If you cringe at the idea of school bells managing students’ days, kids asking for permission to use the bathroom, endless standardized testing, and other disadvantages of the one-size-fits-all model of traditional public and private education, you’re not alone. Yet venturing into the unstructured territory of alternative school models can be intimidating.
Alternative education is anything but one-size-fits-all. The diversity of options can make it difficult to find what works in the sea of sometimes conflicting information about learning theory, education models, and best practices for parents considering alternative education.
This article breaks down the eleven most common alternative education models you’ll hear about (listed alphabetically). Many of these models overlap with each other. Some are more similar to “regular” school while others are wildly different. Some families may find a single model works well for their kids. Others will want to choose from multiple approaches so their kids have as much autonomy as possible.
This freedom of choice makes alternative education powerful.
11 Alternative Education Models and Where to Learn More About Them (in alphabetical order)
Acton schools are known as “one room schoolhouses for the 21st century.” They were started by Laura and Jeff Sandefer, entrepreneurs with a goal of combining the most successful school models of the past with the present’s best technology and learning science.
Acton schools are named after Lord John Emerich Edward Dahlberg Acton (1834-1902). He was “a Victorian scholar of Freedom who saw liberty not as a license, but as the freedom to do what was right.” (Acton FAQ page) Freedom is a core concept behind the way Acton Academy functions.
Key pieces of the Acton Academy philosophy include:
- The education philosophy centers around the “hero’s journey”: each kid is the hero of his own story and possesses the agency to change the world.
- “Teaching” happens through adaptive game-based programs for core skills.
- Acton Academies use Socratic discussions to strengthen critical thinking.
- Students complete hands-on real world projects and life-changing apprenticeships as a core part of their education.
Acton academies are a perfect fit for families who value project-based learning as well as economic, political, and religious freedom.
Interested in Acton schools? Here’s where to start:
[Ted Talk] Jeff Sandefer on Acton’s philosophy of education
[Video] A Day at an Acton Academy
[School Locator] An exhaustive list of Acton Academies across the world
[Book] Courage to Grow: How Acton Academy Turns Learning Upside Down by Laura Sandefer
Acton Academy Parents
Acton Launchpad (Acton’s version of high school)
Real life Examples of Acton Academies:
Acton Austin (main campus)
River Oak Academy
Blended learning combines online education with an in-person learning experience away from home. Blended learning is not “traditional school but online” like we saw during Covid. Instead, blended learning recognizes the value of getting out of the house while still allowing kids control over their time, learning pace, and subject interest.
Blended learning prioritizes kids consistently getting out of the comfort of their home environment to interact socially with a learning community.
Some schools, like Fusion, offer an in-person or hybrid option for students in the area. But it can be hard to find an alternative school in your area that prioritizes blended learning! Families who don’t have the option of a brick-and-mortar blended learning school nearby can use homeschool co-ops or other community options to incorporate in-person learning into their education.
Blended learning is sometimes referred to as “hybrid homeschooling”. Hybrid homeschooling is a special version of blended learning allowing kids to rely on the public school education system when it’s useful. Hybrid options available vary by state and country. Hybrid homeschooling allows kids to learn however works best for them at home, but participate in sports and other electives through the traditional public school system.
General ideas behind blended learning include:
There’s value both to online and in-person learning; with blended learning kids can have the best of both worlds.
Kids can be relatively self-paced with blended learning but still have added incentive of competition with other people.
Blended learning is a fantastic option for families who want a brick-and-mortar school resources at their fingertips.
Interested in blended learning? Here’s where to start:
[School Locator] Find a co-op near you
[Article] Blended learning models some traditional high schools are implementing
[News] The Future of Hybrid Homeschooling by Mike Shane
[Article] Hybrid Homeschooling: Can you Homeschool and Go to Public School?
Real-life Examples of Blended Learning Schools:
Microschools are made up of small groups of families working together toward similar education goals. Microschools combine the value of the one-room schoolhouse with modern alternative education values like student-led learning and ed-tech innovation.
Microschools rose in popularity as “pandemic pods” became a trend. These microschools, born out of adversity, allowed small groups in any given community to work together toward learning goals instead of being isolated from the world.
