The emergence of the learning sciences (Sawyer, in this volume) allows for a critical reassessment of alternative models of learning in light of what we know about the cognitive and social processes that result in effective learning. The criticism of the standard model of schooling expressed over the past two centuries seems to have gained new support in light of recent findings in the learning sciences. On the one hand, they confirm the shortcomings of the traditional transmission and acquisition model of schooling; on the other hand, they provide empirical support for core features of many alternative schools: their instructional methodology focusing on experience and reflection, their integrated curriculum and their focus on independent and customised learning combined with formative assessment.
There is sound evidence now showing that the “deep conceptual understanding of complex concepts, and the ability to work with them creatively to generate new ideas, new theories, new products, and new knowledge” (Sawyer) is best achieved in complex social settings enabling processes that involve learners, tools and other people in the environment in activities in which knowledge is being applied. Traditional structures of schooling “make it very hard to create learning environments that result in deeper understanding” (Sawyer, in this volume). These findings provide backing for the experiential, project-, problem based and collaborative learning that many alternative schools have been focusing on. In constructivist learning environments, students gain expertise from a variety of sources beyond the teacher (Greeno, 2006). There is also evidence that the knowledge society’s need for more integrated and usable knowledge is best met by more integrated and deep (rather than broad) curricula, as used by many alternative schools.
Another area in which the emerging sciences of learning seem to confirm the assumptions underlying alternative schools is their strong focus on the individual learner. It is now clear from cognitive research that learning always takes place against a backdrop of existing knowledge, which differs from learner to learner. Whereas many traditional schools still practice a “one size fits all” model, according to which every student of a certain age is supposed to learn the same thing at the same time, most alternative schools provide their students with a more customised learning experience, often mixing students of different ages in the same classroom. Findings from the learning sciences reconfirm the potential effectiveness of individualised forms of learning as long as the learning settings are sensitive to the learners’ pre-existing cognitive structures. More independent, negotiated forms of learning, as practised in alternative schools, also seem to prepare for the knowledge society’s requirement of intrinsically motivated individuals able to take responsibility for their own continuing, lifelong learning. Finally, alternative schools seem to be able to contribute to some extent to the quest for more effective forms of assessment testing profound rather than superficial knowledge on the one hand and facilitating further learning through formative feedback on the other.
Given the range of features at alternative schools that seem to make sense from a learning sciences perspective, could alternative schools thus serve as models for a broader renewal of mainstream education in the knowledge society? To a certain extent, it seems, alternative schools have already played that role in recent years, because so many of the instructional strategies and assessment techniques they developed have impacted learning and teaching in public school systems across the world.
Nonetheless, it needs to be said that so much depends on the professionalism of individual teachers, be it in mainstream or alternative education. To assess the effectiveness of any alternative pedagogical approach, it would thus be necessary to take a closer look at teacher professionalism and the measurable effects of learning.