New Paths to Learning

Arts as differentiation for academically gifted students


In today’s classrooms, teachers have shifted from presenting identical instruction for all students to offering alternatives based on a diverse learning styles and capabilities. This “differentiated” teaching model accommodates the individual needs of students rather than the class as a whole. 

To meet the many learning needs of their students, teachers find the arts are particularly effective differentiation for gifted students in both self-contained and mainstream classrooms. Simply put, the arts can reach across all learning styles and intelligences to engage students of different abilities.

The arts are an important tool to tailor teaching for a classroom with exceptional students.

  • The arts provide new and unique ways to access the curriculum. A gifted child may find learning through a particular art form suits their learning style. High-ability students may have little exposure to the arts, particularly if the focus has been on their academic achievement. The arts can provide novelty, which is an important component of differentiation for gifted students.
  • The arts can provide a challenge. For many academically gifted students, intellectual challenges are much needed and can be difficult for teachers to provide. The beauty of the arts is the complexity and depth they can add to the curriculum.
  • High-ability children often pursue their interests independently of others. Engaging them with the performing arts, which are typically collaborative, will provide opportunity to build social and cooperation skills (Cornett, 2003).
  • Artistically gifted students are often unidentified. But, not surprisingly, some researchers have found links between academic and artistic giftedness. Gilbert Clark and Enid Zimmerman (1998) found such links and note high ability is unlikely to be limited to one domain. Arts integration and instruction can be useful tools to reveal these previously unrecognized high-ability artistic learners (Goldberg, 2006).

Arts Differentiation in Action

Research has shown that arts integration can be a particularly effective strategy for classroom teachers who have academically gifted students. When using arts integration, gifted students may need differentiation in both the academic content and the arts content. Giftedness is often uneven across domains. A precocious math student may need more complex differentiation in math but simpler differentiation in dance.

Tomlinson (1995) identified different types of differentiation. Examples of differentiation through the arts are illustrated here.

  • Concrete to abstract: Drama provides an excellent differentiation for this domain. For example, students can use tableau (silent or motionless pictures) to literally recreate an image (concrete). Learning through tableau becomes more abstract when the tableau is created to represent a concept (“democracy) or a feeling (“anguish”).
  • Basic to transformational: “Basic” in visual art can begin by drawing an object—say, a fruit bowl—as it is literally seen by the student artist. This continuum in visual art could extend to “transformational” where the artist uses non-representational objects to create the fruit bowl.
  • Simple to complex: Students begin musically at “simple” by learning a simple melody. Differentiation allows the gifted student to move to “complex” where they interpret the melody in a different musical style, such as hip hop or bluegrass.
  • Fewer facets to multi-facet: Academically gifted children can find basic skill development more engaging when higher-order cognition is also employed, such as imagining, creating, analyzing, or interpreting. Pat Hollingsworth ignites gifted students’ higher-order thinking through visual art in order to develop handwriting skills (2009). Early elementary gifted students need to develop their fine motor skills and providing a multi-faceted approach is the hook for Hollingsworth's students.

Differentiation meets all students where they are academically. Gifted students can delve deeply into the curriculum through the arts, providing rich and meaningful learning opportunities.



Patti Saraniero
Original Writer

Editors & Producers

Lisa Resnick
Content Editor


Clark, G., & Zimmerman, E. (1998). Nurturing the arts in programs for gifted and talented students. Phi Delta Kappan, 79(10), 747-756.

Cornett, C.E. (2003). Creating meaning through literature and the arts: An integration resource for classroom teachers (2nd ed.). New Jersey: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Goldberg, M. (2006). Integrating the arts: An approaching to teaching and learning in multi-cultural and multilingual settings. Boston: Pearson.

Hollingsworth, P. (2009). "Creative arts and words" in J. F. Smutny and S.E. von Fremd (Eds.), Igniting creativity in gifted learners K-6: Strategies for every teacher (p.246-252). Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press.

Tomlinson, C.A. (1995). Differentiating instruction for advanced learners in the mixed-ability middle school classroom (Report No. E536).

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