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Alternative education

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Great Neck Village School, an alternative high school in Great Neck, New York, USA
Great Neck Village School, an alternative high school in Great Neck, New York, USA

Alternative education, also known as non-traditional education or educational alternative, describes a number of approaches to teaching and learning other than mainstream education. Educational alternatives are often rooted in various philosophies that are fundamentally different from those of mainstream education. While some have strong political, scholarly, or philosophical orientations, others are more informal associations of teachers and students dissatisfied with some aspect of mainstream education. Educational alternatives, which include charter schools, alternative schools, independent schools, and home-based learning vary widely, but often emphasize the value of small class size, close relationships between students and teachers, and a sense of community.


For some, especially in many U.S. states, the term alternative refers to educational settings for "at risk" students, as it is, for example, in this definition drafted by the Massachusetts Department of Education. [1] Other words used in place of alternative by many educational professionals include non-traditional, non-conventional, or non-standardized, although these terms are used somewhat less frequently and may have negative connotations and multiple meanings. Those involved in forms of education which differ in their educational philosophy (as opposed to their intended pupil base) often use words such as authentic, holistic, and progressive as well. However, these words each have different meanings which are more specific or more ambiguous than simply alternative.


While pedagogical controversy is very old, "alternative education" presupposes some kind of orthodoxy which the alternative is in opposition to. In general, this limits the term to the last two or perhaps three centuries, with the rise of standarized and, later, compulsory education at the primary and secondary levels. Many critics in this period have suggested that the education of young people should be undertaken in radically different ways than ones in practice. In the 19th century, the Swiss humanitarian Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, the American transcendentalists Amos Bronson Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau, the founders of progressive education John Dewey and Francis Parker, and educational pioneers such as Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner (founder of the Waldorf schools), among others, all insisted that education should be understood as the art of cultivating the moral, emotional, physical, psychological, and spiritual aspects of the developing child. Anarchists such as Leo Tolstoy and Fransisco Ferrer y Guardia emphasized education as a force for political liberation, secularism, and elimination of class distinctions.

More recently, social critics such as John Caldwell Holt, Paul Goodman, Frederick Mayer, George Dennison and Ivan Illich have examined education from more individualist, anarchist, and libertarian perspectives, that is, critiques of the ways that they feel conventional education subverts democracy by molding young people's understandings. Other writers, from the revolutionary Paulo Freire to American educators like Herbert Kohl and Jonathan Kozol, have criticized mainstream Western education from the viewpoint of their varied left-liberal and radical politics.

Modern forms

A wide variety of educational alternatives exist at the elementary, secondary, and tertiary levels of education. These generally fall into four major categories: school choice, alternative school, independent school, and home-based education. These general categories can be further broken down into more specific practices and methodologies.

School choice

Main article: School choice

The public school options include entirely separate schools in their own settings as well as classes, programs, and even semi-autonomous "schools within schools." Public school choice options are open to all students in their communities, though some have waiting lists. Among these are charter schools, combining private initiatives and state funding; and magnet schools, which attract students to particular themes, such as performing arts.

Alternative school

Main article: Alternative school

In education, the phrase alternative school, sometimes referred to as a minischool, or remedial school, is any public or private school having a special curriculum, especially an elementary or secondary school offering a more flexible program of study than a traditional school. A wide range of philosophies and teaching methods are offered by alternative schools; some have strong political, scholarly, or philosophical orientations, while others are more ad-hoc assemblies of teachers and students dissatisfied with some aspect of traditional education. Today, alternative schools cater to students who have special educational needs as well as those who would like to experience school differently. There are similar programs that exist in higher education settings that serve adults returning to school.

Popular education

Main article: Popular education

Popular education was related in the 19th century to the workers' movement[citation needed]. Such experiences have been continued through-out the 20th century, such as the folk high schools in Scandinavian countries, or the "popular universities" in France.

Independent school

Main article: Independent school

Independent, or private, schools have more flexibility in staff selection and educational approach. The most plentiful of these are Montessori schools, Waldorf schools (the latter are also called Steiner schools after their founder), and Friends schools. Other independent schools include democratic, or free schools such as Sands School, Summerhill School and Sudbury Valley School, Krishnamurti schools, open classroom schools, those based on experiential education, as well as schools which teach using international curriculum such as the International Baccalaureate and Round Square schools. An increasing number of traditionally independent school forms now also exist within state-run, public education; this is especially true of the Waldorf and Montessori schools. The majority of independent schools offer at least partial scholarships.

See also: List of Friends Schools, List of Sudbury Schools, and List of Waldorf Schools

Home-based education

Main article: Homeschooling

Families who seek alternatives based on educational, philosophical, or religious reasons, or if there appears to be no nearby educational alternative can decide to have home-based education. Some call themselves unschoolers, for they follow an approach based on interest, rather than a set curriculum. Others enroll in umbrella schools which provide a curriculum to follow. Many choose this alternative for religious-based reasons, but practitioners of home-based education are of all backgrounds and philosophies.

