Alternative Education


Alternative Schools Movement
Education Reform Movement
Reform Education


Approaches that depart from standardized education

Principal Metaphors

There are many, many versions of Alternative Education, spanning ranges of sensibilities and ideologies. Consequently, there is no consistent set of associated metaphors. However, with only a few exceptions, varieties of Alternative Education tend to identify a common opponent – namely, conceptions of learning that are rooted in Folk Theories.
  • Knowledge is … not a thing
  • Knowing is … not an internal model of external things
  • Learner is … not an insulated and isolated individual
  • Learning is … not acquiring, constructing, internalizing, or seeing
  • Teaching is … not delivering, conveying, or telling


Several centuries ago, with the rise of standardized education – but, since the late 1800s as a discernable movement


The term “Alternative Education” has been applied to many educational movements, curriculum innovations, and teaching approaches that, considered en masse, are linked only in their rejection of mainstream philosophies and practices. For the most part, specific types of Alternative Education are fitted to discourses that sit in the upper right regions of our map, and many are specifically affiliated with Authentic Learning and Progressivism, with strong links to Activity- and Experience-Focused Discourses (especially Emergent Design Discourses and Activist Discourses) and approaches that emphasis group process (e.g., Discourses on Individual Learning in Group Settings and Discourses on Learning Collectives). Notable specific movements and examples of Alternative Education (listed chronologically) include:
  • Friends Schools (Quaker Schools) (first appeared in the early 1700s) – Rooted in the beliefs and practices of Religious Society of Friends (the Quakers), Friends Schools aim to provide both a good academic education and a community-based, spiritually rich character education.
  • Montessori Method (Maria Montessori, late 1800s) – Positioning the child as an eager learner, and informed by principles consistent with Non-Trivial Constructivisms, the Montessori Method is based on close observation of the individual child and aims to provide an environment to support learner initiative. Defining qualities of such environments include mixed-age classrooms (typically in clusters that span ~3 years), optional sets of study, specialized classroom materials made from natural materials, physical settings scaled to the learner, low teacher-student ratios, and very well-trained teachers.
  • Anarchistic Free Schools (Free SkoolsAnarchist Free SchoolsAnarchist Pedagogies) (Escuela Moderna; late-1800s) – As might be expected, formal education is a fraught topic among anarchists, who agree on little except there are no universal or generalizable approaches to dismantling or avoiding hierarchical structures, authoritarian tendencies, and institutional settings. Against this backdrop, Anarchistic Free Schools are autonomous grassroots efforts, involving collectives working to create educational settings to share skills and expertise.
  • Waldorf Education (Steiner Education) (Rudolf Steiner, 1910s) – Associated with Holistic Education(another subdiscourse of Alternative Education), Waldorf Education aims to develop all aspects of the learner – academic, artistic, athletic, and practical. While typically oriented by state-mandated curricula, individual teachers are permitted considerable autonomy around matters of topics of study, pedagogical methods, and classroom structure.
  • Modern School (Ferrer Modern School) (Francisco Ferrer, 1910s) – Originating after the execution of Francisco Ferror, a social anarchist, the Ferrer Modern School is a libertarian day school that supports children’s play and advances radical politics while eschewing planned pedagogy and imposed curricula.
  • Holistic Education (Holism) (Jan Christiaan Smuts, 1920s) – Both a philosophy and a movement, Holistic Education is concerned with the integrated development of all aspects of the learner (frequently expressed in terms of “mind, body, and spirit,” but sometimes emphasizing social/interpersonal relationships and cultural/democratic sensibilities).
  • Summerhill School (A.S. Neill, 1920s) – Oriented by the notion that the school should be made to fit the child (not vice versa), Summerhill School is a boarding school in Suffolk, UK that is organized as a one-person-one-vote democracy that includes all community members. Structured according to the principle of “Freedom, not Licence,” citizens are permitted to do as they please, as long as their doings do not cause harm to others.
  • Reggio Emilia Approach (Loris Malaguzzi, 1940s) – Named after the region in Italy in which it began, the Reggio Emilia Approach is focused on preschool and primary school levels. It is developed around the principle that young children should be invited to present their ideas through any of their many means of self-expression (e.g., painting, writing, singing, drama). Aligned with Non-Trivial Constructivisms, school settings foreground notions of respect, community, exploration, play, and responsibility.
  • Freedom Schools (1950s) – Original part of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, Freedom Schools were implemented as a temporary measure to provide free education to African American children that was on par socially, politically, and economically with the public education provided to other American children.
  • Open Classroom (1960s) – Rejecting segregations based on age, ability level, grade, and gender, the Open Classroom typically involves a large group of learners and several teachers. Much of the activity is accomplished in small groups that are selected according to interests, subject areas, and skill levels.
  • Open-Space School (Open-Area Classroom) (1960s) – Rooted in the same convictions as the Open Classroom, an Open-Space School is organized in large open areas (i.e., few or no physical classroom walls) that are intended to foster movement of teachers and learners according to need and interest.
  • Sudbury School (Daniel Greenberg, 1960s) – Named after the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, MA, a Sudbury School has two defining qualities: (1) everyone is treated equally, and (2) all authority is rooted in democratic process. Students thus have complete responsibility for their own educations. There is no predefined curriculum and no prescriptive teaching.
  • Free School Movement (Democratic Free SchoolsNew Schools) (Jonathan Kozol; 1970s) – Strongly influenced by Summerhill School , this movement is focused on offering alternatives to traditional schooling. There are wide variations among free schools, but they tend to align around matters of self-governance (typically through participatory democracy) and choice (i.e., of parents for their children, and of children for topics and pacing).
  • Open Learning (1970s) – Incorporating many of the sensibilities described above, Open Learning is typically associated with educational approaches that attend to learner difference (in experience, interest, development, etc.) and the emphasis learner autonomy (through, e.g., self-determination, self-regulation, and interest-guided learning). (Note: Another prominent meaning of Open Learning has recently emerged, having to do with free sharing of educational materials.)
  • Unschooling (Slow Learning) (John Holt, 1970s) – While subject to much variation in interpretation, Unschooling might be considered in terms of contrasts with formal schooling: informal, in natural settings, unscheduled, involving much play alongside everyday responsibilities, oriented by personal interests, amongst persons of different ages and expertise, free of preformulated expectations and grading structures, and so on.
  • Homeschooling (Home Education) – This umbrella notion encompasses a wild variety of approaches to and emphases in formal learning, which are linked only by a decision to conduct most or all of a child’s education at home or in other non-school settings.
  • Deschooling (Ivan Illich, 1970s) – Currently in popular use among proponents of Homeschooling and Unschooling, the word Deschooling was coined to describe the breaking out of habits and mindsets instilled by schools.
  • Learning Web (Ivan Illich, 1970s) – a means of Deschooling (see above) that involves affording the tools and operations used in learning, means to draw on one another’s skills, and means to connect with peers who have similar interests
  • Personal Curriculum Design (Maryland Plan) (D. Maley, 1970s) – a schooling structure through which learners make their own decisions on curriculum topic and learning methods
  • Small Schools Movement (Small Schools Initiative) (Deborah Meier; 2000s) – Oriented by the conviction that smaller school populations are better for social connection and more opportunity for individual attention – and therefore more conducive to rich and robust learning – the Small Schools Movement recommends that high schools be kept under 200 students.
  • Small Learning Community (School-Within-A-School) (2000s) – Oriented by a desire for more personalized learning, a Small Learning Community is a model for subdividing large school populations in smaller, semi-autonomous clusters of students and teachers.
  • Expeditionary Learning (Outward Bound) (Kurt Hahn, 2000s) – Inspired by the work of Kurt Hahn, the term Expeditionary Learning is applied to schools in which rigorous study is embedded in “expeditions” – i.e., extended investigations of compelling topics in the real world that lead to public presentations. Although predating Deeper Learning, the sensibilities and aims of Expeditionary Learning are very similar.


