All students should learn to think independently and learn autonomously. Many high ability learners need opportunities to do this on a regular basis while exploring their passions and interests. Although they may be extremely accomplished students, they need to expand their problem-finding, research, and problem-solving skills. They need to struggle to find and understand difficult material, extending the limits on their self-regulated learning strategies.
Individual pursuits require support and scaffolding from a teacher or mentor as students develop these abilities. This is especially true in the initial phases of an unfamiliar activity or new project. Students need to be able to make sense of the new knowledge and skill or to wrestle with the problem solo, but also need to feel the teacher is available for consultation and support. A teacher should honor a student’s need to be dependent and independent by checking in with the student frequently, informally assessing their progress, celebrating successes and brainstorming solutions to their frustrations.
Many students are extremely motivated to pursue their passions. More than students with average ability, high ability students said they enjoyed activities that allowed them to learn new material that is different from the content learned by their classmates. Additionally, “when compared to regular learners, gifted learners were significantly more likely to prefer independent study, independent project, and self-instructional materials.”
Time for individual pursuits can be found by “compacting” units of study with which a student is likely to be familiar. This involves pre-assessing the content of the unit and streamlining it by excusing the student from instruction on topics already mastered and reducing the amount of practice on those nearly mastered. The time that would have been devoted to that content can now be invested in an individual pursuit.
Should the individual pursuit be connected to the content of the core curriculum? That is up to the discretion of the teacher and student. In cases where pre-assessment results indicate the student already has a superior understanding of the content of an entire unit of study, she or he may take the pretest grade as their grade for the unit, and move on to a different topic. The high level of achievement on the pretest provides evidence of mastery of the unit content. Sometimes it is more appropriate to have a student extend their studies related to the topic of the unit being studied by the rest of the class. This form of independent study would not be considered differentiation for individual pursuits unless the topic of the unit is of great interest to the student. Individual pursuits are driven by students’ passions.
In some schools, gifted students are given opportunities to pursue their interests and concerns through individual or group research projects.
Other possibilities for individual pursuits include writing fiction, non-fiction or poetry for publication, social action (protecting endangered species, participating in a candidate’s election campaign), a self-help project, learning issue resolution skills, learning to solve a problem or learning to pursue curiosities and questions.
Many different approaches can be taken to planning and supporting individual pursuits. A few ideas and tools you might find helpful are described here.
- KWRDL form: A 1-page form that expands on a KWL (Know-Wonder-Learn). The boxes on this form track: What I Know, What I Want to know, Resources, I will use, what I will Do to learn, and what I Learned.
- The Possibilities for Learning is a survey of student learning preferences that can put the process of designing differentiated curriculum into the hands of students. One for the differences between this survey and others is that each item specifies a feature of a learning activity based on one of the differentiation strategies described here. A student and /or teacher can use favorite items from the survey as the basis for designing an individual pursuit project.