What's the right type of school for an unconventional learner?
Exploring an unconventional learner’s potential fit in 10 different school types
Kids vary widely in their learning styles. Don’t underestimate the importance of your child’s learning style on school choice: it can profoundly affect the kind of learning environment, and hence school, that’s right for them.
Unconventional learners tend to march to the beat of their own drum. They often prefer individualized and experiential learning, independent and small group work, and varied teaching and assessment approaches.
Below, we identify key points you should reflect on when considering 10 different school types for an unconventional learner. Note: our aim isn’t to tell you whether a school type is right or wrong for you, but to highlight some critical factors you should consider when making your decision.
To learn about how to choose the right school in general, read the Our Kids’ step-by-step advice guide and our expert tips. To get school-choice advice customized to your child's unique traits, create a child profile through your user account.
Unconventional learners’ fit in 10 school types
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- Small school (150 students or less)
- Big school (151+ students)
- Coed school
- Girls' school
- Boys' school
- Montessori school
- Reggio Emilia school
- International Baccalaureate school
- Language immersion school
- Boarding school
Small school (150 students or less)
Small schools tend to have smaller classes with plenty of individualized learning and independent and small group work. This can enable your unconventional learner to pursue their interests in an engaging and sometimes collaborative environment. It’s also often easier for smaller schools to set up classes of special interest for certain students—such as art history or microbiology—allowing them to pursue unique learning paths.
Small schools normally have fewer extracurriculars for kids to explore passions and develop skills outside of class. Ask what’s available, focusing specifically on your child’s areas of interest.
Big school (151+ students)
If you’re considering a big school for an unconventional learner, make sure it offers them plenty of independent learning opportunities. Ideally, it will have some smaller classes with lots of individualized teaching and learning, since this will give your child more flexibility to pursue their interests and explore their passions.
Big schools normally have more extracurriculars for kids to probe different areas of interest, from painting to robotics to creative writing. Also, due to their large numbers of students, they offer more opportunities to find a group of like-minded peers to learn and grow with, in class and out.
If you’re considering a coed school for your unconventional learner, inquire into its teaching and learning approach. While some coed schools offer a student-focused curriculum geared to unconventional learners, others don’t.
Here are some key things to look for:
Independent learning opportunities
Time to explore individual interests
Collaborative learning opportunities
Flexibility to meet a wide range of learning styles and needs
Varied modes of teaching and assessment
Many students, including unconventional learners, find a coed environment stimulating and engaging, which can enhance their learning and widen their perspective. “Some research shows that girls and boys often learn, think, and see things differently,” says Stacey Jacobs, Director of Clear Path Educational Consulting. “Bringing these two dynamics together allows students to experience the best of both worlds.”
Many girls’ schools cater to unconventional learners, with a student-centred curriculum and plenty of independent learning opportunities. Some also stress interaction and collaboration in the classroom, which many unconventional learners enjoy. Of course, since girls’ schools vary in their teaching and learning approaches, ask questions to determine whether your daughter is likely to be a good fit.
Girls’ schools enable your daughter to explore her academic interests in an environment potentially freer of gender stereotypes and false narratives such as “boys are better than girls at math.” Various studies conducted by the National Association for Choice in Education show that girls, in an all-girls environment, are more likely to explore and excel in traditional boy-centric subjects, such as math, science, and physical education. And, without the pressure of opposite-gender dynamics, many girls feel more comfortable aiming high and taking academic risks.
Some boys’ schools cater to unconventional learners, offering a student-focused curriculum, individualized learning, and lots of opportunities to explore one’s interests. Some also emphasize experiential and collaborative learning, which many unconventional learners enjoy.
Since boys’ schools vary in their teaching and learning approaches, ask specific questions to gauge your child’s fit.
Boys’ schools enable your son to pursue his interests in an environment less shaped by gender stereotypes and false narratives such as “girls are more suited to the arts than boys.” Many experts claim that boys, in a boys-only environment, are thus more likely to explore and excel in traditional girl-centric subjects, such as music, writing, and the arts.
