The rise of alternative schools: A paradigm shift in learning

According to a survey, 78 percent of parents believe that holistic development is more important than academic achievement.

BySanjana Samraj

Published May 18, 2024 | 2:00 PMUpdatedMay 18, 2024 | 7:21 PM

Representational image. (iStock)

“The Indian education system is broken” is a common statement that is loosely passed around with a smirk.

There is almost a satisfaction with how the system malfunctions and inertia towards change because the revival of this system will make many people uncomfortable, and it will definitely take effort.

A monumental amount of drive and hope. From a zoomed-in perspective, the education system looks messy, rigid and unable to catch up with the world. But when you zoom out for a moment, you notice small movements of change happening in the country.

A slow bubbling and rise of parents and educators who are tired of mainstream traditional education and want better for the next generation. According to a survey conducted by the Indian Market Research Bureau, 78 percent of parents believe that holistic development is more important than academic achievement. This sentiment is reflected in the growing enrollment numbers of alternative schools, which have increased by 15 percent annually over the past five years.

Also read: Politicising education

What is alternative education?

It is an education that is an alternative to the mainstream traditional education system. I like to use the analogy of a spectrum as it helps you visualize its many options.

On one end, proper mainstream schools focus only on grades and academics. On the other end, there are alternative schools with no exams, children are assessed through formative assessments, and the focus is on helping the child express themselves through various mediums. But now, the interesting part is that most alternative schools in India have found a sweet spot that lies somewhere in the middle of this spectrum.

They have no exams and focus holistically on the child until the 8th standard, after which they prepare for the board examinations. This way, children have a holistic education approach and board exam marks, which help them find more opportunities when needed. Indian Education Boards that accommodate this sweet spot are NIOS, IGCSE, and IB.

The differentiators

Here are a few pointers that make a school alternative:

• There is less hierarchy between teacher and student compared to a mainstream setup. It can be seen as a more collaborative environment.
• ⁠Room exists for student-led learning, where the child can have a say in what they want to learn based on their interests.
• ⁠It means more interaction with nature rather than just sitting in the classroom.
• There is a focus on doing and creating rather than just textbook knowledge.
• It provides a space that doesn’t compare one child with another based on their academic performance.
• Such a school allows a child to fail and work around it rather than making them feel embarrassed about the failure.

Related: Grim realities of education

Common sense education

Will children be ready for the real world if they study in such a school?

Once, while speaking to a world-renowned educator, she told me she does not like the term “alternative education” used in her school. She said it makes it look like it is away from what needs doing, whereas alternative education practices are plain common sense.

Allowing children to collaborate, talk to each other, enjoy the learning process, innovate, and create art are all normal things. What is, in fact, an alternative way of life is asking children not to talk for the entire day, to sit still, or face punishment for making mistakes.

When we start looking at school as a part of life and not as a separate simulation, the existing system will slowly begin to look dystopian.

“Will my child be able to cope with the real world?” is a common question I hear parents ask when they hear the term alternative education. I think we forget that the ability to adapt and be competitive is already part of our genetic formulation.

Related: Empowering government schools

Evolving world

This “real” world we believe we are preparing our children for is evolving rapidly, so we might as well help our children develop as holistically as possible so they can learn how to innovate, create, and adapt as effectively as possible.

An example from the recent past is when AI came out of nowhere! Children supposedly in school readying for the “real world”  faced a world that didn’t look anything like it did in their textbooks.

There was a sense of overwhelm and hopelessness. Schools failed to prepare them for the “real world”; it just gave them enough information to graduate.

Thus, a better way to make children ready for the real world would be to give them an array of experiences and opportunities to learn in a way that involves all their senses, cognitive abilities and physical capacities so that when the time comes, they have an inbuilt confidence and intrinsic motivation that allows them to adapt and thrive.

Related: Education allocations

Identifying the “alternative”

According to data from the Ministry of Education, the number of alternative schools in India has more than doubled in the past decade, from 5000 in 2010 to over 12,000 in 2020. The number will gradually increase as more parents begin to see the holistic benefits of such a space.

However, there might be many spaces now that call themselves “an alternative” without the real value of the term. That’s why it is important to remember the pointers mentioned above and visit the school physically before deciding. The child’s body language and the freedom with which they talk will be your greatest indicator.

There is no such thing as the “best” alternative school; the beauty of alternatives is that they give parents and children an option that suits them best. Unlike the current mainstream system, where all children need to mould themselves to the rigidity already present, in this case, parents need to find a school that suits their child’s personality and allows their child to grow in the best way possible.

Finally, alternative education is not a magical cure for all of the existing problems, but definitely our best shot at fixing the Indian education system.

(Sanjana Samraj is an educator and advocate for alternative education, passionate about revolutionizing traditional learning methods. Views are personal.)

(Edited by VVP Sharma.)