What Every Parent Should Know About Alternative Approaches to Education

Shortly after their twin daughters turned 2, Linda and Tom Shaw decided it was time to start investigating their local schools. Although proactive and well-educated, they quickly became overwhelmed by the number of unfamiliar names denoting different approaches to education.

Instead of observing the one-size-fits-all approach in their local school, as they might have 20 years ago, parents today are likely to find a variety of educational approaches in both private and public schools. In some cases, these alternatives evolved because mainstream public education was seen as too authoritarian and teacher-centered. In other cases, schools were believed to be lacking in moral and spiritual values. And, finally, the growing recognition that children learn successfully in a variety of ways has affected education in general today.

Here is a brief guide to the better-known alternative approaches to education, with examples of what you might see in a typical classroom of young learners.

Carden Schools(Pre-K - 10th Grade) – Are committed to the belief that every child wants to learn and that if that child fails to learn, it is because the teacher has failed to teach. Mae Carden, creator of the Carden Method, believed that a phonetically based, well-integrated language-arts curriculum was essential to academic achievement and that the formation of a child’s character should be a primary goal of education

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With the Carden reading method, children in kindergarten start to learn the sounds associated with consonants and vowels and acquire the ability to sound out almost any word by themselves. To encourage students to develop the ability to form a mental image of the word, the pages of Carden readers do not contain pictures.

A typical Carden school is organized in "forms" of approximately 20 students, based on their level of academic skill rather than their ages. Within each form, the children are grouped again according to their skill level. The teacher then spends time with each group while the other children are working on their own.

Core Knowledge Schools (First - Sixth Grade) – Are based on the idea that each child needs to master a body of core knowledge to successfully take part in national life. Since 1990, the Core Knowledge Foundation has published a rigorous curriculum that outlines exactly what should be covered in grades one through six. This essential information is intended to comprise 50 percent of the curriculum, while the remaining 50 percent deals with topics of particular interest to the community and the school.

Reading is viewed not just as a process of decoding words, but of comprehending their meaning; although phonics is the primary method used to teach beginning reading, whole–language is also employed.

In a typical Core Knowledge School, the day begins with a moment of silence, after which the teacher reads aloud a story illustrating the importance of a moral virtue, such as courage. The morning is then divided up into blocks of 30 to 40 minutes to study phonetics, language arts and math. The classroom is traditionally structured and teacher-centered, with children sitting in rows facing the teacher and the blackboard.

Montessori Schools - (Toddler - Sixth Grade) – Operate according to the belief that as children make the transformation to adulthood, they must pass through certain developmental planes, during which their physical, mental and spiritual qualities gradually unfold. Advocates of the Montessori method believe that in the early years there are specific moments when a child is ready to develop certain language abilities, mathematical skills or patterns of physical movement. It is the role of the teacher to sense this readiness and lead the child in the right direction.

Reading is essentially self-taught. Using the notion that the child has to experience the world through the senses in order to grasp a concept, the reading and writing areas of the classroom might contain cutout or moveable alphabets, sandpaper letters, labeled pictures and writing materials. Children explore these at their own pace. Many students learn to read phonetically simple words, and sometimes more difficult ones, by the time they are 4 years old.

In the typical Montessori classroom, classes are multi-aged and the room is divided into "centers" that are designed to help the child develop skills in a particular area. While free to choose which center they will work at, children are not free to roam; they are required to make a choice.

Progressive Schools - (K - 12) –B> /B>These schools are founded on the idea that students learn best when they direct their own learning. With the teacher acting as a guide and facilitator of learning, students spend most of their time in research and hands-on activities, rather than listening to lectures. They may devote long hours to studying a specific, fairly narrow topic in depth and from a number of perspectives. Recognizing that each child is unique and learns differently, teachers use a variety of methods to teach reading, including both phonetics and whole-language.

In a typical progressive elementary school, the day may begin with "choice time," lasting as long as an hour, during which the child can choose from a list of activities drawn up by the teacher with various social, academic, artistic and creative goals in mind. Children are generally free to get up and move around, and a classroom may contain several tables and small chairs, as well as open areas and alcoves. The children spend a certain amount of each day working on basic academic skills, but the class as a whole does not necessarily work on these skills at the same time.

Reggio Emilia Schools (Preschool) – Named for the town in Italy where this educational approach was developed, these schools are based on the understanding that, even at age 3 or 4, children are curious learners who want to find out about the world and are able to express themselves about the world through speech, painting, clay modeling or drawing. These schools are parent-teacher cooperatives, and one of their distinguishing features is the care that is taken to create a beautiful and warm environment.

Reading begins when a child completes an activity such as pasting a dried leaf on paper, and the teacher questions the child about the process. The teacher writes down the child’s comments, which are then posted on a bulletin board, along with the leaf, for the child to read.

On a typical day, preschoolers may be making a class presentation for parents and teachers. This is the end product of a long process: after showing an interest in birds and dinosaurs, for example, a group of 4- and 5-year-olds has studied tropical birds, raptors and other dinosaurs. They have read books, gone bird-watching, made papier-mâché birds, and painted and drawn many birds and bird ancestors. The children have chosen the direction of their learning, and teachers have served as guides and documenters.

Waldorf Schools (K - 12) – Also known as Rudolf Steiner Schools, these schools are committed to instilling in children a sense of wonder, reverence, respect and a love of learning. Waldorf education is based on the idea that from birth on, humans develop in a predictable pattern. During the first seven years, children are largely creatures of will and movement. Between ages 7 and 14, they are mostly beings of feeling, and in the next seven years the thinking function develops and dominates. Thus, at each stage of a child’s development, the approach to education must appeal to the special capacities that are emerging and developing.

In kindergarten, students are immersed in a language-rich environment that uses storytelling, movement and play to engage the “whole child” in the learning process. As students progress, they engage in a full academic curriculum, including history, math, science, reading, language, fine arts and handicrafts. Throughout the process, the arts are integrated into the academic subjects, and through movement, song, drama, storytelling and music, the teacher brings the material to life.

Information and Choices

Perhaps your local community does not offer such a wide range of options. Or perhaps high costs keep you from considering a private alternative school. But the growth in the number of educational choices has had an impact on public schools. Most Core Knowledge schools, for instance, are public schools, and the progressive movement has had a wide influence at all levels of learning.

The spread of alternative approaches to education has had a marked effect on the development of teacher-training programs, particularly for teachers of the early grades, according to Kathy Thornburg, president of the board of directors for the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and director of the Child Development Laboratory at the University of Missouri.

"Those of us who support a developmentally appropriate program, such as methods like Montessori and Reggio Emilia offer, are definitely seeing some influence on public school education," Thornburg says.

Choosing a school is one of the most important decisions parents have to make. While we have briefly profiled the most well-known alternative approaches to education, there are other alternative schools and movements – such as Corner Schools, Essential Schools, Foxfire Schools and Sudbury Schools to name just a few. If one of these is near you, check it out.

While reading about the various options is important, it’s no substitute for visiting the schools. Each school is unique, even when it follows a specific educational philosophy.

Above all, the school must be a good match for your child. As noted Harvard University professor and psychologist Howard Gardner puts it, "You need to know your child, and to be able to match your child’s (and family’s) interests, needs, values and fears with the school."