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An alternative school of thought

There’s no doubt that alternative styles of school education are growing in popularity. While there are still sceptics, the independent yet supported learning style is praised by many parents whose children once struggled at a mainstream school. But what does a non-mainstream education mean for life after school? Does it influence progression to higher education? What result does it have on future career outcomes?

The premise of alternative education

‘Alternative education’ is the term used to describe many different pedagogical approaches that differ from mainstream pedagogy. As Dr Claire Spicer, Lecturer in Education (Educational Psychology) at Deakin University explains, there’s many different types and formats of alternative schooling systems throughout Australia. ‘Alternative settings include Steiner and Montessori, Dharma, special developmental schools and schools for students who need behavioural and emotional support.’ Each has its own specific fundamental values. But most commonly encourage self-guided, independent and imaginative learning, involve less academic structure and aim to address the individual needs of the students.

Common criticisms of alternative education

Learning by discovery may sound good in theory but critics question whether alternative education graduates are suitably equipped with the skills to succeed in the real world. Dr Spicer agrees that some characteristics of independent schools can be a drawback. ‘For example students who attend Steiner or Montessori schools tend to move to traditional schools for VCE. When this occurs there are some clear differences in students’ learning backgrounds, methods and understanding of the greater world.’ Additionally, Dr Spicer says there are some key skills that are sometimes learned much later in alternative schools than in mainstream schools. ‘For example, there was a child in alternative education who was seven when he learned to spell his own name, something aged peers would have been practicing for many years,’ says Dr Spicer.

Unique perspectives

With revelations like this, one might question the importance alternative schools place on developing skills for higher education or the workforce. But contrary to popular belief, Dr Spicer says: ‘Overall, students who attend Steiner or Montessori schools do attend university or higher education places.’ Jacob Grainer is one of these examples. Having attended a Steiner school for the majority of his schooling, he now holds two law degrees and an arts degree majoring in political science, and works as a corporate lawyer for a major telecommunications organisation. With the vast and varied learnings acquired at Steiner school, Jacob says he gained additional perspectives and learnt valuable lessons he might not have at a traditional school. ‘Compared to a conventional school, there was a much greater focus at Steiner school on art, hand crafts and music as an integrated part of learning, rather than as a particular class,’ he says. ‘There was also a strong focus on “stories”, and learning through stories to provide context and meaning. Whereas at a conventional “church” school (for example, a Catholic school) I might have had a class on religion, at the Steiner school stories from the bible were given equal weight as stories from ancient Greece, Egypt and England.’

'Overall, students who attend Steiner or Montessori schools do attend university or higher education places.'

Dr Claire Spicer,
Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University

Shifting industry trends

It’s not only alternative education providers that value the development of skills outside the traditional academic realm. In recent times, an industry trend has emerged that’s seen several companies such as Ernst & Young and Penguin Random House abolish the need for employees to have a university degree and others like PwC, Apple and Google make their degree requirements more lenient. The reason? They want to recruit employees based on merit, not just credentials, and ‘attract a more varied candidate pool and future workplace’. This shift in focus has also been recognised by some universities such as Deakin, which gives all its students the opportunity to graduate with Deakin Hallmarks. These prestigious awards recognise excellence in areas that are imperative for employability and can be used by students to differentiate themselves to future employers.

Addressing individual needs

While the development of broader skills such as those emphasised in alternative education may become increasingly important, Jacob says it’s not a case of one size fits all when it comes to students and their ideal education. While he completed the majority of his schooling at the Steiner school, over the years, he began to develop an interest in more academic-based studies, which is what led to him changing to a more traditional school for his final few years. ‘At some stage I’d set my heart on being an engineer and working with computers, and that was not going to happen were I to have stayed with the Steiner school that I was at, at which televisions were shunned and computers were nowhere to be seen, and seldom mentioned,’ he says. But Jacob recognises that just because a school doesn’t focus on traditionally academic areas, doesn’t mean its graduates can’t be successful. ‘Having since met up with some of my former classmates who stayed at the Steiner school for the duration, I think that the decision suited them well,’ says Jacob. ‘Their life outcomes are very different to my own, but are far more suited to their interests and family background. More specifically, if one were more creatively inclined, or preferred a less structured way of learning, then the Steiner school would be a good place to nurture that creativity.’

Changing direction

With some clear differences between alternative and traditional education styles, some people believe there should be a balance between both. Dr Spicer recognises merit in some of the alternative education methods and believes all schools could benefit from adopting some of their methodologies. ‘The ideal future of schooling would be schools with small class sizes; where every student had their own individualised learning plan that involved a combination of self-discovery and guided learning,’ says Dr Spicer. ‘Instead of a horizontal curriculum where Year 9 English does whatever the curriculum is, ideally the curriculum would be vertical so students of different ages could take it. Vertical learning is the way of the future – it leads to differentiated instruction,’ Dr Spicer concludes.

Interested in learning more about the future of education? Consider studying education and teaching at Deakin University.

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Dr Claire Spicer
Dr Claire Spicer

Lecturer in Education (Educational Psychology), Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University
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