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Why are there “alternative” schools? Our system of public schooling was first organized in the 1830′s to provide a common, culturally unifying educational experience for all children, yet from the very beginning, certain groups of educators, parents, and students themselves have declined to participate in this system. Their reasons are various, and the forms of schooling–and nonschooling–that they have chosen instead are equally diverse. The history of alternative education is a colorful story of social reformers and individualists, religious believers and romantics; despite their differences, however, they share an especially strong interest in young people’s social, moral, emotional and intellectual development, and, more deliberately than most public school programs, they have practiced educational approaches that aim primarily to nourish these qualities.
Waldorf, Montessori, and Reggio Emilia are three progressive approaches to early childhood education that appear to be growing in influence in North America and to have many points in common. This article provides a brief comparative introduction and highlights several key areas of similarity and contrast. All three approaches represent an explicit idealism and turn away from war and violence toward peace and reconstruction. They are built on coherent visions of how to improve human society by helping children realize their full potential as intelligent, creative, whole persons. In each approach, children are viewed as active authors of their own development, strongly influenced by natural, dynamic, self-righting forces within themselves, opening the way toward growth and learning. Teachers depend for their work with children on carefully prepared, aesthetically pleasing environments that serve as a pedagogical tool and provide strong messages about the curriculum and about respect for children. Partnering with parents is highly valued in all three approaches, and children are evaluated by means other than traditional tests and grades. However, there are also many areas of difference, some at the level of principle and others at the level of strategy. Underlying the three approaches are variant views of the nature of young children’s needs, interests, and modes of learning that lead to contrasts in the ways that teachers interact with children in the classroom, frame and structure learning experiences for children, and follow the children through observation/documentation. The article ends with discussion of the methods that researchers apply to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of each approach.
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