Update on Gifted 3: An Unschooling Experiment

In the first two installments of this very slow-moving series, Delphine was assessed as gifted and we decided to check out our local gifted program. I posted that second post over three years ago; as you might imagine, many things have happened since then.

We did decide to enroll Delphine in the school board's gifted program. They offered her a place in a brand new gifted class at a school which had not had a gifted program before. Since the alternatives were (a) too far away, or (b) at a very rich school in a very rich neighbourhood, I accepted the placement in the new program sight-unseen.

That was grade five, and Delphine ended up in the best situation possible. There were nine children in her class, and her teacher was energetic, talented, and experienced. There was good rapport in the class, and none of the children were extraordinarily disruptive. The teacher was relaxed and responsive to the children's interests. If I had to custom-design a public school experience, it would be that class.

In grade six, there were eighteen children in the class. The excellent teacher moved to another school, and the new teacher was the school's former special education resource teacher, meaning (I think) that he was responsible for supporting the school's classroom teachers with their special-ed-identified students.

A quick digression to explain that "gifted" in the TDSB comes under the umbrella of special education, and to teach a gifted class you only need to have special education qualification; there is no requirement for gifted qualification. (This is my understanding as of 2016.)

Delphine's grade six teacher didn't have any experience teaching gifted children. He was super-mellow, but keen on structure and not inclined to entertain digressions from the state-mandated curriculum. Delphine didn't enjoy his class so much.

At the same time, she was having trouble with stomachaches (still unresolved, actually), and by April she was resisting going to school altogether. I thought that her dislike of school might be causing the stomachaches, so we decided to try something new.

The TDSB has a school which attempts to provide an unschooling environment. "Unschooling" means allowing kids to choose how they spend their time: no curriculum, no classrooms, no tests, no grades (no high school diploma). The idea is that children will develop and pursue interests which will lead them to learn things like math and writing in a naturally motivated way, rather than through the artifical challenges of school assignments and worksheets.

It's a lovely theory. Maybe it works; there isn't really any research on it. I think it's probably fine for some kids, in a particular environment.

This is just my conjecture, but I think there are some kids who are passionate about their interests and will pursue them under any circumstances, and for those kids school is just a distraction from their personal thing. Letting those kids leave regular school and spend their time on their interest is probably not a bad idea.

Still conjecture: I don't think most kids are like that. I think if you leave most kids to their own devices, they will probably end up playing video games or reading Buzzfeed. Delphine spent some time baking and some time drawing, and a lot of time just hanging out.

The party line at Delphine's unschool is that it can take kids a couple of years to find their interest, and that they're not used to deciding how to spend their time, and that it takes a while to develop their own interests after being told what to do all the time at regular school for years.

That may be, but I read The Teenage Brain by Frances Jensen last year and realized that Delphine's brain is at a critical juncture now, pruning and learning at a rate that it will never see again. I decided that the risk of letting her miss out on traditional math and writing lessons at this age was too great.

So this summer, I told Delphine she's going back to a regular gifted program. She didn't take the news well — she had grown fond of her routine of sleeping in, hanging out with friends and drawing all day. But as the weeks passed, she got used to the idea and started to focus more on the things she didn't enjoy about the unschool and the things she was looking forward to at regular school.

Now all we need to do is jump through the bureaucratic hoops to get her back into a gifted program before too much of the school year passes.