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Alternative models of education: a guide for parents

by Raya Bidshahri • October 15, 2022 • 2 minutes to read

Regardless of where we all went to school, chances are that we experienced a very similar type of schooling. Most of us experienced a model of learning where we were grouped with other students our age in “grades”. The knowledge we learned was organized into “subjects”. What we had to learn was determined by a national or international board curriculum. How well we learned was mostly evaluated through a summative standardized examination.

It sounds like stating the obvious, and this is because this narrative around what a “school” experience ought to be is deeply ingrained in our consciousness as a species. Whether you experienced the AP in the United States, the CBSE curriculum in India, or the “Konkoor” in Iran, almost all children in the world experience this model of schooling.

Yet, many parents around the world are starting to question and challenge these narratives. While they may work well for some learners, they often leave many learners disengaged. Consider, for example, that about 75% of children in the United States report that they hate going to school. That combined with the pace of change in our world, and the rise of entirely new industries, is causing many parents to question how and what their children are learning in schools.

But do we have any other alternatives?

Globally, we are experiencing a movement of schools and universities that are adopting “alternative” or “progressive” models of learning. These new pedagogies reimagine the learning journey in order to make the experience more personalized, curiosity-driven, and often engaging for the learners.

Some of these frameworks have been trialed and tested by hundreds of progressive schools around the world, over decades. Yet none have actually become mainstream globally – or at least, not yet.

Let’s dive into some alternative models of learning that parents should be aware of.


Mastery-based Learning

Simply put, Mastery-based learning is a framework of learning where learners can advance through the curriculum at their own pace. It is sometimes referred to as competency-based or outcome-based learning.

Schools that adopt such a model do not organize their learners into “grades” or “year groups”, but instead set (often rigorous) standards and then guide every learner to meet these standards at their own pace. It comes from the recognition that it’s about competency, not age.

Assessments in a mastery-based context often involve evaluating learner projects and work against a standard, rather than each other (we have standards, instead of bell curves). The model often goes hand-in-hand with the Mastery Transcript, an alternative to the traditional report card, where learning outcomes are evidenced through transferrable skills and a portfolio of projects. 


Challenge-based learning

As the name suggests, challenge-based learning involves learning by tackling real-world challenges. One common framework for challenge-based learning involves three phases:

  1. Engaging with the challenge, which involves exploring big ideas and key concepts
  2. Investigating the challenge, which involves research, inquiry, and problem analysis
  3. Acting on the challenge, which involves designing potential solutions or taking actions toward the challenge

For example, in the challenge “Designing Space Settlements”, we may start with exploring big ideas and concepts around human settlements on Mars along with the latest advancements.

In the investigation phase, we may begin to explore the challenge from the lens of different disciplines and ask questions such as: what is the difference between the atmosphere of Earth and Mars? How can we design an effective society and economic system on another planet? How can we grow food on Mars?

In the Act phase, the experience often becomes open-ended as learners are guided to explore artistic, entrepreneurial, technological, scientific, or policy-level solutions to the challenge.

In such a model of learning the curriculum is often not pre-set, but rather it emerges as a byproduct of a framework guided by learning facilitators.


Inquiry-based Learning

Possibly one of the most popular alternative models of education, inquiry-based learning, involves empowering the learner to follow their curiosity.

One of the tragedies of mainstream models of teaching and learning is that we are often spoon-fed with lots of information with no real opportunity to lead with our questions. We spend far more time learning how to answer questions than we learn how to ask them.

In contrast, many schools that follow true inquiry-based learning almost have no educator-led instruction or classes. Instead, learners design their own journey or curriculum based on the areas they are most interested in. The educators act as guides and facilitators, all with the mission of cultivating learners’ curiosity.


Project-based Learning

It’s no news that most of us learn best by doing. Project-based learning (PBL) involves developing key skills and knowledge through guided steps that lead to a learner-created artefact.

For example, instead of running a course on machine-generated Art, PBL may involve designing a guided project on “Creating a python-generated art piece”, where learners are guided through the steps of learning code to generate art.

In the process, they develop key knowledge, skills, and dispositions. This reframing of traditional courses inspires educators to prioritize hands-on experiences and direct applications of the curriculum areas. Learners also have the opportunity to see immediate applications of their learning.


Hybrid/Online Learning

In a post-COVID world, many of these pedagogies are being combined with hybrid and/or fully online learning as alternatives. As we all experienced during COVID, different schools take very different approaches to “online”, leaving some students hating the experience and others preferring it over in-person.

Yet, it’s not enough to simply digitize an outdated curriculum, we also need to reimagine what and how learners learn. The experience of hybrid or online also depends on how much of the learning is synchronous (in live sessions) and asynchronous (self-paced).

But with an increasing number of online schools and especially progressive online schools, parents around the world have more choices than ever.

“But these models are not proven, right?”

People are often surprised by the fact that thousands of schools and universities around the world have been adopting the models listed above. Examples of such progressive universities include Worcester Polytechnic Institute (US), London Interdisciplinary School (UK) and Tomorrow University (Germany). Examples of such progressive high schools include Agora School (Netherlands), NuVu Innovation School (US), and Green School (Indonesia & New Zealand).

It is also important to note that the models above are not mutually exclusive. At School of Humanity, for instance, we adopt a combination of challenge-based, project-based, mastery-based, and inquiry-based learning in an online-first context.

There is no doubt that we have a long way to go before such models are equally accessible globally, and equitable to all. And there is also no doubt that there isn’t one model that is recommended for all. While some learners may prefer inquiry-based learning, that same model may serve to be too open-ended for a different group of learners who would prefer learning through guided projects.

The hope, ultimately, is that such models of learning become mainstream so that every child, and parent, has a choice of a model that is just right.

Raya Bidshahri

Raya Bidshahri

Founder & CEO, School of Humanity. Award-winning educator, serial entrepreneur and futurist.


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