‘Our education system is broken’ is a refrain heard nearly everywhere. But unlike other throwaway observations, this one has more than a kernel of truth in it. That our system is only capable of mass-producing identical worker bees with little creativity or originality of their own is an accepted fact. The idiosyncrasies, quirks, uniqueness of every child are stomped out right from their birth and this process continues till adulthood. What else explains the mad scramble for a seat in our institutes of excellence that, just by happenstance, are in the engineering, management and medical fields? Research has shown that learning always takes place against a backdrop of existing knowledge, and this obviously differs from person to person (my current repository of knowledge is not the same as yours). However, curriculums and teaching methods are designed as one-size-fits-all rather than recognising that each student is different with their own talents, strengths, weaknesses and desires. Most of us were already aware of this ugly truth even as young students; this tragic realisation turns into resigned acceptance as one grows older.

What is alternative about alternative education?

But there’s no reason to be a sheep and a growing number of parents in this country are rebelling against this kind of predesigned future for their children. There could be a multitude of reasons for a parent to look at alternative schools – their children have special needs and/or are gifted; there’s a wide gulf in the philosophy underpinning their chosen mode of upbringing and what mainstream schools offer; they want their children to grow in a self-directed learning environment; or there’s simply the recognition that every child is different and pigeon-holing them in standardised systems doesn’t work.

Although many people in India still assume ‘alternative’ to mean ‘special needs’, alternative education actually refers to pedagogical approaches that veer away from mainstream, traditional methods that are typically uniform, predefined, rigid, and designed to pass standardised tests. Alternative education is open to all and emphasise free expression, creativity, experiential and customised learning, small class sizes, an intimate learning environment, flexibility, greater involvement of parents, and a sense of community. At times, this takes the form of home schooling or self-education. Often, such education occurs in independent, non-mainstream or open schools. Alternative education is often rooted in various philosophies that are fundamentally different from mainstream education, whose main objective is to produce compliant workforces for mainstream jobs.

The benefits of alternative education can be understood along the following lines:

  • Customised, flexible learning: Alternative methods allow for each child’s individuality to be recognised and nurtured. The learning schedules are kept flexible and lesson plans are taught at the child’s learning pace rather than some externally imposed timeline. Desired outcomes are not about passing exams but on personal development and self-exploration. None of this is coercive or forced.
  • Modern curriculum: The curriculum is usually kept up-to-date with diverse knowledge sources, even as some alternative schools ensure that traditional learning is incorporated into it.
  • Creativity and experiential learning: Instead of rote learning or regular, one-way classroom teaching, these schools put more emphasis on learning by doing, creative sessions (art, pottery, music, farming, etc.), experiential learning, and language skills (including foreign languages). There are enough studies that prove that children learn and develop more quickly when such methods are used. Plus, they discover their likes, interests and talents, helping set the foundation for them to become unique individuals who do what they love.
  • Low student-teacher ratio: A common feature among all alternative schools (the legitimate ones, in any case) is the small class size with dedicated teachers. Personalised attention from teachers and friendships among children follow naturally.
  • Fostering a sense of community: As class sizes are small, parents, teachers and students are able to interact on a personal level with shared values and commitment. This has the potential to bring everyone together as members of one community. These shared values are inculcated into the child from a tender age, which they carry right through adulthood as empathetic, confident individuals.
  • Common vision and philosophy: Parents choose alternative schools that match their own philosophy. They take an active interest in the curriculum and day-to-day activities – this ensures that there’s no disconnect between what they want for their children and what the school offers.
  • Higher retention and varied knowledge: Students learn for the love of knowledge and have the option to delve deeper into subjects that they are genuinely interested in. This necessarily translates into higher retention and deeper understanding of subject matters. The purpose is not to pass exams but explore, understand, question, and contradict. An important outcome of this is that their self-confidence remains intact as failure to ace standardised tests is not a concept that’s known to them.
  • Emotional intelligence: Many alternative philosophies give equal importance to developing the emotional intelligence of the child, apart from the mental and creative aspects. The aim is to ensure the full self-development of the child and instil values such as responsibility, empathy, honesty, and a free-thinking, scientific mind.

Aside from the benefits listed above, the positive fallouts of a form of education that encourages children to devise their own path and follow their interests without being subjected to the fear of failure, non-conformity or subliminal negative messages (for instance, not being able to grasp a particular concept at the same time as others) is pretty self-evident.

Alternative education philosophies

Some of the most popular alternative education methods are explained here.

