- A burdensome curriculum with too heavy a mental load for small children.
- Emphasis on memorizing rather than on understanding.
- Weak or non-existent emphasis on physical and cultural development.
- Insensitive and overburdened teachers, an unhealthy student-teacher ratio, and a profit-centered administration.
- Encouraging competitiveness and paranoia about one's future.
Alternative education systems seek to address the above problems. Its distinguishing characteristics from ordinary education can be classified in three broad categories:
- Methodological Distinction (difference of means): Schools in this category do not dispute the aims of education but explore new teaching methodologies. Examples are the various elite schools with a high teacher-student ratio, the Playway schools, the Montessori movemnt, the Totto-chan experiment, etc. I think educational experiments should be very welcome and they should go hand-in-hand with latest advances in child psychology and educational psychology.
- Ideological Distinction (difference of ends): The vast majority of alternative schools in India and abroad fall in this category. They usually have an agenda of forming a certain kind of elevated personality or consciousness in the child. Examples in India include the KFI schools, Aurobindo Schools, Waldorf Education schools, and almost all schools backed by a religious or spiritual institution (e.g. the Isha schools, schools run by SGPC, the Arya Samaj or DAV schools, schools run by Sathya Sai Baba, schools run by Asaram Bapu, etc.). Many schools run by large religious institutions pay only lip service to value-education and are not generally distinguished from normal schools.
There are schools which, though not aligned with a religious institution, have other values as their foundation. For example, the Sarang school focuses on environmental sustainability, Jeevan Vidya focuses on harmony and other humanistic values, and so on.
- Demographic Distinction: Various NGOs in India and in other developing countries are trying to bring literacy and education to underprivileged children via small organizational initiatives. Theirs is indeed a laudable activity.
Obviously, a school can be "alternative" in more than one way. For example, the KFI schools have a very good teacher-student ratio but they also have an ideologically different basis (based on the teachings of J Krishnamurti).
Some claim that normal school education is already agenda-driven, that it seeks to create a subservient, docile, consumption-oriented and fearful human being. I agree that most students turn out like that, but I disagree that is what the schools intend. I think these effects are not aimed at by normal schools. These are unfortunate and unintended effects of the mindsets of stressed parents, disinterested and alienated teachers; and the pressure to succeed (from the peer-groups, one's family, one's own desires which are fueled by the media and the perception of cut-throat competition in today's world).
Especially in India, where there is a strong spiritual content in its culture, the stresses of modern life (including in education) are seen as a "western" influence. Sensitive parents, scared of harming their children in normal schools, perhaps unthinkingly enroll them in value-based schools without deeply evaluating the school's philosophy (which in most cases is replete with religious undertones).
Most well-run ideologically distinguished schools make it a point to counsel parents, before and during the child's education, so that parents don't end up unintentionally blocking the work of the teachers.
My concern is whether it is possible to find a third alternative to both a so-called "western" education (in which the primary aim is to equip the child to be financially successful) and what I consider a "spiritual" education (in which the primary aim is spiritual upliftment, to the detriment of mental and intellectual development). Looks like a teaching paradigm based on humanistic-scientific values (grace and courtesy, aesthetics, physical and mental health, rationality, enquiry) might not be a bad idea, but such schools seem to be very rare. Most schools have questionable belief systems behind them.
Does it have to do with a distrust of science and with an attachment to one's own culture, howsoever regressive? Or is it because it is easier to be unscientific as long as it feels good, both for the teachers and the parents?
What do you think?