Feb 27, 2011

The Best Way to Teach: Alternatively

Earlier this week I read Lisa Nielsen's blogpost, The College Myth: Why College Isn't Worth The Cost For Many Careers Today and I was confused. Not because I disagree, but because I really thought this was common knowledge. Of course college isn't worth the cost for many careers! Why does anyone need to blog about that topic?  Soon after my moment of confusion, links to the article flowed through my Twitter stream, with several of the people I follow tweeting about how this "new" idea needs to be shared so that education can be reformed. In my world, the world of alternative education, the notion that there are different goals for each student, that college isn't always a worthwhile goal, isn't a new or innovative idea at all.  Alternative educators realize that there are many worthwhile careers that don't require college but do benefit humanity and provide a decent wage. I thought about how many of my former students lead productive lives despite the fact that they never attended college. And that's when it hit me: I am an alternative educator, and like my students (and many other students), I an outsider who doesn't quite fit into the traditional education system. 

Alternative education, which originated as a protest to the industrial model of education, has a rich history (see the Alternative Education Resource Organization's excellent "Brief History".) Alternative programs, schools and teachers have evolved since the 19th century, but one thing has remained the same: alternative education is still about accepting and nurturing the individuality  of our nation's young people. 

Our educational system is constantly evolving--sometimes re-volving back to earlier models. Current calls for educational reform seem to mirror the past, but one constant remains: the battle between the education reformers and education classicists. It is sometimes difficult to tell the two sides apart (see this Wikipedia article about Education Reform for examples of progressive models supported by conservatives.) It is especially difficult for those who work in alternative education. Why? Because no matter what happens in the traditional education world, we never seem to fit in. That's not because we rebelliously refuse to follow current educational trends, waging wars against mainstream school culture no matter what the philosophy. Rather, it is because we adhere to our alternative school cultural tradition by always putting the student first.  

When you always put the student first, each educational trend becomes a tool for your tool belt, stored away until a student walks through your classroom door in need of it. Over the years I've attended many inservices where the school district pays an expert to come in and teach the staff the best way to teach our students. Each year there is a new "best way" and traditional school teachers complain about redoing their lesson plans (or refusing to redo their lesson plans) so that their teaching is up-to-date (or stuck in a rut.) Alternative educators tuck those "best way" trends into our tool belts and pull them out when needed--because you never know when it might come in handy. In one classroom, you can have a student who learns best by skill and drill/rote memorization and one who learns best by answering open-ended questions/critical thinking. Why should one student struggle to learn in an uncomfortable style when both strategies are available to the teacher?

Putting the student first means that you acknowledge each individual in your classroom and do whatever it takes to help them learn. Even if that means teaching the same thing five different ways in an hour. Even if that means using an "out-of-date" and unaccepted strategy that your colleagues will criticize. Even if that means working a lot of hours without seeing or talking to another teacher-friend for days at a time.  Here's the real kicker: it means talking to your students and getting to know them well enough to decide which strategy might work for their learning style. It means finding out about their lives outside of school and talking to them about their hopes for the future. It means helping them achieve their dreams even if you don't think it's the right dream for them. Nowadays this is called being an innovative or  passion-driven educator. In my experience the name for these kinds of teachers hasn't evolved or changed in at least half a century: they are alternative educators. Alternative educators are not many, but we are here; and we know what our students can accomplish when we don't judge any strategy too time-consuming, too progressive, too conservative. Nor do we judge any student unworthy of the time it takes to develop and use so many strategies effectively.  Alternative educators know that if we fill our tool belt and take the time to learn to use all of the tools, what our students can accomplish is miraculous. We just have to give them the right tools to get the job of learning done.


For more information about alternative education, visit the Iowa Association of Alternative Education's website and click on the links on the left side of the page. See the IAAE's Framework for Alternative Learning Environments for information about student-centered classrooms and standard practices in alternative education. Do you think your school or classroom qualifies as an alternative learning environment? Use this checklist of quality indicators to see what you can improve to make sure that education is available to all students.

1 comment:

  1. Some interesting comments that relate to this post appear on Huffpost Edu following a post written by a high school student. Check it out here
    Students Sound Off: High Schooler Marie Preston Says Schools Need To Focus On The Individual http://huff.to/dJStnB


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