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Natural Awakenings

Guide at a Glance: Alternative Education Approaches

Jul 28, 2010 02:06AM




The Montessori method was born in 1907 in the slums of Italy, when physician Maria Montessori founded Casa dei Bambini, or Children’s House, a school for 50 preschoolers. She believed that children learn best when allowed to independently explore an orderly environment, stocked with hands-on materials that engage all five senses.

Today, the United States is home to 10,000 Montessori schools. More than 60 percent are for children under 6, with an increasing number extending through high school; kids are grouped in three-year age spans.

Classrooms for the youngest children come stocked with miniature furniture and kitchens, which enables them to make their own snacks and lunches. Independence and order are key, as students are free to move around the room, selecting from neatly arranged materials like strings of beads that represent numbers or wooden blocks symbolizing letters.

“Montessori is hyper-intellectual,” comments Tim Seldin, of the International Montessori Council. “We raise kids who are joyful scholars.”

A 2006 study in Science Magazine found Montessori 5-year-olds were significantly better prepared in science and math than those who attended conventional preschools. They also tested better on executive function, defined as the ability to adapt in response to problems.

“They don’t just make you memorize facts,” says 15-year-old Natacha Stutzman, who attended a Montessori school in Sarasota, Florida through 8th grade. “They teach you life lessons.”

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The Waldorf movement began in 1919, when Austrian scientist Rudolf Steiner established a school for children of employees of the Waldorf Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany. According to his philosophy, children evolve through three, seven-year stages, first absorbing the world through the senses in early childhood, and later through fantasy and imagination. Only after puberty comes the rational, abstract power of the intellect. Consequently, Waldorf’s lower-grade educators emphasize free play and fantasy and discourage exposure to media. Most schools allow no computers in the classroom until middle school, and reading is not formally taught until second grade.

“At a time when kindergartens are becoming more academic, we are protecting the child’s right to play,” advises Patrice Maynerd, outreach director for the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America. She explains that rather than using textbooks, students create their own lesson books, which they build on through high school. In contrast to the widespread elimination of art and music classes in public schools, Waldorf’s philosophy centers on creating the “Renaissance Child,” encouraging every student to play an instrument and participate in theater.

Teachers follow their classes through the first eight grades, so that one child may have the same instructor for their entire experience. There are 165 Waldorf Schools in North America. A Waldorf-sponsored survey of 526 graduates found that 94 percent attended college, and 90 percent are highly satisfied with their careers.

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Homeschooling and Unschooling

Today, more than 2 million students are homeschooled in the United States, up from 850,000 in 1999, according to the U.S. Department of Education. While roughly 90 percent of these students follow some set curriculum, about 10 percent adhere to an approach called unschooling, which ―much like democratic education―allows students to choose what and how they wish to learn, and for how long.

“I define unschooling as allowing children as much freedom to learn in the world as their parents can comfortably bear,” says Pat Farenga, president of Holt Associates Inc., a homeschooling consulting firm. “For instance, a young child’s interest in hot rods might lead him or her to a study of how the engine works (science), how and when the car was built (history and business), and who built it (biography). They learn when it makes sense for them to do so.”

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