Classroom Practice

Alternative Education


Alternative education is an approach designed to meet the needs of students who aren’t being served by traditional forms of education, usually students who have been identified as at-risk((“How do states define alternative education?.” 2013. 17 Sep. 2014 < However it looks, alternative education is the product of a certain kind of mindset. It’s an answer to the question we’ve all asked ourselves: “How can I get my kids interested in learning?” Your strategy should reflect your enthusiasm and passion for learning. Here are some of the approaches I’ve used, seen, read about, or just dreamed about having the time and funding to implement.

Alternative Learning Spaces

Designing a learning space that works for all students doesn’t need to cost a fortune or be a complete overhaul of the row-by-row desks. You can change things up by providing a comfortable area for reading, stand-up desks, exercise balls as a seating option, or you can go further. Alternative learning spaces are designed with student input, and reflect an understanding of how students experience learning.

Learning Menu

When you create an assignment, the objective is for students to demonstrate their understanding. We all have our favourite ways of showing what we’ve learned. I used to love creating things on the computer, but was deathly afraid of public speaking. Some of us are artistic, others analytical, and some are both at the same time. The method by which students show what they’ve learned should be less important than the knowledge they’re demonstrating. By providing choice for students to show what they know, you can allow them to take ownership of their learning. Many teachers employ a tic-tac-toe style grid, and students can choose one option from each row((

Project-Based Learning

This approach aims to give students the resources they need to research concepts and apply them in a practical form((“4 Keys To Designing A Project-Based Learning Classroom -.” 2013. 17 Sep. 2014 <>)). In project-based learning, teachers work alongside the students to help them discover and apply knowledge in a tangible way. Instead of being experts in the content that engages students, teachers are experts in the strategies for learning and problem solving. Self-directed inquiry, investigation, and reflection are foundational for students to apply what they’ve learned.

Maker Ed((

I’ve been a maker since before I knew what being a maker was. Creation fuels the maker movement – kids engage in the act of creating something physical. It can take on many forms: papercraft, 3D printing((, textiles, robotics, and much more. Maker Ed and project based learning can (and often do) go hand-in-hand. The focus in the maker education movement is that students explore their interests and apply what they learn in a hands-on way, and it integrates well into the STEAM focus areas((Martinez, Sylvia Libow, and Gary Stager. Invent to learn: Making, tinkering, and engineering in the classroom. Constructing Modern Knowledge Press, 2013.)).

20% Time

This is a corporate strategy that’s been around for many years, and became popular back in 2004 when Google made their initial public offering. At its core, 20% time is an approach that allows employees to work on a related project of their own choosing for up to one day a week. While it’s a lot more detailed than that, in a classroom 20% time is an approach where students determine their own project, goals and timeline. Students research, learn and apply problem-solving strategies while engaged in a task of their own choosing, and the teacher is an aide to learning rather than the source of knowledge..

Charter Schools

Charter schools are an alternative to traditional public schools((Aron, Laudan Y. “An Overview of Alternative Education.” Urban Institute (NJ1) (2006). They offer a formal learning environment that can provide more differentiation, a more challenging curriculum, along with the flexibility to address factors that may be putting some students at risk of dropping out. They have more freedom to embrace new approaches, technology, and ideas like those mentioned above, with the goal of improving student performance.

Student Achievement levels

There is increasing support from the ed tech community for charter schools as a way to reach students who may not be succeeding in traditional educational settings((“How is Silicon Valley shaping ed reform? | Education Dive.” 2014. 23 Sep. 2014 <>)). Research has found that students improve across the curriculum in several subject areas, accelerating past the results of students enrolled in public schools((Tuttle, Christina Clark et al. “KIPP Middle Schools: Impacts on Achievement and Other Outcomes. Final Report.” Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. (2013).)). While they remain controversial in some circles, charter schools can offer more freedom to allow teachers to reach kids in new ways.

In summary,

Alternative education strategies help you refocus your teaching practice. Design learning for the students. Encourage inquiry. Allow for failure as a step on the way to success. These are things you can do right now. You don’t need to throw out all the desks and start from scratch, or toss out the curriculum and begin again. Take a few moments to think about how your students learn, or identify the obstacles to learning. Ask yourself, would you like to be a student in your class? Find out what interests your kids, and create a way to incorporate that into your classroom. Start by allowing students to choose how they show what they know – an essay, a powerpoint, a speech, a skit, a song and dance routine, etc- and your students will begin to feel empowered to continue exploring on their own((McGregor, Glenda, and Martin Mills. “Alternative education sites and marginalised young people:‘I wish there were more schools like this one’.” International Journal of Inclusive Education 16.8 (2012): 843-862.

Written By: James Peterson

About the author

Aya Salah

Education Specialist @LearningBird | Science High School Teacher | Executive Director of Silk Road Institute | Loves books, poetry, painting & photography.

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