What’s the difference?

Fifteen differences between traditional and alternative approaches to schooling

This list itemises some of the differences between traditional and alternative schools. The list is meant to contrast the stereotypes rather than reflect the culture of any particular school.

It is unlikely that a school would have all the characteristics of one approach and none of the other. Most schools will have some characteristics of both approaches to a greater or lesser degree.

As you read the list, consider each characteristic with regard to the schools you attended, or those attended by your children.

  • teacherbellTraditional schools are authoritarian organisations in which children are expected to conform. Alternative schools are run more democratically with children involved in planning and decision making.
  • Teachers in traditional schools direct activitiesclay from a pre-established curriculum; while activities in alternative school are more spontaneous and child-centred, with children involved in planning and choosing their educational experiences.
  • In traditional schools, students are passive recipients of information; while in alternative schools, students are actively involved in learning, both mentally and physically.
  • readingInformation taught in a traditional school has an academic orientation and is often disconnected; while students in alternative schools learn about a wide range of topics by making connections with prior knowledge, and through interaction with the environment.
  • In traditional schools, information is transmitted by someone or something else; while in alternative schools, students discover their own answers, solutions, concepts and create their own interpretations.
  • talkingMost communication in traditional schools is one way: the teacher talks and students listen. Communication between students and teachers, and among children in alternative schools is reciprocal.
  • Most questions asked by traditional teachers are closed and deal with facts; while students in alternative schools are involved in reflective thinking, problem solving, and learning how to learn.
  • gardeningStudents in traditional schools do a lot of written work while emphasis is given to hands-on-activity in alternative schools.
  • Traditional teachers provide little corrective feedback or guidance to students; while teachers in alternative schools usually provide guidance, evaluation and direction to students.
  • People_16_Teacher_BlackboardIn traditional schools, instruction is usually given to the class as a whole. A greater emphasis is placed upon individual instruction in alternative schools.
  • old school roomDesks are usually arranged to face the chalkboard or whiteboard in traditional schools; while space is used more flexibly in alternative schools.
  • The main focus in a traditional school is on imparting the existing values and roles of the society and culture. In an alternative school emphasis is placed upon the importance of the child in society and on educating the child for a responsible, thinking role.

school cropped

  • In traditional schools students are generally grouped for work by ages, but in alternative schools children work at their own pace.
  • clockThe traditional school day is divided into sessions according to subject matter, while the organisation in an alternative school is flexible and loosely structured.
  • In traditional schools students remain dependent; while students in alternative schools are encouraged to develop independence.

How closely do the characteristics describe the schools attended by yourself or your children?

What do you see as the main similarities and differences?

Where would they sit along the continuum?

The school that I attended as a child was firmly embedded in traditional practices without any characteristics of an alternative approach.

However some changes in pedagogical theories have occurred over the years, and the schools attended by my own children, and those in which I have recently taught, while still traditional, have moved a little along the continuum towards a less rigid and more flexible approach in some areas.

In an earlier post “To school or not to school” I shared some thoughts I considered when making choices for the education of my children.

I invite you to leave a comment and share your views.

Which of the characteristics are most important to you when choosing a school for your child?

Which characteristics would encourage you to choose against a particular school?

All photos courtesy of http://www.morguefile.com/

Clipart from www.openclipart.org

4 thoughts on “What’s the difference?

  1. Bec

    Hi Nor, thanks for this post. It’s nice to see these ideas so well ‘packaged’ by you, and it creates a very stark comparison between the modes of traditional and alternative schooling. Thank you Rosie for your thoughts too – it’s always nice to hear what the wise “oldies” have to say!!!


    1. nco04662 Post author

      Hi Bec,

      Thanks for your comment. I guess you had a taste of both traditional and alternative. I wonder if you would have any other comparisons to offer?


  2. Rosie Thrupp

    Some of the reasons provided here form the reason for not using the word student. I know long give preference to that word. I prefer learner or child. I feel that student is the traditional word for the child who comes to school everyday to be feed irrelevant rubbish because the teacher or a system feels that is what is necessary if they are to grow up as controlled citizens providing fodder for a work force. On the other hand, a learner presents the idea that children come to school to learn and that learning how to learn is the business of schools; learning how to find the information to construct the knowledge for the context is what school is about.

    What a struggle it has been…40 years of trying to cooperatively work alongside teachers who want to dominate kids. I started teaching in an era when the majority of teachers thought it to be that way. Personality wise I was that way too having been brought up that way but at Teachers’ College I learned it was not to be that way when I did my Early Childhood courses and I had a huge ah ha experience…an then my struggle began to work in large bureacracy who only wanted to produce obedient workers who would provide profits for industry. Is this what school is about? Is this what school should be about?

    You know life is about living…your own life and the life of others…is it about the profits of others???


    1. nco04662 Post author

      Thanks for sharing, Rosie.
      And of course you are right. It’s that ongoing dilemma, “What’s in a name?” And I happen to think, quite a lot. The way we refer to the children, as learners or students helps to define how we think of them, and therefore how we respond to and interact with them.
      If we consider them simply to be empty vessels which need to be filled only with the information that others consider important, then we show little regard for their right to choose their own destiny and to have control over their own lives. It makes them powerless because there is always someone else who knows better than they do.
      Yes. It has been a 40 year battle, swimming against the tide, trying to keep everybody else afloat while trying not to drown in meaningless paperwork and the impositions of limiting expectations and testable isolated items.
      But Rosie, it’s not just we “oldies” asking these questions. Have a read of this blog:
      Who does it remind you of?



I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.