  • Montessori: Possibly the most well-known alternative teaching philosophy in India, unfortunately here it has been relegated to pre-schools of all shapes, sizes and often dubious credibility. Montessori encourages children to spend most of their time in activities of their own choice and at their own pace. Tactile learning – that is, learning by doing or involving the sense of touch and fine motor movements – is a big part of Montessori. The environment is essentially self-directed learning and non-competitive as there’s no formal assessment.
  • Waldorf/ Steiner: Rudolf Steiner developed the Waldorf/ Steiner educational model to develop the ‘whole child’ – focusing on creativity, spiritual values and social responsibility for the mind, body and soul. Children are taught based on their own developmental characteristics. Till the age of 7, Waldorf schools stress on non-cognitive abilities; children are encouraged to play and interact with their environment, taught to write (before reading), and largely kept away from academic content in a traditional setting. For the age group 7–14, creativity and imagination are given primary attention through methods such as teaching of foreign languages, eurythmy – an expressive dance developed by Steiner, and other performing arts. By the age of 14, the learning environment becomes more structured with social responsibility being a key part of the values imparted.
  • Reggio Emilia: Like Montessori, Reggio Emilia is applicable to young kids, mostly around the ages of 3 to 6. The focus is on creativity with at least one art teacher to guide the students. Parental involvement is also heavily encouraged. Like most alternative pedagogies, it lets children grow and develop on their own terms and pace. The schedule and curriculum are kept flexible.
  • Harkness: The Harkness method is centred on an oval table where students and teacher sit together and discuss a variety of subjects. Rejecting the traditional sermon-like setup of classrooms, students discuss, debate and shape opinions, with the teacher acting as a benign moderator and ensuring everyone has a fair share in the discussions. Respectful discourse, higher recall and retention rates, and better learning are some noteworthy outcomes.
  • Sudbury: Students are given full autonomy in this method with control over curriculum, schedules, rules and assessment. The idea is to allow them to assume responsibility over their learning, unlearning, and destinies. Collaborative learning and mentorship are hallmarks of this approach. This is possibly the most democratic of all alternative philosophies.
  • Escuelas Nuevas: These are alternative schools based on the idea of improved basic education for children from poor families and are mostly prevalent in developing countries. The emphasis is on respect for the rights of children, with collaborative learning and personalised teaching methods. These are organised as community schools, with active participation from families and the wider community as well.

It is noteworthy that ancient India had education philosophies like the Vedic system and Gurukul which differed from modern systems, even though the method was still teacher-to-student knowledge acquisition. Currently, Rabindranath Tagore’s Shanti Niketan, Jiddu Krishnamurthy’s schools, Ashram schools, and Walden’s Path Magnet School are some common examples of Indian-bred alternative education systems. Religious philosophies tend to feature prominently in some of these models.

Alternative schools in India

Here we look at some of the alternative schools in India.

One of the first Waldorf schools in Delhi-NCR, Ukti was founded in 2013 by a group of parents, disillusioned by mainstream schooling and desiring better options for their kids. It is a member of the International Association for Steiner/Waldorf Early Childhood Education (IASWECE) and follows the ‘hands, heart, head’ approach of Waldorf education. Right now, it has mixed-age kindergarten and Grades 1 to 4, growing one grade per year. The vision is to provide Waldorf education from early childhood through high school years.

All subjects are introduced creatively through stories, poetry and movement. There is one main lesson every day (one academic subject is taken up for a block of 3–4 weeks), after which children create their own record of the lesson, as per their understanding. Ample time is given to languages, music, arts and crafts, and outdoor play. Ukti’s annual fair is a popular event that has stalls displaying organic/handmade/recycled/upcycled items, clothing and accessories, artisanal items, food, and old books along with various workshops on art and crafts (lantern making, pottery, crocheting), gardening, storytelling, etc.

Another Waldorf/ Steiner school, Tridha has been around since 2000. Located in Mumbai, it has a pretty sizeable number of students (500) and classes till 12th. While the Steiner curriculum is followed, students take the IGCSE exams in grades 10 and 12 (common practice among the older Waldorf schools). Hence, the senior classes have a mix of both curriculums – for example, History and Understanding of Drama alongside conventional subjects such as Math and Economics. True to the philosophy, there are no tests and exams till class 7. Rather, children are assessed in basic numeracy and literacy skills through regular class screening and individual assessment. The idea is to discourage students from valuing their own merit and worth through test results.

One of the seven schools run by the Krishnamurti Foundation of India, Sahyadri follows the education philosophy espoused by J Krishnamurti, who stressed on self-inquiry for both students and teachers. The Pune school is characterised by its small student size (around 300), low student-teacher ratios, emphasis on environmental studies (helped by the sprawling green campus), lack of uniform, and no tests till high school. While the school is affiliated to ICSE, as per the Krishnamurti model it is differentiated from other private schools by the many creative, co-curricular activities that students engage in. The nature of student- teacher relationship is based on mutual respect and on the underlying idea that these schools should ‘fundamentally exist to help both the student and the teacher to flower in goodness.’

CB view

Although the number of parents looking for alternative models and schools is growing, they are limited to a specific socioeconomic category. Not surprisingly, they are well-educated, upper middle-class, live in posh areas of big cities, and are liberal in their outlook. They are also aware of educational issues and already actively involved in their child’s education. Students from low-income groups, underprivileged section, and ‘conservative’ families are rare. Hence, the tendency to become exclusive and elitist is very real. And when children are exposed to kids of only their ‘kind’, their thinking, worldview, and sense of reality can become distorted. After all, how can you care for social problems when your own lived experience doesn’t accommodate for people who have suffered through those problems? This is where alternative schools need to be careful – while it may not be possible for them to bring in diversity when it comes to socioeconomic groups (poor families are likely to prioritise good, stable jobs for their children instead of them discovering their true selves), efforts to expose students to real-world issues and realities can help ensure that they don’t live in a cosy bubble. Programmes to help low-income students with funding and scholarships also need to be put in place. Alternative shouldn’t imply alt-reality.

The key for alternative schools is to really offer something different in their teaching and learning environments. Small deviations from mainstream methods won’t work and neither will old practices that are renamed and repackaged. The chosen education philosophy needs to be adhered to with adjustments made to suit the Indian ethos and culture. However, adaptability cannot mean wholesale overhaul. Teachers and administrators also need to define their roles as well as the parents’, the basic rules and regulations (if any), the kind of organisation that they want to be, and what their overarching goals and intentions are. Clarity of purpose is an essential requirement. In the end, there is no one system or method that is the best or that can work for everyone. The key contribution of alternative schools is that they bring in much-needed diversity to our education system and force people to think and act differently.