Interesting! I had no idea. Can you name a few, so I can research and learn more about them?
Nathan Bashaw

If you let me know what part of the country you’re in, I’ll try to locate something nearby. Learner-centered schools, AKA progressive/alternative/democratic/etc. schools are all over the country. The first “progressive” schools were started by John Dewey 100 years ago. Arne Duncan, the former Secretary of Education, not only attended the University of Chicago Lab School, which Dewey founded, but also sends his own children there. They don’t see a test until about 6th grade! Montessori schools, as well as Waldorf Schools, are largely learner-centered. This article offers an overview of the history of these schools…and there are links to more in-depth descriptions of three schools at the end of the article.

Understand that, unlike one-size-fits-all public schools, where standardized testing is the only measure of “success,” these schools have different structures, ranging from totally “free/democratic” schools (you can find lots of information here) to schools that, on the surface, look much like typical schools in that they have age-graded classes and a curriculum for which all children are responsible. Rainbow Community School in Asheville, NC is one of the best of those — primarily because of their focus on educating the “whole child” through what they call the “seven domains.” Another of my favorite schools is Renaissance School of Arts and Sciences in Portland, Oregon. You can read about these schools at the links at the end of the article on authentic learning.

Some children thrive in a totally free environment in which they can choose to learn whatever they want whenever they want, and in whatever way they want. These schools are “democratic” in that every adult and child in the school contributes to the writing and enforcement of “rules.” This is probably the type of schools that adults raised with the idea that learning is the result of teaching are the least comfortable with. Peter Gray’s book “Free to Learn” explains why free play is so essential to authentic learning. You can get a sense of him by searching for the YouTube video “Free to Learn.” But understand that this doesn’t mean all schools should be totally free. That would be as inappropriate as our one-size-fits-all schools are. You can find an overview of various types of alternative schools here. Again, I highly recommend Todd Rose’s book The End of Average (only 196 readable pages) to better understand why any system designed for the “average” person fits no one!

You can find a list of alternative schools here. But keep in mind that, in my judgment, they aren’t all equally effective. I drove 9.000 mile around the U.S. last fall visiting learner-centered schools and the ones that I have mentioned best exemplify what “learner-centered” means. The children attending these schools are remarkable in their poise, self-confidence, deep thinking, and for recognizing their own responsibility for learning.

In terms of the youngest learners, I recommend subscribing to Teacher Tom’s Blog. Tom is the sole teacher in a cooperative, play-based preschool in Seattle, Washington. His blogs are a master’s class in authentic learning.

In terms of high schools, one that best exemplifies self-directed, project based learning is High Tech High in LA. There’s another one in Bergen, NJ, but I don’t know much about it.

And if you’re still up for “research,” here are a number of articles that address many of the issues in education that you brought up in your article. You might be particularly interested in the articles that describe the history of public education in America and it’s original purpose — which has changed little since then. The three articles on history can be found here…including one that is somewhat of a synopsis of The End of Average.

One comment about “school choice.” It may sound like what I’m saying would support the existence of charters and school vouchers in the name of school choice! Not true! What I’m suggesting is that, within any public schools, there could be a wide range of alternative teaching structures from which students and their parents can choose. The biggest hurdle will be to help traditional teachers transform for “givers of information” to curators of enriched learning environments and facilitators of the development of individuals. And we definitely need to begin questioning many of the assumptions on which public education is based — such as the belief that every child of a given age must “know and be able to do” the same things. The only true “essential” skills are literacy and numeracy — and those skills develop most authentically, and with the greatest understanding, when they are incorporated in real-world problems and issues. From birth until they are forced to attend school, sit at a desk, and be “talked at” by teachers, children have — without direct instruction — learned what are arguably the most important lessons in life — how to walk and how to communicate. Children love and are highly motivated to learn — until adults strip away their right to learn authentically and decide what, how, and when they have to learn. That’s when motivation disappears because children, like adults, aren’t motivated to do things in which they see no purpose.

If you have any other questions of comments, don’t hesitate to ask! The good news is that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel — we just need make parents and the public aware of what is being done to their children in the name of “success” and “equal opportunity” —make them aware of the time-proven effectiveness of alternative education, and hopefully generate a movement similar to Opt Out that demands fundamental changes in public education.

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