Some microschools opt to hire a teacher to oversee the kids’ learning experience. This can be a great option for working parents who still want their kids to learn in a homelike environment. Other microschools opt for online learning options. There are as many varieties of microschools as there are alternative schooling options!
Microschools have several advantages:
- Micro schools provide community-led education with like minded people.
- The microschool model allows kids to share learning experiences with friends without getting lost in a sea of students.
- Microschools create some structure while still allowing kids autonomy over their work.
Microschools are great options for families who want to learn with a community of people outside the traditional school system.
Interested in joining a microschool? Here’s where to start:
[School Locator] Find a microschool near you
[Overview] What is a Microschool? by Prenda
[Article] Learning Pods Are Here, Are You In? by National School Choice Week Team
[News] What is a Microschool? by US News
Real-Life Examples of Microschools:
Maria Montessori (1870-1952), the founder of Montessori education, was an Italian educator who spent years studying psychiatry and education theory. Through her years of experience, she recognized the value of giving kids agency as young as possible. She opened the first Montessori school in 1907 in Rome. As she developed her educational methods farther, word of her success grew. And in only four years, the “Montessori Method” had attracted fame and media attention.
Today, there are over 20,000 Montessori schools worldwide, built on the foundation Maria Montessori laid during her successful career. Famous Montessori alumni include Stephen Curry, Jeff Bezos, and Joshua Bell.
Core principles of in Montessori education include these:
- Kids aren’t given unnecessary help when solving problems.
- Teachers focus on observing each child, to understand what motivates them (instead of going by convention or gut feeling).
- Kids have “freedom within limits” – complete but structured agency.
- Education revolves around practical life activities (not just reading, math, and other academic subjects).
Montessori education is a great fit for families who want to actively give their kids agency over education from a young age.
Interested in Montessori education? Here’s where to start:
[Video] Montessori in 18 minutes
[Pro/ Con List] Exploring the Pros and Cons of Montessori Education by Hannah Meinke
[Resource List] Compilation of Montessori talks and videos
[School Locator] List of Montessori Schools across the world
American Montessori Society
Higher Ground Education
Real Life Examples of Montessori schools:
Del Mar Academy
Blue Valley School
Online education has grown massively in popularity as parents have quickly learned that their kids don’t need to attend school for 7 hours per day to learn. Apps, massively open online courses (MOOCs) and other online opportunities have made learning via the internet an easy option for everyone, kids and lifelong learners alike.
The real value to online education comes from the diversity of opinion and culture kids can experience from a young age. Online schools aren’t limited to a specific geographic location. Instead of going to school with kids in the same geographic bubble, online learning gives kids the opportunity to learn with other people from vastly different backgrounds and experiences.
But because online education has become popular, it can be hard to comb through the mess of traditional schools on Zoom and find schools that prioritize kid-led learning. Thankfully, there are many options available for parents who want to incorporate online learning into their alternative school models.
It’s possible to take single classes that interest your kid online. Some families simply supplement with apps to help kids learn subjects like math. Fun online programs like MIT’s Scratch or Khan Academy are available for free to anyone looking for affordable online supplements to their educational tools.
But for parents who want a complete online schooling option, there are also fully online schools that implement top technological advancements and learning science into their strategies.
Here’s the value of using online education options:
- Online school naturally integrates kids into using the internet for educational purposes.
- Online learning expands kids’ minds by introducing people from a variety of backgrounds and experiences.
- Online learning can be self-paced and flexible with each kid’s goals.
Online learning is here to stay, and it’s a wonderful strategy to incorporate into learning for any family.
Interested in online education? Here’s where to start:
[Article] How to Integrate EdTech into Homeschooling
[Resource List] The 7 Best Online Homeschool Programs of 2022
[Resource List] The 5 Best Online Homeschool Programs That Guide Your Child to Success
Real-Life Examples of Online Alternative Schools:
Project-based learning (PBL) is exactly what it sounds like: students learn by engaging with real-world projects and experiences. While some traditional schools have tried to incorporate project-based learning into their existing structure, true project-based schools don’t use projects as methods for helping students test better. The projects and experiences are the education in themselves.
Project-based learning leans into the idea that we learn best by experiencing things (not just studying curriculum, listening to lectures, and testing). And there are years of research documenting the value of projects as a learning tool.
