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Alternative Education: Learning by Discovery

By Carmela D'Amico

Imagine teen-agers who are not only excited about their learning experiences at school, but also confident and eager to pursue their calling as they graduate.

In hopes of providing their children with the best learning experience possible, more parents than ever are choosing alternative forms of education.

Many teaching philosophies fall under the burgeoning umbrella of alternative education. They all have in common a conscious awareness and respect for the child as an individual, rejecting to varying degrees what they see as the enforced conformity of conventional schooling. A few students do thrive in the ultra-controlled and structured environment of traditional public schools. However, for the majority of students whose ability to learn is stifled by such an atmosphere, public school can literally become a deterrent to attaining a good education.

What is a good education? It is over this very fundamental question that the separate philosophies of public and alternative education begin to diverge. How do you know if a child has successfully learned what he/she needs to learn? Furthermore, how do you determine for other human beings what they need to learn?

In public schools, the large number of students per classroom necessitates incorporating a one-size-fits-all attitude-the needs of the many outweigh needs of the few. A grading system which tracks a student's progress is the main measure of a student's learning success; unfortunately though, that system often doesn't take into account the variability and depth of each student's special interests and talents. Similarly, the curriculum rarely proactively cultivates each student's unique abilities. Instead of exploring and nurturing those latent talents, they use a cookie-cutter curriculum that allows those precious gifts (or potential contributions to society) to remain dormant. Thus, a diploma in hand does not necessarily a good education make. As a result, and whether or not students decide to pursue higher education, chances are they will not have a clear idea what they want to do with their lives until much later. Advocates for alternative education claim that this does not have to be the case.

"Public education has never gotten deeply involved in the question of 'what do you want to be when you grow up'?" says Michael Ulrich, founder and director of the Above and Beyond School in Kirkland.

Public schools, he says-because they're primarily left-brain oriented (linear, analytical vs. right brain spherical, creative and intuitive)-tend to employ the teaching tactic of "listen, write, memorize and give it back to us, proving that you know it."
"Drill and kill," is what Cyndie Moi, Ulrich's partner, calls this method. Moi, a successful home-schooling parent and long-time advocate of alternative education, insists this is a sure-fire way to kill a student's love of learning. Together, she and Ulrich formed the Above and Beyond School's philosophy on the notion that "the child can tell you what he/she wants to learn. The child has passions. The child has interests. Why not just empower children to follow those passions and interests and let them learn what they want to learn how they want to learn it?" She pauses for a moment and thoughtfully adds, "Rather than stand before them and teach, you facilitate [the child's] investigation."

Revolutionary? Perhaps. But history has proven that revolution is what is required when numerous attempts at reform fail to correct the problem. While addressing certain societal necessities, public schools, on principle, tend to negate individuality in the interest of conformity, which, Moi says, is simply "not respectful to the human spirit."

Being a mother myself, I understand the importance of respecting the spirit of the child. What if you have a student who simply does not want to learn to read, who shows no interest whatsoever in books? Knowing that it is in the child's best interest, academically, to develop a love of reading, how do you go about prompting that child to want to learn to read?
You don't, according to Moi. "When that child finds the need to read he/she will learn, virtually overnight. Not just reading, but whatever the traditional academic skill is that they need to learn in order to facilitate their learning quest. And not only will they pick the skill up, they'll pick it up with much more ease and a more avid foundational interest level than if an adult were to sit them down and say, 'You're 8 years old now. It's time for you to learn this.'"

I remember back to my public high school years when I couldn't seem to pass algebra to save my life, not understanding why on earth I should need to know that stuff. It wasn't until, inadvertently, while in college I developed an interest in physics that I felt a need to "learn the basics," took an algebra class and whizzed it, wondering why it had been so difficult for me before. According to Moi and Ulrich's philosophy, algebra had been difficult for me when it played no meaningful role in what I was interested in learning. Once I needed algebra as a tool to understanding what I was truly interested in, algebra became a snap, and I picked it up virtually over night.
The Above and Beyond philosophy is rooted in basic home-schooling principles, namely in what Ulrich and Moi refer to as "The Discovery Approach." It is up to students to work with Ulrich to develop their learning plans and then become immersed in their chosen fields of interest. However, like most alternative educational systems, Above and Beyond offers a basic core curriculum, encompassing five areas: humanities, math/science, art/creative expression, communication and real world experience. This encourages students to analyze their current educational interests from varying perspectives, and in so doing enrich the overall learning experience.
It's the freedom of the student to explore individualized interests in a safe, non-conformist environment that is attracting more and more parents to either home school their children or send them to a school that employs comparable principles. As more statistics emerge showing that home-schooled and alternative-schooled children consistently score higher on state assessment exams than their public-schooled peers, even parents who never felt reason to question the methods of public schools may begin to do so.

That every American child has access to public schooling is a fundamental right that should not be taken for granted. It's a definite part of what makes our country great. But due to the socialistic nature of public schools, individual needs and learning styles often take a back seat to the uniform curriculum distributed grade to grade. In many cases, the only problem "problem kids" have is an individualistic learning style that cannot be properly addressed by the current public school system. It's imperative for the health of our future society that these children's needs not be squandered in systems that label them falsely and fail to successfully address their particular learning styles.

Many alternative options, like the Above and Beyond School, base their teaching principle on addressing the strengths and interests of the individual child. This way, the child can become very skilled and knowledgeable about their unique interests while simultaneously picking up what he/she needs to know from other key areas along the way.

Interestingly, mid-life crises were virtually unheard of before the advent of what we refer to as public schooling. "Why-and this happens a lot-should a person have to suffer a mid-life crisis before they finally find the courage to follow their calling?" Michael asks. If, over time, more adults and more educational institutions embrace a philosophy similar to Ulrich and Moi's, such crises may become unheard of.