Alternative education is a term defining many different pedagogical approaches differing from that of the mainstream pedagogy employed in a culture. Such alternative learning environments may be found within state, charter, and independent schools as well as home-based learning environments. Educational alternatives emphasize small class sizes, close relationships between students and teachers, a sense of community and effective learning. The legal framework for such education varies by locality. The location determines any obligation to conform to mainstream standard tests and grades.
The differences among the various alternative education models reflect diverse moral and philosophical orientations: Some aim to maximize freedom in learning; others provide what they consider to be a child-nurturing structure of one sort or another. Some are rooted in specific religious or cultural understandings; others, in ideals of social justice or ecological wisdom. Some proponents of educational alternatives have insisted that the learner’s freedom and autonomy should be limited as little as possible, even not at all. They believe that learning always starts with the individual’s needs, goals, and desires, and not with any supposed body of knowledge or societal demands. For these alternative educators, the ideal education embraces the exact opposite of transmission: It centers on a learner’s entirely self-motivated exploration of whatever the world has to offer that seems relevant to the learner’s own life. This full-bodied individualism has a long and colorful history in education. Independent, or private, schools have flexibility in staff selection and educational approach.
Many are Montessori and Waldorf schools (the latter also known as Steiner schools, after their founder Rudolf Steiner). Other independent schools include democratic or free schools, such as Clonlara School, which is the oldest, continually operating K-12 alternative school in the country, the Sudbury schools, open classroom schools, those based on experiential education and schools using an international curriculum such as the International Baccalaureate and Round Square schools.