So What Is Alternative Education Anyway?

I never let schooling get in the way of my education.

– Often attributed to Mark Twain

Alternative education as a concept is not widely known in Malaysia (and this blog aims to promote such a concept). But what exactly do we mean by alternative education?

Alternative education, quite simply, means any form of education that takes place outside the traditional schooling system. As described further by the Alternative Education page on Wikipedia:

Alternative education, also known as non-traditional education, describes a number of approaches to teaching and learning other than traditional schools. 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.

“Traditional schooling” in this context refers to the usual, mainstream forms of schooling – primary school, secondary school, college, university. These are usually characterized by standardized curricula and examinations, as well as a set grading system. Teaching is usually lecture-based (with the occasional experiment or two) and the emphasis is on getting recognized and acceptable grades and scores (as opposed to, some argue, creativity and actual learning). Alternative education pursues other routes and methods of learning, putting a higher focus on experiential learning, creativity, and individuality.

Types Of Alternative Education
Amongst the various forms of alternative education include (but are definitely not limited to):

  • Alternative school systems, such as democratic schools and Steiner schools
  • Alternative modes of teaching/evaluation, as practised by many colleges including the ones on Colleges That Change Lives – for example, Hampshire College provides completely individualized degrees with evaluations instead of grades, while College of the Atlantic offers degrees in “human ecology” involving subjects and projects from humanities, environmental sciences, and social sciences
  • Home-based learning, which covers homeschooling, as well as deschooling and unschooling (like homeschooling without a set structure)
  • Workshops, alternative educational programs, and “lifelong learning” classes such as Esalen, which is directed towards spirituality and theraputic healing, or Tower Hamlets Lifelong Learning, which offers classes to the people in the Tower Hamlets neighbourhood in London
  • Study abroad & cultural exchanges – popular ones include AFS, Up With People, and Raleigh International
  • Mentoring in various areas (personal, educational, career), whether being the mentor or having one
  • Volunteering in various causes and projects, short-term or long-term
  • Activism in various causes, whether related to education (such as education reform or student rights) or not
  • Online-based learning such as the Open University and MIT OpenCourseWare
  • Travel, which may incorporate many of the ideas above (cultural exchange, workshops, so on)
  • Creative ventures such as auditions, performance, or creative production
  • Employment, whether as part-time or full-time jobs, work-studies, co-ops (university programs whereby some semesters are spent in class and some in the working world, such as what is offered by NorthEastern), apprenticeships, internships, or entrepeneurships
  • and tons more.

Why Alternative Education?
Most people go into alternative education as traditional educational methods do not suit them. Amongst the various criticisms of traditional mainstream education include:

  • It doesn’t allow for creativity or more “out-of-the-box” approaches
  • Rote memorization is given emphasis over creativity and critical thinking – even so-called “creative” subjects have to conform to a standards body’s idea of “creative”
  • More emphasis is given on letter grades than on actual learning
  • It does not account for varying learning styles (especially experiential learning)
  • Students tend to be stuck in a “bubble” or an “ivory tower” surrounded by academia, without really knowing or understanding the real world around them
  • Their knowledge is limited to what is spoonfed to them for exams; once the exams are over, it’s promptly forgotten
  • Students learn only for exams, jobs, prestige or grades – there is a lack of a sense of learning for the sheer delight of learning
  • There is not enough space for dissent or disagreement – students that disagree with their teachers do not get enough respect or consideration for their ideas
  • The students’ welfares and personalities are not taken into consideration; only their ability to churn out grades and follow orders
  • The subjects taught in school are not to the students’ interest; what the students are interested in can’t be explored in traditional schools

Through alternative education, students will be able to:

  • Express their creativity
  • Explore and learn about themselves and the world
  • Meet different types of people of all interests and personalities
  • Gain real-world experience of many issues
  • Gain independence and individuality
  • Learn through styles that best suit them
  • Learn different skills and subjects that may not be offered by mainstream schooling
  • Gain a more holistic and well-rounded education

These are only some of the reasons and benefits that pull people towards alternative education.

Is Alternative Education a replacement for Traditional Education, or a supplement?
That depends on the individual. Some people elect to forego traditional schooling entirely, building their entire educational life on alternative methods (this is especially true for unschoolers or even “uncollegers”). Some have gone through some form of traditional schooling but then move on to more alternative methods – for example, a high school student that enters an alternative college, or a college graduate that then signs up for workshops and travels extensively. Many people – especially those new to alternative education – will usually use it to supplement their traditional educational experiences – for instance, a school student could take art classes on weekends, or participate in volunteer activities during their spare time.

Who is Alternative Education for?
Alternative educational methods are extremely varied and diverse; there’s bound to be something for everyone. The type of people who tend to be most successful in alternative education – or even look to it in the first place – are those that are driven, open-minded, dedicated, creative, independent, and self-sufficient. They are usually already unorthodox and very out-of-the-box and they have a very different way of looking at life.

How will Alternative Education affect my Degree/Career/Life?
It is possible to earn a degree or have a job through alternative educational methods (some colleges, for instance, award credits based on life experience). Alternative education can be considered a way of life; one is constantly learning, and their choices in life are based on what they want to learn or experience. Many people who choose alternative education do not have conventional lives – the usual “school-college-degree-job-family” route espoused by many – which suits them fine; they would rather have a life that is full of experiences, memories, and moments.

That is a basic primer of alternative education. If you have any questions or suggestions, do feel free to comment.

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2 Responses

  1. Check your dictionary!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Alternative – noun
    Alternate – adjective

  2. The term “alternative education” is widely used – refer to the Wikipedia article, as well as Education Revolution, which bills itself as a main hub for alternative education. It’s also used in some academic circles.

    It’s used in the same sense as “alternative lifestyles”, which refers to lifestyles outside the norm.

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