Alternative education, also known as non-traditional education or educational alternative, includes a number of approaches to teaching and learning separate from that offered by mainstream or traditional education. Educational alternatives are rooted in a number of philosophies differing from those of mainstream education. Although some alternatives have political, scholarly or philosophical orientations, others were begun by informal associations of teachers and students dissatisfied with some aspects of mainstream education. Educational alternatives (which include charter, alternative and independent schools and home-based learning) vary, but usually emphasize small class sizes, close relationships between students and teachers and a sense of community.
Alternative education refers to education which does not conform to a conventional standard. In the United States the public-school system may set this standard, although public schools adopt an alternative approach as well. Synonyms for "alternative" in this context include "non-traditional," "non-conventional" and "non-standardized". Alternative educators use terms such as "authentic", "holistic" and "progressive". The U.S. Department of Education describes an alternative school as “a public elementary/secondary school that: 1) addresses needs of students that typically cannot be met in a regular school; 2) pro- vides nontraditional education; 3) serves as an adjunct to a regular school; or 4) falls outside the categories of regular, special education, or vocational education”
Alternative education presupposes a tradition to which the "alternative" is opposed. This limits the term to the last two or three centuries and the growth of standardized, compulsory primary and secondary education. Nineteenth-century educators, including Swiss humanitarian Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi; the American transcendentalists Amos Bronson Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau; founders of progressive education John Dewey and Francis Parker, and educational pioneers such as Friedrich Fröbel, Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner (founder of the Waldorf schools) believed that education should cultivate the moral, emotional, physical, psychological, and spiritual aspects of the developing child. Anarchists such as Leo Tolstoy and Francisco Ferrer Guardia emphasized education as a force for political liberation, secularism and the elimination of class distinctions. After World War II an alternative Reggio Emilia approach to early-childhood education was developed in Italy, introduced by Loris Malaguzzi.
Cultural critics such as John Caldwell Holt, Paul Goodman, Frederick Mayer and George Dennison have examined education from individualist, anarchist, and libertarian perspectives. Other writers, from Paulo Freire to American educators Herbert Kohl and Jonathan Kozol, have criticized mainstream Western education from the viewpoint of liberal and radical politics. The argument for an approach catering to the interests and learning style of an individual is supported by research suggesting that a learner-responsible model is more effective than a teacher-responsible one. Ron Miller has identified five elements common to educational alternatives:
- Respect for the person
- Decentralization of authority
- Noninterference among the political, economic, and cultural spheres of society
- A holistic worldview
"Alternative school" describes a number of educational approaches employing nontraditional philosophies, curricula and methods. Some alternative schools have a strong philosophical, political or practical orientations; others are ad hoc assemblies of teachers and students seeking to explore possibilities unavailable in traditional education.
Independent, or private, schools have flexibility in staff selection and educational approach. Many are Montessori and Waldorf schools (the latter also known as Steiner schools, after their founder Rudolf Steiner). Other independent schools include democratic or free schools, such as the Sudbury schools, open classroom schools, those based on experiential education and schools using an international curriculum such as the International Baccalaureate and Round Square schools.
Families seeking alternatives for educational, philosophical or religious reasons, or if there is no nearby educational alternative may opt for home-based education. A minor branch is unschooling, an approach based on interest rather than a curriculum. Others enroll in umbrella schools which provide a curriculum. Some homeschool families form a cooperative, where parents with expertise in a subject may teach a children from a number of families while their children are taught by other parents.
Main article: Autodidacticism
Self-directed inquiry is recognized at all levels of education, from the "unschooling" of children to the autodidacticism of adults, and may occur separately from (or with) traditional forms of education.