Correctional Education

Main article: Correctional Education


There are also some interesting grey areas. For instance, home-educators have combined to create resource centers where they meet as often as five or more days a week, but their members all consider themselves home-educated. In some states publicly run school districts have set up programs for homeschoolers whereby they are considered enrolled, and have access to school resources and facilities.

Also, many traditional schools have incorporated methods originally found only in alternative education into their general approach, so the line between alternative and mainstream education is continually becoming more blurred.



In Canada, some privately run schools receive government school funding.

The Toronto District School Board has adopted alternative programs into their school system. Sometimes these take the form of entire schools, like Mountview Alternative School which shares space with the much larger Keele Elementary School in Toronto's High Park-Junction, and sometime they are programs within schools, like the Triangle Program, Canada's only high school program designed especially for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students.

Then there are also schools like Divine Class, a holistic non-school that guides and certifies average people (aged 18+) how to read people, situations, and events through alternative methods such as Tarot, psychic ability, and esoteric systems.

In Quebec the Universal School of Life has been around for more than 23 years and is focused on Indigo Children and Families and has created a way of life for Indigo Families. see:


Sands School is an alternative school in the UK. It has only 65 students, with a high ratio of teachers. The students learn at their own pace in a supportive environment. The school is run democratically, with the students having as much say in how the school is run as the staff. Decisions are made by voting in a weekly school meeting, where matters ranging from what colour the new carpets should be, to the employment of new staff. The school offers a full range of subjects, and attendance to lessons is negotiated, not compulsory. The school also educates students on a larger range than most schools, and gives students choice in what they can learn. Their interests form a large part of what is offered in the curriculum.


Preshil, in Kew, Australia, was established in the 1930s. It is one of the few alternative schools in Australia that is unaffiliated with any doctrinal or theological movement. Its primary school has run since established by Margaret Lyttle in 1931, and the secondary school since the late 1970's. See also Village School, Vic; Currambena Primary, NSW; Melbourne Community School, Vic; Collingwood College, Vic; Fitzroy Community School, Vic; Lynall Hall, Vic; Berengarra, Vic Candlebark School, Vic and Brisbane Independent School, Qld.

United States

Terra Bella Academy, in Mountain View, CA is a publicly funded alternative public school for 8th through 12th grades with about a 1/12 student teacher ratio. The academic curriculum is affiliated with the University of Santa Clara (Santa Clara, CA, USA) and includes social interactive and team building activities. See also


In India, beginning in the early part of the 20th century, many educational theorists have discussed and implimented radically different forms of education. Rabindranath Tagore's Shantiniketan and Mahatma Gandhi's ideal of "basic education" are primary examples. In recent years many new alternative schools have formed, like Sarang[2] Palakad Kerala, Adharshila[3] Saakad MP, Sita School - Bangalore, Kanavu, and Timbaktoo Collective Andhra Pradesh. At higher levels of education one finds educational alternatives like that hold open knowledge as an ideal. In the last few decades holistic education, in which the environment of the student is considered an essential part of the educational process, has become popular.


See also

  • Shimer College
  • Unschooling
  • Free school
  • Autodidacticism
  • School
  • Education
  • Alternative school
  • Gifted education
  • Special education

Further reading

  • Korn, Claire V. (1991). Alternative American Schools: Ideals in Action. Ithaca, New York: SUNY Press. 
  • Trickett, Edison J. (1991). Living an Idea: Empowerment and the Evolution of an Alternative High School. University of Maryland: Brookline Books. 


  • Alternative Education Resource Organization They publish the journal Education Revolution and have a yearly conference.
  • CHOICE Alternative School, Shelton, WA, USA

External links

  • eklavya foundation Madhya Pradesh India's premier organisation that has developed alternative material
  • Aravind Gupta Toys allowing free use of books and toys A site that provides the BEST collection of readings on alternative education around the world.
  • Iowa Association of Alternative Education
  • International Association for Learning Alternatives
  • Blueprint Education, Phoenix, Arizona
  • Oklahoma Technical Assistance Center
  • Sands School, Devon, UK
  • Informal Education
  • Special Education in Alternative Education Programs - ERIC Digest E585
  • International Association for Learning Alternatives
  • AltLearn - a worldwide network of Natural Learners, Unschoolers, and support groups, linked together by map
  • A Vermont High School based on Alternative Education Methods - Otter Valley Experiential High School -Experience The Alternative...Experience Your Life.
  • Goddard College a progressive, low residency college based upon the ideals and theories of John Dewey - founded in 1938
  • [4] Shimer College--a unique Great Books school in Chicago, IL
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