As parents’ frustration toward traditional school systems around the world grew in recent decades, so too did the number of alternative schools and approaches to learning available them. Public schools’ seemingly low educational standards and lack of accountability for educational outcomes, safety issues on campus, general lack of quality resources and questions regarding the effectiveness of traditional learning approaches compelled a great amount of research and experimentation into what the “best” kind of education looks like throughout the second half of the twentieth century. As a result, reforms flourished in the education sector, parents’ concerns pushed them to consider experimental alternatives and educators disillusioned with traditional systems branched off to find more effective and meaningful approaches.
Today, the options available to those not wishing to attend a public school are vast: home schools, charter schools, independent schools and nontraditional schools (otherwise known as publicly funded alternative schools). One can also supplement their child’s learning with home tutoring by alternative education providers or even attend specialized weekend courses or extra-curriculars offered by alternative schools.
In terms of learning styles, the variety of new age alternatives to traditional education is impressive. We now have Reality Pedagogy – an approach to teaching and learning that focuses on understanding student realities and then using that information as a starting point for instruction; Hip Hop Education, which embraces elements of the hip-hop culture in teaching and learning so that youth are comfortable in a classroom setting; and project-based learning, which focuses primarily on students engaging with real-world problems through assessments and projects. This style of teaching has been hailed a means of engaging students who have traditionally been disinterested in learning because it allows them to focus on problems in their community or world that they wish to solve.
Then we have the more widely recognized alternative styles of learning of Montessori, Reggio Amelia and Waldorf, which have become so popular they have formally evolved into schools that can be found all over the world. Geared mostly towards preschool and primary-aged children, Reggio Amelia is a pedagogy described as student-centered and constructivist. It embraces experiential learning in an environment focused on respect, responsibility and community, allowing children to discover themselves and the world around them through a self-guided curriculum. Developed by an Italian psychologist in the wake of World War II, Reggio Amelia’s chief tenet is that children are born with over 100 languages with which to express themselves and must therefore simply learn to recognize and use these languages.
The perceived negatives of the Reggio style of learning are that at its very core the process is student-led, meaning teachers are not taking an active role in lesson or curriculum planning – and parents might never know what it is their child is actually learning. It is also very difficult to assess or document students’ progress using this method. However, giving children ‘agency as learners’ – a concept central to Reggio Amelia – is certainly something that will set them up for later in life, teaching children the value of self-worth and independence. A nature-based learning approach with strong emphasis on community also sets its students up to be citizens of the future, in a world where having skills in community development and sustainable development (as well as an appreciation of nature) will be key to thriving as professionals.
Though it shares many similarities, Montessori takes a slightly different approach to Reggio Amelia in developing competent, resourceful and independent children. While Reggio depends upon small-group collaboration to correct and guide students, the Montessori method encourages individual work with built-in controls of error, leaving students free to work without needing to constantly check with a teacher. Reggio also offers parents physical documentation as evidence of their child’s work, as opposed to mere observation which is what parents must rely on in a Montessori school. In a Reggio Emilia classroom, teachers use a range of audio and video equipment as well as pen and paper to transcribe the words and interpret the work of children, documenting both their academic and social progress. This documentation is often strategically displayed for all the community to view in a Reggio school, while Montessori teachers keep such documentation private, simply as a guide for future lesson plans.
And to make things even more confusing, there is the Waldorf or Steiner education method, whose pedagogy places high value on the role of imagination in learning and integrating the intellectual, practical, and artistic development of pupils. It’s worth noting the development of a child’s artistic skills as key to the method – a Waldorf education isn’t just about words and numbers. At a Waldorf School which, like Montessori and Reggio Amelia, caters to younger children rather than older ones, students are encouraged to use their imaginations as part of their process of discovery and learning. Children in a traditional school will be given objects and toys to play with, but the Steiner method expects children to create their own toys and other objects. The main difference between the Waldorf and Montessori methods is that Waldorf students begin studying traditional academic subjects such as math and reading much later, around the age of seven. The method’s founders believe students benefit more from learning through play and therefore encourage creative play such as make-believe, fairies, art, music and the arts for much longer than traditional schools do. Grading is also a non-existent concept at a Waldorf school. Teachers instead prefer to focus on a child’s potential and growth rather than test-based accomplishments.
All three methods offer a student-centered approach, one that encourages creativity and curiosity, leading children to question, explore and investigate the world around them as they acquire skills. But which one works best, we ask?
The answer is this: it depends on the child. Some children benefit more from the creative, open, experiential learning environment that is Montessori, one where they can set their own pace and work independently. For children who need constant supervision and more structure, however, this type of learning environment might not be suitable. Children with an artistic inclination will likely benefit most from a Waldorf or Steiner environment, while those children who are ‘left brain dominant’ and who think more rationally than artistically might suffer in such an environment, unable to express themselves appropriately. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution when it comes to educating children, despite what people may think.
|This article was contributed by fellow NYU students. If you would like to make a contribution to the NYU Dispatch, please email us.|