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What Are Some Alternative Forms of Education?

7 Min Read
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When it comes to the different types of alternative education, you’re probably better versed than you think. You may even be familiar with terms like Montessori, unschooling, and worldschooling. In fact, there are so many types that it can be hard to keep track of them all.

But what exactly is alternative education? In this article, 'alternative education' refers to an approach to learning that is different from the mainstream schooling experience that most students in the US experience. It is not necessarily referring to school for students with academic or behavioral difficulties.

There’s evidence in support of many successful educational methods that aren’t mainstream. The great news is that you can use some of these philosophies in your classroom regardless of where you teach. So, take a breather, sit back, and check out these alternative education examples  (and their strengths and challenges)! 

6 Types of Alternative Schools (and Their Benefits and Challenges)

1. Worldschooling

Traveler and writer Eli Gerzon coined the fancy term of “worldschooling” to describe a form of experiential learning that involves traveling around the world. You can think of it as a fairly literal take on the popular saying that the world is your classroom.

The concept may sound intimidating, but some families have become famous through participating in this type of alternative schools.

We’re aware that teachers can’t just move their classrooms around the world, but there are educational tours like EF Tours, that you could consider. These programs offer trips to numerous countries.

Benefits of worldschooling

  • Exposes children to different cultures and provides a global alternative education system that isn’t limited by perspectives or beliefs 
  • Allows students to learn based on experiences and their surroundings
  • Offers a hands-on approach and flexible curriculum based on an individual student’s needs

Let’s put it this way: You, too, would be pumped to learn about the Colosseum if you were actually standing in it!

But as with everything in life, worldschooling has its downsides, too.

Challenges of worldschooling

  • Students may have less interaction with other teachers or peers
  • Lacks the routine of traditional schools which may some students may need

2. Unschooling

Unschooling is an alternative learning method practiced by some worldschoolers and homeschoolers, but it’s accessible to anyone.

The concept behind unschooling is simple: Students decide what to learn and when to learn it. The hope is that they’ll be more motivated to attend “class” if they’re given this freedom of choice.

Interestingly (and perhaps a bit paradoxically), unschooling can also be a school’s philosophy. One of the most popular of these free schools is Summerhill, a boarding school established in England in 1921 for children 11 years or older. The school follows Scottish writer A.S. Neil’s philosophy that children should be able to learn and discover on their own and to be free of adult authority. Summerhill has many different classes, even though students are not required to attend them. However, students are always encouraged to play outdoors, socialize, and create.

At such free schools, as they’re sometimes called, there are usually democratic classrooms that rely on student voice, and there may be a lot of unstructured time. One study by Psychology Today found that the majority of unschooling students who chose to attend college reported no notable difficulties with the academic work and spoke of increased educational motivation.

Now, back to your classroom: Understandably, you can’t do away with lesson plans. But you could try offering a unit with a little less structure (and more student choice) to see how it goes.

Benefits of unschooling

  • Encourages positive attitudes about learning and places an increased emphasis on developing life skills
  • Affords greater flexibility (students don’t have to adhere to a rigorous school schedule) and time for students to be active in their community
  • Some students claim that unschooling causes less stress than a traditional academic setting

Challenges of unschooling

  • Lack of records — many unschoolers lack report cards and don’t participate in standardized tests
  • Unschoolers may have difficulties with knowledge systemization

3. Outdoor education

Places like Pathfinder and The Tremont Institute are a few alternative approaches to education that offer hands-on, nature-based learning.

Some of these programs also teach survival skills or academic classes in the woods. Most of them offer a student-centered approach in which the great outdoors is your classroom.

But if you don’t want to leave the comforts of your school, you could still take part in outdoor ed. Schools are increasingly using ropes courses to foster team building and problem-solving. And more and more teachers are venturing outside with their students.

Benefits of outdoor education

  • Emphasizes team building, exercise and eliminates sedentary activities
  • Presents a fun opportunity to work on critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and the chance to learn survival skills
  • Fosters self-directed learning and independence

Challenges of outdoor education

  • Some outdoor projects are more time consuming than in-class variants and enforcing classroom management procedures can be difficult
  • Highly dependent on the weather

Don’t sweat it if you can’t make it to a full-scale outdoor education program. Research has shown that simply teaching a class outside can increase engagement in your next class.

So now you have an excuse to get some fresh air — just check the radar first!

4. Online learning

Let’s face it: Technology will always be a part of education. Electronic devices are everywhere, and internet access is becoming increasingly common even in the most remote regions of the world.

We could spend all day talking about the strengths and challenges of technology, but one thing is for certain: Technology definitely offers an alternative method of learning.

There’s a reason why there are now entire virtual schools that offer fully online (and accredited) curricula.

And let’s not forget that technology can make learning much more fun, especially for younger students. But there are negatives to online learning, too, so you’ll want to examine them both before taking the plunge.

Benefits of virtual learning

  • Provides cost-effective accessible options and convenient learning environment
  • Improves students’ 21st-century learning and technology skills which prepares them for the future
  • Offers customization options and more personalized learning opportunities

Challenges of virtual learning

  • Learners with low motivation, self-discipline or poor study habits may fall behind
  • Slow internet connections or older equipment may make accessing course materials frustrating

5. Montessori

Montessori is one of the most well-known alternative methods of learning and has been around for over 100 years. Developed by Maria Montessori, this alternative educational method nurtures children’s independence and relies less on adults. In a Montessori classroom, you’ll find toys that are within kids’ reach and a teacher whom students view as more of a guide than an instructor.

Benefits of the Montessori method

  • Fosters cooperation and independence
  • Encourages real-world and exploratory learning
  • Focuses on a child’s developmental stages to offer an individualized and student-centric curriculum

Challenges of the Montessori method

  • Some students may struggle with transitioning from a more traditional school type
  • Programs can be expensive and since Dr. Montessori never patented the term “Montessori,” any school can claim to practice the philosophy

6. Waldorf

Based on the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, this alternate form of schooling emphasizes art and the belief that humans are innately good and can transform themselves for the better — talk about an optimistic educational view!

Interestingly, Waldorf education throws out letter grades in favor of student narratives, teacher-student conferences, and class meetings. However, Waldorf high school students still receive a GPA to support a seamless transition to higher education.

Benefits of the Waldorf method

  • Provides age-appropriate learning opportunities with a heavy focus on experiential education
  • Encourages students to have a voice in their education
  • Offers integrated curriculum to form connections across a broader range of subjects

Challenges of the Waldorf method

  • Time-consuming for adults as there is an expectation for parents to be heavily involved
  • Programs can be costly 

Bringing these Alternative Education Examples Into Your Classroom

Not all of these alternative forms of education will appeal to you (or be feasible). However, learning about these strategies helps you expand your toolkit and gives you an idea on how to integrate different practices into your classroom.

You may try one of the above, and it may end up being a total flop. But at the same time, you might stumble upon some magic that sticks with your curriculum for years to come.

So how about branching out of your comfort zone and incorporating elements of these alternative schooling methods into your lessons? You and your students may enjoy the change! 

This article was adapted from a blog post initially developed by the education technology company Classcraft, which was acquired by HMH in 2023. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.


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