It’s hard to find a solely project-based school. Most schools, alternative and otherwise, implement project-based learning in combination with other strategies. If you’re a parent looking for an alternative education model that’s easily implemented outside a brick-and-mortar school, regardless of how many kids are in a class, PBL is a wonderful model to implement. Examples of real-world projects could include planning a family vacation or starting a fall garden.
Key elements of project-based learning include:
- Kids have personal choice over how they’re going to learn.
- Learning happens by experience, not because of a lecture or test.
- Kids learn to set personal goals and reach them (instead of having goals set for them).
- Through projects, kids learn to solve real-world problems.
Project-based learning is a perfect model or educational addition for kids and families who want a hands-on education.
Interested in project-based learning? Here’s where to start:
[Article] Recent research proving the value of project-based learning
[Article] Implementing PBL into alternative schools
[How-to Guide] How to implement project-based learning into your kid’s education
[Resource List] Edutopia’s resources for project-based learning
Project Based Homeschooling
Real Life Examples of Project-based Schools:
UCP Charter Schools
Self-Directed Learning Centers
It’s hard to pin down a time in history when self-directed education started. Since humans’ natural instinct is to learn by doing, it could be argued that self-directed learning has been around as long as humans have existed. Regardless, self-directed learning guided some of the world’s greatest thinkers, including Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates. Many famous historical figures (like Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson) spent hours educating themselves outside of school.
During the past century, self-directed learning was replaced by “factory-style” learning in schools. Now, much of any given person’s life is so structured that there isn’t time for self-directed learning.
But there’s been a recent wave of people interested in reviving self-directed education on a large scale. Many alternative forms of education implement self-directed learning into their pedagogy, but none are more explicit than self-directed learning centers.
One of the greatest experiments in self-directed learning was explored by Ken Danford. He founded North Star Teens after realizing the flaws in the public school system. Since North Star’s founding in 1996, dozens of its students have graduated and gone on to various paths of success. Some go to college for specific careers they want to pursue. Others (quite literally) run off and join the circus. They all say they loved their time at North Star Academy.
But North Star is not the only example of a self-directed learning center. As alternative education becomes more popular, more “schools” like this are showing up every day. One of the largest groups of self-directed learning centers is the Agile Learning Centers network.
Each self-directed community is unique: they aren’t guided by a top-down approach. For the most part, they’re guided by principles similar to the ones established by North Star Academy:
- Young people want to learn.
- Learning happens everywhere.
- It really is okay to leave school.
- How people behave under one set of circumstances and assumptions does not predict how they will behave under a very different set of circumstances and assumptions.
- Structure communicates as powerfully as words, and often more powerfully.
- As adults working with young people, we should mostly strive to “make possible” rather than “make sure”.
- The best preparation for a meaningful and productive future is a meaningful and productive present
A self-directed learning center can be a great way for parents and kids passionate about educating themselves to meet other students and surround themselves with a community of like-minded learners.
Interested in self-directed education or self-directed learning centers? Here’s where to start:
[Ted Talk] School is Optional
[Course] Intro to Self-Directed Education and Agile Learning Centers
[Book] Learning is Natural; School is Optional by Kenneth Danford
[School Locator] See a map of self-directed learning centers around the world
[How-to Guide] Get help from the Alliance for Self-Directed Education to build your own self-directed learning center
[News] The Junk Playground of New York City by Timothy D. Walker
[Article] For real, Right Now: How Agile Learning empowers kids by rebelEducator
Alliance for Self-Directed Education
Agile Learning Centers
Real Life Examples of Self-Directed Learning Centers:
North Star Academy
Agile Learning Centers Network
Embark Center for Self-Directed Learning
The Democratic model for education can be summed up in one word: responsibility. In traditional public and private schools, the state or school administrators take responsibility for kids’ education, evaluation, curriculum, and method of learning. In a Democratic school, each student has complete control over every aspect of their education.
Traditional and private schools are constantly trying to figure out how to motivate kids to learn. Because students aren’t in charge of their own education, it’s hard to keep kids motivated to learn according to the method the school or state has prescribed. Under the Democratic model, there’s no need to find extrinsic sources of motivation: without the restrictive barriers of outside control, each student naturally develops the intrinsic motivation to learn and evolve as a human being.
