Community Based Learning: An Examination of Alternative Education

Alternative education in North America, is relatively unknown despite the fact that it has been in practice for more than forty years. Most people have very little idea of what an alternative school is or how it compares to a traditional learning environment. When looking at alternative schools, one often finds innovative ideas about the importance of community within the educational framework. Alternative schools deemphasize the importance of age, academic ability, and hierarchical power structures that are so often prevalent in traditional educational settings. Much of the Alternative philosophy and pedagogy seen in practice today stem from philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, who emphasize the important role of a community based environment in education. With this in mind, the purpose of this paper will be to examine how alternative schools differ from traditional schools, as well as how the philosophies of Rousseau and Pestalozzi have shaped the community based learning environment seen in most alternative school settings.

To begin, let us examine the differences between traditional and alternative school environments. The statement of goals for many alternative schools takes aim at “dejuvenilizing” secondary education, meaning that alternative schools tend to try to find ways of involving students in curriculum planning and school governance. The aim of this is to reduce the isolation of the youth culture within the school, while making the student’s involvement in the school more relevant.[1] This can take a variety of forms, such as allowing students to set school policy, create course timetables, and interview prospective students who wish to attend the school. Alternative settings also tend to have much smaller learning environments where education rather then attendance is emphasized, which allows greater flexibility for many of the older students who may have other commitments such as full or part-time employment. This flexibility also adds to the atmosphere of the school by reflecting an awareness of “our society’s multicultural, multiethnic and interdependent world.”[2]

The main difference between alternative school settings and a traditional learning environment is the lack of a hierarchical power structure, which places the teacher above the student. This is accomplished in a variety of ways; for instance, in most alternative schools students are encouraged to address teachers by their first names. Likewise, students and school staff are not isolated from each other outside of the classroom and so segregated environments like staff rooms and student cafeterias do not exist. Both the teacher and the learner interact inside and outside of the classroom and are therefore placed within a setting that promotes community involvement. In comparing a traditional school to an alternative setting, Ryan Slashinsky a current educator in the Toronto District School Board reflects:

Through several years of teaching experience in other schools, I discovered that much of the dominant framework of mainstream education was antithetical to my own philosophical and pedagogical goals and convictions. Strict enforcement of authoritarian models made the types of non-coercive intergenerational relationships I hoped to build impossible. Hierarchical power relationships between teachers and students, with their respective roles rigidly defined, inhibited honest, responsive, and collaborative modes of communicative exchange, of living and learning.[3]

As we have seen, alternative school environments tend to differ in several ways from traditional school settings, most notably in terms of the schools organization and power structure with alternative schools focusing on a community based approach.

Let us now examine the educational philosophies of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi in order to establish how their educational philosophies and ideas have been put into practice in alternative based learning communities. The eighteenth-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s educational philosophies can be viewed as a product of the ideological movement known as the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment illustrates a significant paradigm shift away from a belief in a supernatural order towards a scientific worldview that sought to understand universal truths about reality and nature through observation and experimentation. In keeping with this tradition, Rousseau’s educational philosophies sought to examine the way children learn in natural settings in order to effectively teach them in a school atmosphere.

Rousseau’s observations led him to believe that children learn most effectively when they follow their own interests rather than a prescribed curriculum. Rousseau also observed: “Education in traditional schools ignored the child’s inherent unspoiled primitive natural instincts. Instead of following the child’s natural development, it emphasized that children learn to play the roles expected of members of their socioeconomic class.”[4] The traditional school environments based on theological premises saw children as corrupt creatures that needed to be disciplined by authoritarian teachers. In contrast, Rousseau believed that children must be educated within a natural environment where their inherently good qualities and characteristics can guide the process of their education. He begins his book Emile with the idea that education must begin with the student not the teacher.

Like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi’s philosophy of education emphasized that children are naturally good and only become evil when they are corrupted by society rather than by a weak nature. Pestalozzi believed that a good education could act as a counter-balance to a corrupted individual and put them back in line with the good impulses of their nature. For both Rousseau and Pestalozzi, human growth could be viewed according to defined stages and sensation took precedence over a word-based education. The best way to educate, accordingly, is to appeal to emotional experience rather than moral preaching. Both these thinkers believed that the natural environment provides a rich source of educational opportunities.

With this in mind, Pestalozzi structured his educational theory to center around the idea of a caring mother figure. Pestalozzi had observed that emotional growth was just as important as cognitive development. He found that many of his students were suspicious, frightened, and emotionally withdrawn from their educations, but became much more open to their studies when they were given the opportunity to feel self-worth and self-esteem. Pestalozzi concluded that one of the most important roles for a teacher is to foster an attitude of confidence in their students and to create a safe environment where learning can take place. Pestalozzi also believed this was important because once a student’s sense of self-worth is expanded, this confidence is extended to the people of the local community who then inspire the nation as a whole.

The connection between educational philosophers like Rousseau and Pestalozzi to the educational ideologies and pedagogy of alternative learning communities should at this point be clear. Both Rousseau and Pestalozzi emphasized the need for educational frameworks to mirror a natural setting in which the learner can feel comfortable and part of a larger community. The community based approach found in alternative schools stands as an example of this ideology put into practice in several distinct ways. By emphasizing community involvement through participation, these schools set themselves apart as being more than a transitory place of preparation for higher learning and establish themselves as not only a place to learn but also as a place to grow within a community of diverse individuals with complex needs and values. Through deemphasizing a hierarchical structure, alternative schools create an environment that fosters self-esteem and confidence in the learner. In alternative school settings students are not oppressed by the power structures of school administration and organization, but instead, they are a part of them. This experience increases many of their feelings of self-worth and allows them to focus on their education. As we have seen, Rousseau stressed that effective education must begin with the student and that any distraction from student learning must be removed. This safe learning environment also falls directly in line with what Pestalozzi would term as the “general method”, that is, a space in which students are free to explore and learn without fear of punishment or retribution.

In summation, the purpose of this paper has been to examine how alternative schools differ from traditional schools as well as how the philosophies of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi have influenced the community based learning environment seen in most alternative school settings. There is little doubt of the importance of a strong community based learning atmosphere within an educational setting, however many traditional institutions lack the ability to establish such communities due to large class size and curricular demands. In contrast, alternative learning communities have often been able to establish strong community ties that allow for extraordinary learning opportunities for students by involving them within school governance and by placing the students within a safe and comfortable environment that emphasizes equality and diversity catered towards individual needs.

[1] Broad, Lyn. Alternative Schools: Why, What, Where & How Much. Virginia: National School Public Relations Association, 1977. Pg. 6.

[2] Broad, Lyn. Alternative Schools: Why, What, Where & How Much. Pg. 6.

[3] Slashinsky, Ryan. Working Towards a Subversive Learning Community: Investigating Relations, Perspectives, and Visions, in an Alternative School Setting. Toronto: York University Press, 2006. Pg. 1.

[4] Gutek, G. Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Prophet of Naturalism. Boston, MA: Pearson Education Company, 2011. Pg. 84.

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