This post reviews Carrie Winstanley, “Too Cool for School? Gifted Children and Homeschooling” in Theory and Research in Education 7, no. 3 (November 2009): 347-362
Winstanley, Principal Lecturer in Education at Roehampton University in London, here argues that gifted children form a distinct group of homeschoolers that defy classification schemes usually employed by scholars to describe the homeschooling movement. This article comes out of twenty years of study of gifted children, as well as a frustration that they have not been studied by previous homeschooling researchers. Out of 189 gifted children who attended workshops conducted by Winstanley in England between Jan 2008 and Feb 2009, 27 reported being homeschooled. Winstanley’s comments in this article derive from conversations with these 27 children and their parents.
Winstanley begins with a summary of the complexities and controversies surrounding the term “gifted,” settling on a definition that allows both for empirically verified ability significantly beyond the age cohort average and for mere parental belief that a child possesses such ability.
Winstanley next walks us through a discussion that will be very familiar to those conversant with homeschooling literature. She describes Jane Van Galen’s venerable distinction between “ideologues” (Conservative Christians basically) and “pedagogues” (liberal unschoolers basically) and relates how Mitchell Stevens shifted the terminology to “believers” and “inclusives.” Winstanley’s concern here is that neither of these pairs of descriptors accounts for gifted homeschoolers. Families who homeschool gifted children are typically doing so not out of religious conviction or commitment to progressive notions of child liberation but simply out of pragmatic necessity. It’s not so surprising, though, that gifted homeschoolers haven’t been accounted for, for they are hard to find, harder to classify, and even harder to generalize about.
Yet homeschool they do, largely because traditional schools serve them poorly. Gifted children need academic challenges schools can’t often provide because teachers must teach to the common denominator. They need peers on their level lest they feel self-conscious about their academic gifts or suffer teasing, which may cause them to intentionally dumb down (said differently, socialization is a big reason such families opt out of schooling). Parents of gifted kids are often more interested in testing than schools are (and definitely more than most ideological homeschoolers are!). Gifted kids tend to become obsessed with certain subjects, and schools can’t accomodate such peculiar fascinations. Sometimes parents are more convinced of their child’s giftedness than local school personnel, leading to mutual suspicions. Finally, many gifted kids develop dyssynchronously, flourishing in one subject while being average or even floundering in others, which means you can’t just advance them a couple of grades across the board. For all of these reasons, a customized education makes sense for these kids.
Unlike many doctrinaire homeschoolers, parents of gifted children tend to come to homeschooling only gradually and reluctantly, usually after repeated frustrations with school systems. As gifted kids get older, they grow increasingly bored with school, viewing it as “a kind of hiatus, interfering with progress and interests.” (357) Traditional pull-out programs help sometimes, but for some gifted kids, homeschooling becomes “the ultimate pullout program.” (358)
Homeschooling is not necessarily the panacea for gifted kids, however. Winstanley describes how some gifted kids feel isolated at home. Some older kids miss the structured physical education [going to the park just isn’t the same when you’re 13]. Winstanley also discusses the potential problem for public education if the best and brightest leave in increasing numbers. Yet for all of this, homeschooling remains the most compelling option available for many gifted kids.
This article wasn’t bad, but of all of the articles published in the special issue of Theory and Research in Education, it’s probably the weakest. It reads more like a collection of impressions based upon brief conversations rather than the results of deep knowledge of gifted homeschooled kids. As a first foray into the subject it does suggest a few valuable generalizations, but Winstanley or other researchers should now follow this up with deeper saturation in the lives of gifted homeschoolers, a saturation that will surely produce a more nuanced thick description of what’s going on than that provided here.
I will say that I think Winstanley is probably right in her basic argument. When parents of gifted kids I meet find out that I study homeschooling, they without fail grow very interested in talking to me. Whether or not they have actually pulled their children out of school, it is clear that they’ve been thinking about doing so, not because of religious or political concerns but strictly out of pragmatic interest in providing their kids with an environment that will help them live up to their potential. Most of them want to keep their kids in school, but they worry that in so doing they’re limiting their kids.
Perhaps an interesting topic for further research would be what factors push such parents over the edge, leading them to make the big decision to homeschool. According to Winstanley’s impressionistic data, it would likely be a particular crisis or trauma–perhaps a bullying incident or a new teacher who doesn’t get it or a testy conference with a school counselor or principal. If anyone reading this has experiences that either reinforce or refute Winstanley’s claims about gifted homeschooling, I’d be interested to hear about them.