Sudbury Schools are one of the best examples of the Democratic model. According to Hudson Valley Sudbury School,
“…Sudbury educators believe that children are capable of assuming this level of responsibility. It is not a type of pedagogical tool used to motivate the students. The responsibility is real; the students absolutely have the ultimate say in their education. Giving real responsibility to the students allows them to gain experience making decisions and handling the consequences of their choices. In this way, the students gain experience and maturity.”
Here’s a quick overview of the basic principles of a Sudbury school:
- Students have total agency over what they learn, how they learn, when they learn, and where they learn it.
- Kids aren’t divided by age: they’re free to interact with other students of all ages.
- Testing and other methods of evaluation aren’t a part of Sudbury education unless students specifically ask for critique.
- Sudbury schools are run as participatory democracy: students (no matter their age) and staff members have equal voice in decisions regarding the learning environment.
- Sudbury school staff members aren’t teachers: they’re facilitators and models of responsible adult behavior.
The Sudbury model is excellent for students and families who value democracy and 100% self-led education.
Interested in the Sudbury model for education? Here’s where to start:
[News] No Teacher, No Class, No Homework: Would you send your kids here? by Emily Chertoff
[Overview] Dive deeper into Sudbury Philosophy
[Pro/Con List] 4 Pros and Cons of Sudbury Schools according to a Sudbury staff member
[School Locator] List of democratic schools across the world
[Video] A Day in a Sudbury School
Sudbury Valley Theory Page (includes links to multiple articles surrounding Sudbury theory)
Hudson Valley Sudbury School Theory Page
Sudbury Schools Wiki
Real Life Examples of Democratic Schools:
Sudbury Valley School
TallGrass Sudbury School
Hudson Valley Sudbury School
While many homeschoolers and traditional schools converse about “how to motivate kids”, unschooling poses a different idea. Kids are naturally motivated to learn and grow when allowed to pursue their own interests. Besides, research shows kids are less motivated to learn when teachers rely on rewards or other external motivations to help them learn. So instead of pre-planning curriculum and then motivating (read: forcing) kids to learn the specific things outlined in the curriculum, unschooling parents instead partner with their kids to lean into each student’s natural interests and instincts.
The term “unschooling” started showing up in the 70s. Famous educators promoting unschooling include John Holt and John Taylor Gatto. According to Holt in his book How Children Learn,
“Birds fly, fish swim, man thinks and learns. Therefore, we do not need to motivate children into learning by wheedling, bribing or bullying. We do not need to keep picking away at their minds to make sure they are learning. What we need to do, and all we need to do, is bring as much of the world as we can into the school and classroom (in our case, into their lives); give children as much help and guidance as they ask for; listen respectfully when they feel like talking; and then get out of the way. We can trust them to do the rest.”
While many people think of the terms “unschooling” and “homeschooling” interchangeably, the philosophies look quite different in practice. Homeschooling implies bringing the traditional system of rulebooks, grades, and tests into a home setting. Unschooling turns this idea on its head, recognizing kids don’t need tests and set curricula to learn well.
Parents are by no means uninvolved in the unschooling process. (No, you can’t cultivate a love of learning in your kids by setting them on the couch with a few video games and abandoning them.) In fact, unschooling requires parents to be more involved in their kids’ learning, since there’s no set curriculum to guide (read: force) a kid’s interest in
Unschooling principles include:
- Unschooling nurtures the natural intrinsic motivation kids have to learn.
- Parents who unschool actively “trust the process” –realizing kids love to learn and don’t need to be cajoled into studying a specific curriculum.
- No courses or grading are used in the unschooling process unless a kid asks for them.
Interested in unschooling? Here’s where to start:
[Book] How Children Fail by John Holt
[Book] How Children Learn by John Holt
[Book] Free to Learn by Peter Gray
[Book] Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom by Kerry McDonald.
