Alternative Education Styles

This was a short (very, very short 1000-word) paper I submitted for a subject called “Christianity and Culture”. I got 21/25 for it, which was quite pleasing. The brief was:

“Write a short research paper (1000 words) that analyses a particular cultural trend. This can build on the example presented in class, but must not be a simple repetition of what was presented to the class. This should follow the pattern of the examples given in the text. The goal is not simply to pick a current cultural trend with which Christians disagree. The goal is to learn to recognise and interpret the more subtle influences the culture around us and the proponents of that culture are trying to have on us.”

_________________________________

As the world transitions from the ordered world of absolutes in the modern period to the more relativistic world of postmodernism, schools and the education theories underpinning them are not unaffected.

With rising numbers of homeschoolers and unschoolers, expanding Montessori and Waldorf-Steiner campuses, and state schools espousing Reggio-Emilia and nature-based learning styles, it is important for Christians to know what to think of these methods, how to respond to them, and how much to accept them into their daily lives.

Observation

The local government primary school at the end of my road has a sign which proclaims that “Bush School is a Success – Accepting Enrolments”. I have often wondered what a “Bush School” is. According to the school’s website: “Upper Sturt Primary School is the perfect bush school site. Out beautiful bushland is inspiration for nature play-based learning, bringing the latest wellbeing and engagement research together… [We teach] within a personalised framework for each child.”[1]

The school eschews technologies such as wi-fi, and describes itself as “small by design”, with less than fifty pupils and no school uniform. It is, according to the views of many Hillsites, along with nearby Bridgewater Primary, the perfect example of a forward-thinking school.

Homeschooling is also popular in the Hills, and is growing nationwide, with an estimated 12 000 registered homeschooled children and up to 30 000 unregistered[2]. Homeschooling methods vary, and ranged from the “school at home” textbook method to “unschooling” un-teaching, with many degrees in between, including “eclectic”, “classical”, “natural”, and “unit studies”.[3] Reasons for homeschooling vary, but around 25% list the primary reason as unhappiness with the conventional style of the local school.[4]

The Hills is also home to several alternative private schools, including one Waldorf-Steiner campus and two Montessori campuses. The Montessori method is similar, teaching in small groups of mixed ages, basing learning on play rather than books, and listing one of its values as “educating the whole child and guiding their individual development[5].

This isn’t an isolated trend. The current textbook used for teaching students at Adelaide University suggests that pupils be taught in mixed-age and mixed-level groups based on “need, ability, friendship or interest”.[6] The book also promotes the Reggio Emilia style, which encourages placing the child in the central role and the teacher as “co-constructor in the learning process”.[7]

Discussion

These schools and education methods span all spectrums of the schooling world, from the home to the classroom and from government to private. But they all hold three things in common: the first, that they are growing in popularity; the second, that they encourage learning through experiences rather than textbooks; and third, that they place the individual child at the centre of the learning process.

Each method discussed here encourages the child to take some amount of responsibility for his own behaviour, including interactions with others and study time. They encourage children to observe their environment and learn from that, and to gain independence and competence. However, this can be – and often is – pushed to the extreme of the children, rather than the adults, dictating what is learnt, how, and when.

On the face of it, learning through living is not contrary to the Bible at all. In Deuteronomy, parents are encouraged to teach their children, through words, at all hours and in all activities[8]. In many places, the Lord teaches people by having them observe the world around them[9], and Jesus does the same[10].

However, the Biblical order of things places children under the wisdom and guidance of their parents and other adults[11]. Although it agrees that children have some responsibility for their own actions[12], they should pay attention to what their parents (and other adults) teach them[13], because, as children, they don’t have the understanding that adults have[14].

Therefore, we can see that while a theory of education which acknowledges the child’s individual needs and his environment, and the potential use of that environment as a teaching tool, is not only prudent but exampled to us by God, parents and teachers must at the same time be careful not to put the individual child on a pedestal which allows him to make his own decisions and dictate his own learning.[15]

Conclusion

Alternative education styles and methods have become almost mainstream and are growing in popular. Theories of schooling which emphasise individual needs and learning through play and life are present to varying degrees in all parts of the education world, from the home to the classroom and from government to private schools. In the Hills, alternative education is particularly popular, with several government and private schools using alternative education styles such as Montessori, Waldorf-Steiner, Reggio Emilia, Robinson and Dweck, as well as a large and growing homeschooling community.

While some aspects of these educational styles align with Biblical ideals and the teaching method used by God and Christ, such as teaching through observation, life, and the environment, it is important that Christians remember the Biblical order of things and not allow the child himself to dictate how and what he learns.

The trend towards alternative education styles, a very postmodern way of thinking, has its merits; but, as with anything else in life, the Christian must take it with a pinch of salt and compare the education methods with Biblical values for education and childraising.

Footnotes

[1] Upper Sturt Primary School, 2014, Where the wild things are… Introducing Upper Sturt Primary School, Government of South Australia, Upper Sturt, accessed 30 November 2015, http://www.uppersturtps.sa.edu.au

[2] Homeschooling Downunder, 2015, Essential Facts for Homeschooling in Australia, Michelle Morrow, accessed 30 November 2015, https://www.homeschoolingdownunder.com/homeschooling-australia

[3] Homeschooling Downunder, 2015, Explaining Homeschool Methods, Michelle Morrow, accessed 30 November 2015, https://www.homeschoolingdownunder.com/homeschool-methods

[4] News ABC, 2012, Thousands of Parents Illegally Homeschooling, Ian Townsend, accessed 30 November 2015, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-01-28/thousands-of-parents-illegally-home-schooling/3798008

[5] The Hills Montessori School, 2015, About Montessori Education, Alex Kebbell, accessed 30 November 2015, http://montessori.sa.edu.au/introducing-hills-montessori/about-montessori-education

[6] Groundwater-Smith, S, Ewing, R & le Cornu, R, 2011, Teaching: Challenges and Dilemmas, 4th edn, Cengage Learning, South Melbourne, Victoria. – Chapter 4 The nature of learning, Grouping for different purposes, pg. 81

[7] Groundwater-Smith, S, Ewing, R & le Cornu, R, 2011, Teaching: Challenges and Dilemmas, 4th edn, Cengage Learning, South Melbourne, Victoria. – Chapter 4 The nature of learning, Reggio Emilia, pg. 84

[8] Deuteronomy 6:7

[9] Genesis 15:5, Job 38-41

[10] Mark 13:1-2, Luke 21:29-33

[11] Ephesians 6:1-4, 1 Peter 5:5

[12] Proverbs 20:11

[13] Proverbs 1:7-10

[14] 1 Corinthians 13:11

[15] Proverbs 22:6, also see Hugenberger, GP, 2007, ‘Train Up a Child’, Basics of Biblical Hebrew Grammar, pp. 162-163.

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