Montessori schools offer highly individualized learning, allowing your child to move through the curriculum at their own pace and and focus on areas of interest (with teacher guidance), which most unconventional learners love. Also, during two-hour-plus uninterrupted work periods, your child will have the opportunity to work independently on their own tasks, which can enhance their engagement and cultivate a love of learning. Another benefit: in a Montessori classroom, your child will sometimes work in small groups with kids of different ages, enabling them to learn from and mentor peers.
That said, if your unconventional learner is arts-oriented, make sure to look into a school’s policies regarding the arts and creativity. The Montessori approach is not known for encouraging certain kinds of creative pursuits: for instance, many Montessori schools don’t include fiction in the curriculum or offer dedicated art classes (though they do encourage creativity in other ways). Some artsy kids may find these particular schools less engaging than more arts-focused schools.
Reggio Emilia school
Reggio Emilia schools have an individualized approach to learning, which will give your child the flexibility to explore areas of special interest. Also, “Reggio Emilia schools tend to celebrate unconventional learning and thinking,” says Stacey Jacobs, Director of Clear Path Educational Consulting. “They tend to really emphasize creative expression—they strongly encourage students to express themselves and their ideas through a wide variety of media.” Finally, the Reggio Emilia classroom is set up to promote lots of interaction and group learning, which many unconventional learners (and conventional learners) find stimulating.
That said, if your child prefers individual to group learning, ensure a school provides plenty of opportunities for them to work on their own. And more generally, make sure it offers the right overall learning environment for your child: for instance, if they’re likely to benefit from math enrichment, confirm this is provided.
International Baccalaureate school
IB programmes can sometimes be a struggle for students who resist a traditional curriculum. Since they follow standardized course syllabi and use prescribed evaluation schemes, IB schools leave less room for the kind of flexibility unconventional students normally crave. Also, since their curriculum is restricted to eight main subject groups, IB schools offer fewer specialist courses to choose from to explore individual interests.
That said, IB schools tend to have plenty of reflection, exploration, and diverse experiences. They encourage students to look at questions and issues from many viewpoints and have long projects and extended essays. Some unconventional learners love this kind of collaborative, open-ended approach to learning.
Language immersion school
“Many unconventional learners prefer more scope for independent learning than language immersion schools sometimes allow,” says Dona Matthews, education consultant and co-author of Beyond Intelligence. “For these kids, the best schools are often those that are flexible enough to give them the time and energy to pursue their own interests both in and out of school. The added challenges provided by second-language learning can sometimes interfere with this goal and hinder a child’s academic development.”
That said, unconventional learners who enjoy and are good at languages often welcome the extra challenge of learning in a different language. If they’re hard workers who enjoy academics, a language immersion school can sometimes be a good fit.
If you’re considering a boarding school for an unconventional learner, make sure it offers them plenty of opportunities to pursue their interests. Often, small- to medium-sized classes with lots of individualized learning work well, since this gives your child the freedom to carve out a fulfilling academic niche. Ask a school about its class sizes, teaching approach, and amount of individualized learning, to confirm whether it’s the right fit.
With larger student populations, boarding schools often have more extracurriculars for your child to explore their passions outside of class. Ask what opportunities are available, focusing especially on your child’s interests and needs: for instance, if they love computer programming, inquire whether the school offers an after-school or lunch program to boost their coding skills.
Unconventional learners’ school fit: key take-homes
Ensure a big school has some smaller classes with lots of independent learning opportunities for your unconventional learner. Big schools normally have more extracurriculars for kids to probe different areas of interest.
Coed schools vary widely in their learning and in how much they cater to unconventional learners.
Many girls’ schools cater to unconventional learners, with a student-centred curriculum and plenty of independent and interactive learning opportunities.
Montessori and Reggio Emilia schools offer highly individualized learning, allowing your child to move through the curriculum at their own pace and focus on areas of interest (with teacher guidance), which most unconventional learners love.
IB programmes can sometimes be a struggle for students who resist a traditional curriculum. Since they follow standardized course syllabi and use prescribed evaluation schemes, IB schools leave less room for the kind of flexibility unconventional students normally crave.
“Many unconventional learners prefer more scope for independent learning than language immersion schools sometimes allow,” says Dona Matthews, education consultant and co-author of Beyond Intelligence. “For these kids, the best schools are often those that are flexible enough to give them the time and energy to pursue their own interests both in and out of school.”