[Overview] What is Unschooling? by Earl Stevens
[Video] John Taylor Gatto on unschooling
[Resource List] Unschooling resources
John Holt GWS
Real Life Examples of Unschooling in Action:
A Day in the Life of an Unschoolers
What a Typical Unschooling Day Looks Like
Waldorf education is commonly referred to as “Steiner Education” because of the influence of Rudolph Steiner (1861-1925). He opened the first Waldorf school in Stuttgart, Germany in 1919. There he taught German factory workers’ kids: a massive success since it grew to be the largest private school in Germany by 1933.
Steiner was not a random teacher looking for a job. He was a philosopher with big ideas surrounding how humans learn and grow. Steiner’s philosophy is known as anthroposophy: a spiritual science seeking to understand human wisdom and how to systematically gain it. While Waldorf education was one of the breakthroughs due to Steiner’s philosophy, anthroposophy influenced many more discoveries like biodynamic agriculture, anthroposophical medicine, Camphill Villages, and anthroposophical architecture.
While anthroposophy is not explicitly taught in Waldorf schools, it does inform the education style there.
“The need for imagination, a sense of truth, and a feeling of responsibility; these are the very nerve of education.” — Rudolf Steiner
Here are common principles of a Waldorf education:
- Waldorf education observes different learning “stages”: Early Years (ages 3-6); Lower School (6-11); Middle School (11-14): Upper School (16-18).
- Liberal arts education and artistic development are major focuses.
- Waldorf education focuses on the “whole child” – educating kids morally and socially as well as academically.
- Teachers are encouraged to build trust with students by studying their temperament: choleric, sanguine, phlegmatic, or melancholy.
Waldorf schools are a good fit for families who value the arts and experienced-based learning.
Interested in Waldorf Education? Here’s where to start:
[School Locator] List of Waldorf Schools across the world
[News] What is the Waldorf Method? (NY Times)
[Video] Waldorf in a Nutshell
Alliance for Public Waldorf Education
Real Life Examples of Waldorf schools:
Austin Waldorf School
Boulder Valley Waldorf School
Academe of the Oaks
Worldschooling has technically been around for centuries: many families of the past learned – and taught – through travel. However, the term “worldschooling” wasn’t popularized until the 2000s when homeschool families started taking their learning on the road (“roadschooling” is another term used to describe the same model).
Worldschooling is simple: instead of confining learning to a specific location, families live nomadically across the world long-term or for a short period of time, and their kids learn by experiencing many different cultures and traditions around the world.
It’s also possible to worldschool without traveling full-time. Volunteer trips to other countries can be great learning experiences for teens. Organizations like THINK Global School offer short-term opportunities for individuals who want a global learning experience.
Principles of worldschooling include:
- The best education is a global one.
- Kids learn best by experience, and the broadest experience comes from expanding their horizons beyond a single location.
- Through worldschooling, kids can learn everything they would normally learn at home with the added benefit of experiential learning in multiple environments.
Worldschooling isn’t for the faint of heart, but it’s a great option for adventurous families who see the whole world as their playground — and classroom!
Interested in worldschooling? Here’s where to start:
[Overview] What is Worldschooling? by the Wandering Daughter
[Video] Worldschooling Overview by Charlotte Mason
[How-to Guide] The Ultimate Guide to Teaching Your Kids by Traveling
The Wandering Daughter
Family Gap Year Guide
Real Life Examples of Worldschooling in Action:
THINK Global School
How do I find an alternative education model that works for me?
The true beauty of alternative schools is that there is no one-size-fits-all option. While it can be intimidating to research the myriad of opportunities available, the variety of options at our fingertips today is an advantage. Here are a few factors to keep in mind when finding an alternative school model that works best for you:
- Income and education budget. Microschools and other brick-and-mortar options will cost more than free online apps. Know what’s in your budget and what you want to prioritize.
- State laws and specific education requirements. Depending on where you live, you may have to jump through some hoops when using an alternative education model. Knowing the laws in your area can help
- Time. If you have a double-income household but still want your kids to have an alternative education option, your options will be different from those of a single-income household, or one where one parent is home all the time.
- Your kids. No one knows what your kids need better than they (and you as their parent) do. For some, a project-based approach will work splendidly. Others will love the flexibility of online apps or unschooling. In the end, it’s all about what works best for them.
Happy lifelong learning!
1 thought on “11 Alternative School Models We Love: Which One Is Right For Your Kid?”
Fabulous list! I would add Reggio Emilia to this as well!