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Alternative gifted curriculum

How language immersion, IB, AP, and Montessori programs work for gifted kids

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Some students with advanced learning abilities are best suited to a gifted school or program, in Toronto, Ontario, or elsewhere. Others are better off in a regular classroom, one where the curriculum is tailored to their unique learning needs.

These aren't the only options, though. Sometimes gifted students are best served in alternative learning environments. Certain alternative curricula are associated with gifted education, including language immersion, the IB program, AP courses, and Montessori schools (which are unique in that they have mixed-age classrooms).

It’s a good idea to look into these alternative options for your gifted child. While each of them have benefits for gifted children, they also have some potential drawbacks.

Language immersion programs

A language immersion program offers a dual-track curriculum where students learn to speak two or more languages. In language immersion programs, most or all subjects are taught in the second language, beginning as early as preschool and continuing to the end of high school. For example, in Toronto, children can enrol in a French immersion program beginning in kindergarten.

Language immersion programs can enrich a student’s education. Learning some or all one’s subjects in a second language provides the right kind of challenge for many students, including some gifted students. It can keep gifted students interested in school, while also enabling them to develop another skill: fluency in a second language.

On the other hand, language immersion programs aren’t always the right choice for gifted students. As Matthews and Foster point out, for children whose main strengths are reasoning and the ability to master complex concepts, it can be years before their competency in a second language is strong enough to support their advanced learning abilities. Until students achieve enough competency in the second language, they’ll struggle to have high-level, meaningful discussions with teachers and peers. For the first few years, then, these programs can be frustrating for some gifted learners.

Gifted students typically prefer high-level instruction. But when most or all one’s subjects are taught in a foreign language, the level of sophistication is usually much lower for core subjects than would otherwise be the case (in the early years, especially). For many gifted students, Matthews and Foster claim, the best option is to separate second-language instruction from core instruction, at least until second-language proficiency improves. This is particularly true for students who lack a strong interest in second languages.

International Baccalaureate programs

The International Baccalaureate (IB) is a program offered in many elementary, middle, and high schools. In high school, it offers a wide-ranging curriculum, where students enrol in six subject areas and fulfill a variety of community service and extracurricular requirements. Students also write an extended essay or dissertation at this level.

IB curricula tend to be more challenging than regular high school curricula. Upon successful completion of the program, students are awarded credits which can be transferred to first-year university. Because the curriculum is so rigorous, IB programs often attract highly motivated and intelligent students with strong academic track records. Thus the IB diploma is highly regarded by universities around the world.

The IB program can be a good option for gifted students: it offers them a demanding education.

Many gifted students enrol in IB programs, and some do so at an earlier age than their peers to accelerate their studies even further. The IB can indeed be a good option for some gifted students: it offers them a more demanding education.

On the other hand, IB programs are likely not a good option for students who resist a traditional curriculum. Since most IB programs follow standard course syllabi and use standard evaluation schemes, they leave little room for the level of flexibility some gifted students want. Students who tend to “march to the beat of their own drums” are thus usually not a good fit.

For similar reasons, many gifted students who want to explore non-core subjects that interest them, pursue independent projects, or follow their passions, find that the strict curriculum of IB programs is not for them. Moreover, research indicates that some IB courses, especially in math and science, aim more for breadth than depth, and may not be rigorous enough for some gifted students.

That said, this is mostly only true of the high school IB program. In the primary and elementary programs, there tends to be far more curricular flexibility. While certain topics do need to be covered in these programs, there’s lots of variation in how they’re covered. Even gifted students who resist a traditional curriculum, then, may be a good fit for primary and middle school IB programs.

Advanced Placement courses

Advanced Placement (AP) courses are university-level courses offered by some high schools in Canada, the United States, and elsewhere. By taking an AP course, students can both earn a university credit and help prepare for the advanced level of university. Many gifted students enrol in AP courses late in high school, and some enrol in them earlier to accelerate their studies.

AP courses are more challenging than typical high school courses. Moreover, since AP courses mainly contain highly motivated and intelligent students, they can be very stimulating. Often, they provide the right kind of challenge for gifted students, one that meets a wide range of their learning needs.

On the other hand, AP courses likely aren’t a good option for those who lack a strong work ethic, self-confidence, or intrinsic motivation. They’re also not a great option for those who aren’t high achievers. Finally, they tend to be a poor fit for “unconventional” students who resist a traditional curriculum, whether these students are gifted or not. AP courses follow a standard curriculum, taught at a prescribed pace, with strict standards of evaluation. They thus leave little room for flexibility on the part of teachers.

That said, there’s much variance among and within schools in the way AP courses are taught. Some teachers have the ability to modify teaching to meet the learning needs of gifted students. Other teachers lack the expertise to make the necessary adjustments to enable some gifted students to realize their full potential in an AP classroom.

Montessori schools

There’s lots of variation among Montessori schools in terms of specific policies and practices, in Toronto, Ontario, and elsewhere. While many of these schools provide an ideal learning environment for gifted students, some don’t. Below, we outline the main benefits and drawbacks of a Montessori education for gifted students.



  • Most Montessori schools offer mixed-age classrooms, with toddler classes from birth to age 3, primary classes for ages 3–6, elementary classes for ages 6–9 and 10–12, as well as middle and high schools. This environment offers gifted students the opportunity to work with and learn from older classmates, which research has shown to be highly beneficial.
  • Montessori schools provide a good environment for gifted children to accelerate their studies. They give kids lots of leeway to determine the focus and pace of their learning. They can often move quickly through their work in this setting, allowing them to stay engaged and stave off boredom.
  • Montessori preschools (from birth to age six) can be an especially good option for many young gifted children. They tend to be more academic oriented than traditional preschools. Also, their focus on concrete learning over imaginative play helps to hone the reasoning and problem-solving abilities of young kids. In fact, they have a reputation for churning out “little engineers.”
  • Gifted children who need external standards of evaluation often aren’t a good fit, since most Montessori schools don’t have tests or assignments that are graded. On the other hand, Montessori schools can be a great fit for gifted children who are intrinsically motivated and enjoy learning for its own sake.
  • Some Montessori schools are reluctant to move kids too quickly through the curriculum, or to move them to a higher age-level class. These particular schools may be a poor fit for some gifted students—especially those who are highly gifted (who are higher than the 98th percentile in terms of learning abilities).
  • Most Montessori schools restrict pretend play (though they nurture creativity in other ways), in favour of concrete learning. If your child is mostly gifted in the creative arts, they may find these schools less engaging than progressive, arts-focused schools.

In some ways, Montessori schools are similar to other schooling options for gifted children. If they’re willing and able to meet the learning needs of gifted kids, through special programs or adaptations, they can be a great fit. If they’re not able to do this, they’re unlikely to be a good fit. It’s thus very important to look at the specific policies and practices of any Montessori school, to see whether it’s able to meet the special learning needs of your gifted child.


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