Beyond signaling some of the common themes and prominent discourses encountered across most varieties of Alternative Education (as summarized above), given the differences in their historical and ideological influences, there is little point in attempting global commentary.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

John Dewey; A.S. Neill, Maria Montessori

Status as a Theory of Learning

It is common among specific types of Alternative Education to identify with Non-Trivial Constructivisms and/or Socio-Cultural Theory. However, none can be appropriately described as a theory of learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Most, if not all, varieties of Alternative Education can be appropriately described as specific perspectives on teaching, typically driven by combinations of specific theoretical and ideological convictions.

Status as a Scientific Theory

It would be stretch to use the word “scientific” to describe any single model of Alternative Education. While most draw directly on defensible theories of learning and some are based on systematic observation of learners (e.g., Montessori Method), almost every variety is more defined by its ideological allegiance than its scientific commitment.


  • Anarchistic Free Schools
  • Deschooling
  • Expeditionary Learning
  • Free School Movement
  • Freedom Schools
  • Friends Schools (Quaker Schools)
  • Holistic Education (Holism)
  • Learning Web
  • Modern School (Ferrer Modern School)
  • Montessori Method
  • Open Classroom
  • Open Learning
  • Open-Space School (Open-Area Classroom)
  • Personal Curriculum Design (Maryland Plan)
  • Reggio Emilia Approach
  • Small Learning Community (School-Within-A-School)
  • Small Schools Movement
  • Sudbury School
  • Summerhill School
  • Unschooling (Slow Learning)
  • Waldorf Education (Steiner Education)

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2021). “Alternative Education” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

⇦ Back to Map
⇦ Back to List