Differentiating Content, Process, and ProductBy: Ashley Magee

“There is nothing more unequal than the equal treatment of unequal people.” - Thomas Jefferson

Have you ever felt your classroom is a circus? You may have several things going on in your classroom at any given time just as you may see many different circus acts occurring simultaneously in the different rings under the big top. A well-trained ringmaster is essential for making sure everything runs smoothly. It’s often difficult to focus on all of the circus rings at one time, just as it seems difficult to differentiate instruction at times. If you decide to focus on one component at a time, however, then it can be a rewarding experience in both cases (Hipsky & Scigiliano, 2010).

When planning for differentiation in the classroom Tomlinson (2000) suggests you must consider the three areas (or circus rings!) of classroom activity: content, process, and product. Thoughtfully considering each of the three areas is critical in planning for ALL students, not just gifted and talented learners.

Content: Simply stated, content is what the students are being taught. Content can be differentiated in a variety of ways. Providing reading materials that cover the spectrum of ability or grade levels is one way to differentiate content. Differentiating content allows students to begin in different places in the curriculum and proceed at varying rates.

Process: The process is essentially how the students learn the content. The students might be join interest groups centered on a topic they are interested in. Some students may be offered the use of manipulatives and other hands-on materials. Presenting content in a variety of formats (videos, music, lectures, etc.) is also another way to differentiate the process in which students learn the content.

Product: How students demonstrate what they’ve learned is the product. Students should be given choices about how they will express their learning to the teacher and other students. A product may be created in a group, partnership, or individually. If students are completing different products, teachers should use different rubrics to assess the students on their individual skill levels.

When planning differentiated instruction, teachers must consider the content, process, and product. A teacher can adjust one or more of the three. There is no perfect “one-size-fits-all” model. It varies depending on the students’ prior knowledge, their interests, and their abilities (Huebner, 2010).

Heacox outlines differentiation principles for gifted and talented students in her book, Making Differentiation a Habit. The principles are broken down by content, process, and product.

Content Differentiation:

· If students have achieved grade level expectations then challenge them with the “next grade level” curriculum expectations.

· Encourage deeper thinking by engaging students in more abstract concepts and content.

· Eliminate content the students have already mastered. Replace the already known information with more complex information that requires deeper thinking.

· Connect multiple curriculum areas. Encourage students to make deeper connections and work with content covering multiple content areas.

· Encourage students to ask their own questions and follow their curiosities. Provide them with more advanced research skills and materials so that they are equipped with the independence to discover the answers to their questions.

Process Differentiation:

· Do not give gifted students “more” work. Eliminate unnecessary grade level work. Allow time for gifted students to do more advanced work by accelerating the pace of their instruction.

· Be flexible. Allow students to work more independently and provide time for students to dig deeper. Do not be strict with timelines and due dates.

· Allow gifted students to work on more open-ended tasks. The scaffolding that would be needed by average students is much less needed by gifted students.

· Always consider students’ interests. A student’s interest may include beyond grade level curriculum topics.

· Ensure that tasks are presented with higher levels of rigor. Require gifted students to think creatively and critically.

Product Differentiation:

· Provide students with the opportunities to engage in real-life problem solving so they can see the application of their learning in real world contexts.

· Challenge students to move from what is comfortable and familiar to new ways to demonstrate what they have learned.

· Provide authentic feedback for students on their products from subject area experts when appropriate and able.

· Challenge students to create original products and to not copy the thoughts and ideas of others. Students need to be encouraged to use their creative imaginations.

Apply these principles for differentiation content, process, and product as you plan instruction and learning tasks for gifted students. Ensure that you provide enough of a stretch to gifted learners. While content, process, and product may be the three “rings” on your classroom remember what components can enhance each “ring:” student ability levels, student interest, and student learning styles.

According to Huebner (2010) some other guiding principles to consider are:

· Focus on essential ideas and skills and eliminate unnecessary activities or tasks.

· Respond to student differences including interests, learning style, and prior knowledge.

· Group students in a variety of formats including grouping by interest, ability, topic, or ability.

· Integrate meaningful assessments throughout the instructional process.

· Assess continually; reflect often; adjust content, process, and product to meet the needs of all students. 
Image from http://mcrel.typepad.com/mcrel_blog/2009/12/technology-makes-differentiation-practical.html

I found this video on YouTube that a teacher created for her gifted students as part of a self reflection activity. I thought it was really neat and summed up a lot of the characteristics a gifted student can possess.


Heacox, D. (2009). Making differentiation a habit: How to ensure success in academically diverse classrooms. Minneapolis: Free Spirit Publishing.

Hipsky, S. & Scigiliano, D. (2010). 3 ring circus of differentiated instruction. KappaDelta Pi Record, 46 (2), 82-86.

Hubner, T. (2010) What research says about differentiated instruction. Educational Leadership, 67 (5), 79-81.

Tomlinson, C.A. (2000). What is differentiated instruction? Retrieved from http://www.readingrockets.org/article/263