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Steve Haberlin's picture
Steve Haberlin is an assistant professor of education at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. He holds a Ph.D. with a specialization in elementary education from the University of South Florida. His...
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Differentiate with Depth and Complexity

Differentiation has served as a major buzz word in education. Curriculum and instruction should meet the needs of individual students—meet them where they are, so to speak. Regardless, differentiation will remain a constant need for the gifted and talented. Many of these students sit in classrooms where instruction is geared toward the middle or lower end of learning. This means something different needs to be done for students who grasp lessons faster, who think deeper and more creatively, who move ahead of the pack in certain subjects.

As a resource teacher who works with gifted elementary students inside general classrooms, I’ve been on a never-ending quest for tools to differentiate and meet the needs of my students. In my eyes, these tools should meet two criteria: 1) does not require a lot of resources (time and money) to implement—because I just don’t have those luxuries- and 2) should be universal in their application, meaning they can be adapted for a variety of subjects and curriculum.

Recently, a peer introduced me to such a tool.

The Depth and Complexity Model, created by Sandra Kaplan, provides an effective, low maintenance method for increasing the rigor, complexity, and overall thinking that occurs with students. The D/C model features 11 icons, each represent a different concept (examples: language or vocabulary of the discipline, different perspectives, ethical concerns, patterns, and unanswered questions).  By considering these 11 concepts, students become practicing experts with their topics. What I love about the icons is that they can be applied to just about any text, any lesson, and subject.

I’ll provide some examples from my teaching.

During a reading conference with a fifth-grade student, we discussed how the main character viewed her situation (Dad was remarrying) differently (Different Perspectives Icon) than her Dad and his new fiancé. Furthermore, we covered whether the daughter was right in trying to sabotage the Dad’s wedding (Ethics icon). In addition, we looked at how the daughter’s efforts to ruin the wedding increased (Changes in Time icon). That conversation happened within one reading conference—what a great way to differentiate for higher readers, who already demonstrate mastery of basic reading skills and strategies.

 Let’s switch to science as another example. Perhaps you are studying life cycles and discussing sea turtles. Students can consider trends (populations going up or down?), ethics (are habitats being destroyed for development, etc.?), the rules (how do the turtles govern themselves, adapt for survival?) and multiple perspectives (how do turtles see the situation? How about conservationists? Developers?). The possibilities using the D/C Model—for lack of a better word—are endless.

One of the goals in working with gifted and talented students should be to have them thinking at higher, deeper, more creative levels; this tool helps with that. The D/C Model enables differentiate with little time and preparation (though the icons can also be incorporated into larger, long-term units and projects).

Below are some links to help you get started: