Ideas for use in schools and classrooms

The principles and design of A Curriculum for Excellence give teachers the professional autonomy to offer an appropriate, engaging curriculum to challenge highly able learners.  

The National Association for Gifted Children in the USA (2010) recommends that a curriculum for highly able learners:

  • Is designed to accommodate the needs of highly able learners.
  • Provides optimal levels for learning
  • Delivers through acceleration and enrichment
  • Is carefully planned, written down, implemented, and evaluated

The seven broad principles included in Curriculum for Excellence when planning young people’s learning capture the points above:

  • Challenge and enjoyment
  • Breadth
  • Progression
  • Depth
  • Personalisation and choice
  • Coherence
  • Relevance

Highly able learners should be working at higher cognitive levels. This might include, for example, Bloom’s Taxonomy:  analysis, synthesis, evaluate.

Higher cognitive levels include (Wallace, 2000):

  • Looking for overall patterns and relationships
  • Justifying conclusions, arguments, and evidence
  • Creating something new:  invent, alternative viewpoint, change and improve somethingKnowledge is used to solve real-world problems

One of the most common frameworks for thinking is Bloom’s Taxonomy.  A revised taxonomy was produced by Anderson and Krathwohl in 2001.  The taxonomy consists of 6 key areas of development:

  1. Remembering -  Pupils need certain knowledge which they can recall in

    order to take action and think.  Pupils need to be able to acquire that

    knowledge using a range of research and subject specific skills. 

    Asking better questions will help pupils access relevant information. 

    Pupils need to record their ideas and thoughts and share them using a

    variety of communication.

    Verbs – define, underline, list, name, reproduce

    Possible outcome – lists, worksheets, definitions

  2. Understanding – Many pupils spend much of their time explaining, selecting or paraphrasing information.  These are lower order thinking skills.  Pupils also need to use higher order thinking skills.  This will involve pupils comparing and contrasting information, presenting new ideas, exploring consequences, examining differing viewpoints.

    Verbs –  identify, describe, explain, report, calculate, outline

    Possible outcomes – paraphrasing, summary, drawing, teaching peers

  3. Applying – Pupils need to have opportunities to play around with and apply the new knowledge they have gained. 

    Verbs – demonstrate, practice, illustrate, classify, solve, dramatize

    Possible outcomes – interview, role play, build a model, collection, presentation

  4. Analysing – Activities that offer opportunities for analysis will allow pupils to break down their knowledge into small parts in order that they can investigate how these parts relate to one another and to the bigger picture. 

    Verbs – compare, contrast, examine, outline, sequence, test, differentiate, infer

    Possible outcomes – survey, summary, questionnaire, plan, spreadsheet

  5.  Evaluating – Pupils need to make decisions and judgements about things but these judgements and decisions have to be justified.  Evaluating the knowledge gained and critiquing it using evidence and reason will offer challenging opportunities for able and talented learners.

    Verbs – defend, judge, select, support, verify, justify, rank

    Possible outcomes – opinion, recommendation, report, self evaluation

  6. Creating – This allows pupils to bring together the new knowledge they have acquired and through design, imagination, reorganisation and invention they can create something new.

    Verbs –  change, compose, create, predict, hypothesise, invent, combine, design

    Possible outcomes – new game, multimedia, poem, story

Cross-stage setting - This involves the creation of greater homogeneity through the formation of classes or groups across stages on the basis of attainment. While there can be certain advantages to setting pupils on the basis of attainment there are also disadvantages. Young people who present with similar levels of attainment are brought together for specific lessons and this is referred to as setting. There is an assumption that it will be easier to teach more effectively since the attainment range within any one class is narrow. However, there is much debate within the literature as to the relative merits of setting. One issue relates to how the groups are formed – for example behaviour is often taken into consideration.  Young people are placed in lower sets as they are smaller in size and it is believed that their challenging behaviour will be more easily dealt with. This is problematic for highly able learners if the challenging behaviour was caused by lack of cognitive challenge in the first place. The negative effect of being placed in lower groups on pupils is well documented and although some research has found that there can be advantages for pupils that are placed in higher ability classes, these were due more to teacher and curriculum variables rather than to the form of organisation.

Projects – A way of supporting individual children with particular abilities while also offering opportunities to other to develop their strengths is through whole school activities such as a regular school newspaper, radio or television show, enterprise activities and charity events. This approach lends itself well to Curriculum for Excellence.

Pull-out programmes/master classes – Pupils who would benefit from a short term specialised programme of work are identified and extracted from the mainstream class to work together as a group. This group could be across a year group or across stages. Such opportunities are offered at regular intervals in the academic year. Such programmes are offered in a revolving door format. With this format groups of pupils will be formed and reformed at different times depending on individual need. The identification is a very fluid affair as it gives the opportunity for different pupils to be identified for different activities depending on the requirements of the task and on the individual’s profile of abilities. Each pupil would only be in a programme for a limited (short) period of time. It will not always be the same group and thus different pupils will be part of the programme at different times for different reasons.

Curriculum compaction is a way of making curricular adjustments for pupils in any curricular area and at any stage. As much as 50% of traditional classroom material may be compacted for some students. It is a three stage process.

  1. Define the aims and outcomes of the unit or topic.

  2. Determine and document which pupils have already mastered most or all of the outcomes. This can be, but does not have to be, a formal ‘test’. The information required can be gathered through a more informal pre-assessment process using discussion, mind maps etc.

  3. Provide, higher challenge, replacement or ‘instead of’ activities for those bits of the unit or topic that they can already do.

Those with responsibility for supporting pupils within a school could offer the class teacher support in deciding how to assess and how much of the curriculum to compact.


Highly able learners can be involved with setting goals for their learning from the outset.

Classroom-based activities

What do we mean by challenge?

The literature on highly able pupils abounds with references to ‘challenge’ but what exactly does this mean? Carrie Winstanley (2004) has identified 6 ingredients of challenge. 

  1. Identifying the individual’s zone of proximal development (ZPD) (Vygotsky) and creating cognitive dissonance (Piaget)
  2. Injecting elements of novelty and variety into the learning experience.
  3. Encouraging metacognition
  4. Offering opportunities for independence and self-direction.
  5. Encouraging risk-taking.
  6. Providing opportunities to work with like-minded peers.

Tasks which should be encouraged should offer opportunities to

  • formulate and reflect on personal knowledge and viewpoints
  • explore diverse viewpoints
  • consider difficult questions
  • problem solve and enquire
  • make connections between past and present learning
  • regularly engage in higher order thinking (analysis, synthesis and evaluation)
  • engage in independent thinking and learning

Strategies in the classroom involve moving from:

  • Concrete     --> abstract materials, ideas and applications
  • Simple        --> complex resources, research, issues, skills, and targets 
  • Discreet      --> cross-curricular working
  • Structured  --> open-ended questions, decisions, approaches and solutions
  • Dependent  --> independent learning (planning, monitoring and evaluating)
  • Small          --> large steps in imagination, insight and application

Here are some ideas to get you started.

1. Inquiry-based lessons and investigations

  • Focus on the process and product of thinking-problem posing
  • Learners work together in groups to plan, question, revise and produce; essentially creating knowledge. These groups can be mixed ability, mixed age and stage allowing the highly able to work with an intellectual peer, within class ability grouping.
  • Learning can be done within the inclusive classroom as part of everyday work or it could be offered as an enrichment activity.
  • The investigation could be based around themes/broad topics 
    • Interdisciplinary: incorporates science, maths, history, and literacy as well as arts and physical education etc.
    • Can be structured, with teacher posing a question, or free, where learners come up with everything themselves
    • Facilitate learners as they explore and share ideas and ask questions to learn about a given topic
    • The focus should be on the process, not the product. To this end, avoid giving a final grade on the "answer”, but rather, assess the process. Some highly able learners find this difficult and want to know that they have arrived at the “right” answer. Offering activities with no “right answer” can help highly able learners to understand that there can be many solutions to one problem and many routes to finding a solution.
    • Be flexible with deadlines for completion of work. Some highly able learners can become engrossed in a topic and they will delve deeply into ideas and information. Allowing them to do this can really enhance and expand their learning.
    • This approach is a natural fit for STEM, but highly engaging for humanities as well
      • how something works, the effect of a process, an alternate ending to a novel, a painting depicting an historical scene, etc.
      • Water; learners learn about the composition and quality (science, maths); consumption and supply (history, current events

 2. Differentation of Product

  • The menu approach offers all learners in an inclusive classroom a choice of how to demonstrate and/or communicate knowledge of a particular academic level. You can read more about the Menu Approrach here.
  • Negotiating tasks with the learner at an individual level allows schools to offer personalisation and choice through learning. This is particularly important where learners are working well in advance of their age peers. They should not be expected to “do the class work” and then have the opportunity to engage in more challenging work.
  • Presentation of learning could include creative, artistic, kinesthetic, technological, audio-visual, literary, musical, nature, etc.
    • Examine prejudice within “The Merchant of Venice”
  • Project-based learning allows for the creation of a final product by one or a group of learners-problem-solving
    • Creating a product using the design process could be an output i.e., build a bridge to withstand certain weight; build a dam to protect homes from flooding; build a model house using scale drawings
    • Create a menu for an Indian banquet and/or make a dish

Other ways differentiation can be planned for e.g. by:

  • Task – pupils start at a higher level that their age peers and may move through concepts more quickly.  They may also skip work within levels.
  • Outcome – pupils engage with the same content or task but the outcome may be open ended to allow the more able and talented pupil to explore and extend their thinking

  • Resource – the class may be working on the same problem but the resources on offer within the class are different.  For highly able pupils this might mean more complex texts or abstract concepts.  This allows highly able pupils to explore ideas in greater depth
  • Pace – some highly able pupils can benefit greatly from working at a faster pace than their peers.  Some highly able pupils do not require the over learning that others do.  Some will make connections and may not require concrete materials.  Teachers should also be aware that some highly able pupils will also relish the opportunity to work more slowly allowing time for in depth study.
  • Choice – all pupils will benefit from what Bruner (1996) calls agency over their learning.  Highly able pupils should be given the opportunity to select their own activities.  They could also select to use a variety of materials to complete a task or could choose to start a task from a different point. 
  • Questioning/dialogue – Highly able pupils may not require such detailed explanations of the task.  Alternatively, they may be offered much more complex instructions and information prior to embarking on a task.  Targeted questions that involve higher order thinking skills and more intricate language can be directed towards highly able pupils.

3. Critical thinking strategies using philosophical questions

  • Open-ended questions that do not have a correct answer
  • Emphasis on why you think something
  • Sample questions (George, 2003, p. 44):
    • How do you know you are not dreaming at the moment?
    • Is there a last number?
    • Do you think in words?
    • How do you know what you know?
  • Alternative question techniques (Smith, 2000)
    • Quantity questions-how many different ways, what is the optimum size
    • Change questions-rewrite a story presupposing a major event did not occur
    • Prediction questions-If something else occurred, how might things have been different?
    • Comparative association questions-compare a historical event to a current event, compare a journey in one area to one in a very different area.
    • Valuing questions-use justification and critical reasoning to answer and/or discuss a moral dilemma.





Organisation for learning


Enrichment can be provided within the classroom or through extra-curricular activities.

Some key characteristics in order for enrichment to be beneficial for highly able learners:

  • Stresses development of thinking skills rather than an accumulation of facts
  • Emphasises the process of learning rather than content
  • Can be horizontal, exploring knowledge that is rarely covered in the school curriculum
  • Do less, learn more


An accelerated learner is one who is moving through a course, textbook, or other curriculum more quickly than others, and is capable of more advanced thinking, understanding, and content difficulty (George, 2003, p. 69) Acceleration for highly able learners has been studied extensively and research supports its use with these learners. There are different ways for a highly able learner to be accelerated in school. 

  • Grade-skipping-the learner is taking all academic courses with a higher level than their age peers.
  • Subject acceleration- The most prevalent example in the UK is mathematics acceleration where learners may be with their age peers for all classes except maths.
  • In-class content acceleration- Learners remain with their age peers but may independently go through material faster through telescoping and compacting curriculum.
  • Early entry- the young person enters a certain level of schooling earlier than their age peers ie., primary, secondary, or college/university.

Benefits of acceleration:

  • Improves learner confidence and motivation
  • Helps to prevent learner underachievement and boredom
  • Allows for early completion of education
  • Cost-effective since it operates within current education system

Considerations for acceleration:

  • Parental agreement and support
  • Readiness of student-socially, emotionally, physically
  • Perseverance, determination of the student

While there can be some social-emotional problems associated with acceleration, it tends to be the exception, rather than the rule (Steenbergen-Hu, Makel, Olszewski-Kubilius, 2016). 

Individualised Education Plans

Help may be required from agencies out with education such as health or

social work. It may also include further or higher education. The support plan

may take the form of an Individualised Education Plan (IEP) or, occasionally, a Coordinated

Support Plan (CSP).

It is entirely possible that a highly able learner could have the involvement of outside agencies, for example if the learner:

  • also has a disability then health services may be involved

  • has factors arising from family circumstances than social work may be involved
  • is working well beyond his or her age and stage peers than a further or higher education institution may be involved.

If this involvement is parallel to support in school but not directly related to educational outcomes, then the individual may have a stage plan or an IEP.

If this involvement is integral to the achievement of educational outcomes than a CSP should be considered.

Highly able learner individual plan: education objective

Link with agency such as university, voluntary organisation, sport, art, music academy

Will produce a portfolio of work for presentation to the Glasgow School of Art by April of their second year. Tutor from Glasgow School of Art will provide advice to art teacher who will provide a suitable programme in class and in study support.

Things to Remember 

  • They don’t get on in spite of us. We need to actively think about teaching strategies and techniques when addressing the needs of highly able learners.
  • Unnecessary repetition of work can have a devastating effect on learning and learners.
  • Differentiation and setting individual targets for learners can help to ensure appropriate challenge.
  • Guided and scaffolded research tasks can enable learners to become more independent in their learning.
  • Working with parents to help identify and support highly able learners is vital if we are to understand learners across contexts.
  • Some highly able learners might not be high achievers or high attainers. They might also have poor motivation or a learning difficulty. It is important to keep this in mind when assessing and observing learners.
  • If abilities are not recognised and challenged early in the school career learners can become withdrawn or develop challenging behaviour. This can result in their abilities going undetected.
  • A portfolio of evidence from observations, tests, standardised tests, parents, class work will help in the identification process
  • One hallmark of high ability is asynchronous development. A six year old may be able to operate like a ten year old but be equally capable of throwing a tantrum like a two year old. This is as confusing for them as it is for teachers and peers
  • Do not be afraid to ask for help. 

It is difficult to separate out the politics from the approaches to provision. Any attempt in Scotland to separate off children due to perceived high ability is often met with accusations of elitism and preferential treatment. But where acceleration is planned and appropriate it can be successful and offer learners the challenge and curriculum they require.  There may be a lot of discussion and debate about the best way of meeting the needs of highly able learners but there is little doubt that they do have needs and neglect of these means that problems and difficulties may emerge.