children in a way that can disable them from having this full range of experiences based on need, interest, and ability and not teacher whim, or the idea of the latest fad that is moving by.

Preparing Teachers for Differentiation

It seems to me that there are some practices that we have worked with that really work well. So I’d like to share what I think might be some things to really consider. One is that we need to get away from kind of just coming and sitting and listening. And leaving all of us who have presented keeping our fingers crossed that it’s all going to work. I think that we have to have many more opportunities to follow people into classrooms and do more on-site, consultative kind of work. And so one of the things that we’ve done, in some of the programs in Los Angeles, is to actually say, OK, you have three different levels at which you can participate. One level you can participate in learning about differentiated curriculum is to come and sit and bring your books and we’ll help you within the context of this professional development session to really do some kind of transfer from what we’ve talked about to what you might be able to do with the teacher’s manual in your own curricular units.

The second group that we’re kind of looking for and we’re asking teachers to select into, is to come, listen, participate, and then take exemplars of good curriculum and try it. So you’re really walking through what a quality differentiation might be, and record some of the responses of students and so forth, and videotape for us what it is that you’ve done, so that we can sit together at another point in time and really look at dissecting. Not your teaching, per se, but the effects of differentiation. So that you can start to internalize it and see what you can make your own.

And the last is to really develop teachers this kind of, we’ll come to your classroom and demonstrate what it looks like with your children. And then you demonstrate what it looks like with your children. And then to sit there and really do the kind of collegial interaction that allows them to see what happens when you differentiate, what they look like when they differentiate from the feedback, and to try to then set them up as demonstration teachers, so that we have places throughout the school district where people can actually go and see what we’re talking about and not just listen to what we’re talking about. So that’s one way.

The other way is to keep in contact. And we really try to think about–and it’s certainly easy in this technological age–to do online chatting. So that we have networks. And if you’ve gone to a conference and you’ve listened to what it is we’re talking about in terms of differentiation, then you have feedback and you can chit-chat with people and say “this is what happened, this is how it worked.” And we can then respond to it. But I think unless we do some kind of means by which we can establish the relationship–the curricular relationship and make sure that we’re translating theory into practice we’re not going to get any further in this whole thing about differentiation than just having a nice attendance at a conference.

Meeting the Needs of Various Gifted Learners

I think that one of the things in a first class gifted education that might be important–and this is a bias of mine–is to really understand that the context, the contemporary life conditions of gifted children shape who they are. So the traditional concepts of looking at curiosity or looking at things like a wide variety of interests or being empathetic or whatever that delineation of characteristics might be changes. It certainly changes if you have children in your class who are new immigrants. It certainly changes if you have children who are living in poverty. And I don’t see people kind of readjusting the definitions. I think kids are curious now, regardless of the diversity which they come from, or the kind of setting in which they live, are very different because of the technological advances that they’ve had and their experiences give them very different kinds of curiosities than the students I started to teach many years ago. And I don’t think that you can really differentiate curriculum if your mindset is based on a 1950 definition of who gifted children are.

So how do we keep updating our perceptions of who gifted kids are, so that we can hold constant the ends. We still want them to be able to develop their critical thinking, their investigative research skills, but what are the means? How do those means change to this end as you’re looking at this contemporary definition of who a gifted child is?