Schooling with a difference: Alternative schools around the world

Working in mainstream schools can provide a huge insight into the standards and expectations of teaching in the 21st century. However, with growing class sizes, emphasis on grammar and testing, I’ve often wondered how alternative schools approach education differently. It is true that many mainstream schools are increasingly considering the impact of their teaching on learners and how much of their lesson material will have an effect on their pupils’ future. With vast technological growth and changing priorities within the workforce, it’s sometimes difficult to imagine which industries children will be working towards. Some schools around the world are facing these changes head on. Whilst other schools, fed up with exam preparation, are taking a softer approach towards learning. Below are some schools that live on the periphery of the mainstream and have chosen to do things differently:

Egalia Pre-School, Stockholm, Sweden

Egalia has thrown out dated concepts of gender norms. Gender pronouns are a thing of the past in this pre-school, with boys and girls being referred to as ‘they’ instead of ‘he’ and ‘she’ with the hope that these children will go on to view each other as equals, unburdened by strict gender expectations. Many consider Egalia’s approach to be highly controversial, foreseeing an uncomfortable future of gender neutral beings rather than defined male and female genders. The basic premise for this type of schooling is the eradicate gender stereotypes and allow children to choose their likes and dislikes based on their personal preferences rather than be governed by subtle or sometimes, overt pressure to subscribe to a more gender favourable interest.

Some have expressed that this will somehow prevent boys from pursuing more aggressive activities, like sword fighting amongst other ‘typically’ boyish games. Instead, perhaps it’ll just give both genders the opportunity to borrow interests from each other without feeling squashed into a male or female sized mold.

AltSchool in San Francisco, California

With a greater emphasis on technology, schools have sought to become more knowledgeable with regards to coding, building computers and developing a greater understanding of how a computer works. Within mainstream schools, coding and developing a broader awareness about computers has been included within the curriculum. For many teachers, these are new concepts to begin imparting on their students also. However, in Altschool, children are encouraged to learn these key skills regularly and will become more comfortable with a range of computing skills, such as building circuit boards. By instilling these skills early on, the hope is that these children will be well-equipped to enter a competitive future workforce.

Blue School, New York

The first time that I had heard of Blue School was after watching a youtube clip of the Dalai Lama in conversation with Matt Goldman, a founding member of the Blue Man Group. Blue School initially began as a playgroup in 2006 and prioritised creativity above more monotonous approaches. Children who participate in classes at the Blue School will be encouraged to think more broadly and consider their environment. The Blue School have adopted a creative approach toward learning and aim to help their learners to become more inquisitive and reflective as individuals.

Steve Jobs School in Amsterdam, Netherlands

This school takes a unique approach towards learning and an absolute dream approach for children that are consistently falling behind. When children begin their learning process, they are given an individualised learning plan. This is carried out through a 6 week course and then reviewed and adapted according to the learner’s needs. One particular frustration with teaching large class sizes within a fairly prescriptive curriculum is how quickly children are expected to move from one topic to the next, often without feeling fully secure in that subject. By introducing an individualised plan, these children are encouraged to work at their own pace and only move onto subjects as and when they are ready.

Summerhill School, UK.

Summerhill School places and emphasis on democratic learning. Children can determine their own timetables and decide how to use their time effectively. They may choose to spend some time learning, creating art, playing, socialising etc. Although there are some rules in place preventing children from playing games or watching TV during learning time, schooling is a much freer and flexible process.

How we learn best often depends on our individual personality traits e.g. whether we enjoy structure or flexibility, group work or individual learning. Working in a mainstream school can sometimes incur questions such as, ‘how can the learning be measured?’ or ‘what about those children who need structure? How would they cope in a more flexible environment?’ It’s clear that there is no one school that fits all solution for every child. Even though the majority of schools may adhere to a particular structure and way of teaching, these alternative schools can definitely offer an insight into how education could be different.

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