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Blog: Friday, March 1st, 2019

Differentiating for Our High Achievers

At the WJ Mouat parent information evening last Tuesday, a parent asked the question - how are you offering students a chance to extend their learning in a differentiated classroom? The question came as a result of my explanation about removing “honours” classes and replacing streaming for differentiation.  My answer included an admission that we don’t have an agreed upon, system-wide process for what that looks like.  I explained that we are at the beginning of this differentiation journey and continue to have these conversations. I then offered that, in a best-case scenario, we would find opportunities for our top students to take on risk-free opportunities to extend their learning.

Research shows that some students avoid the most difficult tasks for fear of it affecting their grade. They often choose the easier topics to ensure a good mark and “play it safe” to protect their GPA. For our top performing students in a differentiated classroom, their grade is essentially a moot point. These are students that are going to get their A.  Risk-free opportunities are challenge questions, problems, projects etc. that they can try without it having any impact on their grade.

For example, a senior student could be challenged with a university-level problem that wouldn’t otherwise be introduced in class.  An English student who is clearly writing at a level beyond the class/grade expectations could be exempted from the assignments the rest of the class is working on, and instead, design their own writing task that they are interested in and challenges them to stretch their ability.  A Mouat teacher, in her English 9 class last semester, noticed that a few of her students stood out from the rest with regard to their ability and readiness.  Instead of them working through the lessons like the rest of the class, she had them design and teach a few lessons to the class.  Immediately, they were engaged and loved the opportunity and the challenge.

Often, in an effort to challenge our high achieving students, they are given more difficult “additional” work after they finish the regular work.  In a differentiated classroom, teachers have the freedom to replace the “regular” work with tasks that are more appropriate to a student’s readiness, ability and interests.  These “extensions”, in a perfect world, include student choice/design and are ungraded.  These students have proven they deserve an A.  Taking on more challenging tasks only confirms a high mark, but doesn’t have to be a set of points added to the grade book. 

We continue to ask ourselves important questions to help guide the way we support our high achievers.  Who are the students in my class whose readiness and ability are at a high level? What are they interested in? What are some challenging opportunities that they could take on? What are the tasks they could be exempt from to free them up to go beyond? As human beings we are most engaged when we take on challenging tasks that align with our interests and passions. How can we help our high achieving students find those optimal learning conditions in our classrooms?

Principal, WJ Mouat Secondary