Here’s one definition of the adjective alternative: employing or following, non-traditional or unconventional ideas, methods, etc; existing outside the establishment.
I think it would be fair to characterize our school as “alternative” by this definition if you are considering us in a broader context of the American public school system. A child’s learning experience here is demonstratively different in approach to that in most traditional or charter public elementary school programs. Most visibly, those differences are to be found in the child-centered, multi-age structure with a learning that emphasizes process and inquiry over knowledge mastery and results.
Last week, I attended the Minnesota Association of Alternative Programs (MAAP) annual conference in Duluth. MAAP was established in the early eighties to provide professional support for alternative programs. MAAP’s mission is “To lead, promote and support innovative learning experiences.”
Prairie Creek is listed as a MAAP member, although I don’t think we’ve formally engaged with the organization in the past. Although I knew that the membership primarily serves a middle and high school programming focus, I was excited to network with other public schools, charters, ALCs, and schools-within-schools who come together under a mission statement that promotes a student centered, democratic approach to education.
Conversation in the breakout sessions frequently returned to common themes: frustration with the lack of trust and autonomy granted to teachers, over-standardization, test-based accountability and other roadblocks that prevent children and teachers from creating a climate of learning that is infused by inquiry and creativity. At the same time, the dialogue was full of hope as educators shared stories of courageous teaching, student engagement and innovation in their small school settings.
The keynote speaker at the MAAP conference provided an international perspective on education systems. Pasi Sahlberg wrote Finnish Lessons, a book that studies the much-vaunted public education system in Finland. He was a terrific presenter, and not just because he somehow persuaded the audience of 500 educators to join him in a sing a long homage to Bob Dylan! We were in Duluth after all.
Sahlberg, now a Harvard education professor, has studied public education systems worldwide. He outlined some of the defining characteristics of school systems. According to his research…
“Unsuccessful” school systems are characterized by:
- Competition as an assumption for success
- Standardization of learning
- Test-based accountability
“Successful” school systems are characterized by:
- Trust-based responsibility
- Professionalism (highly qualified and well-supported staff)
His book is a great read and I recommend it if you are interested in learning more about the Finland public school system.
As I listened to Sahlberg, I found myself mentally ticking off a checklist of our Prairie Creek school values – evaluation methods that honor the whole child, play, positive social culture, an allowance for risk and failure in learning etc etc. As I did so, the irony hit me that in Finland, Prairie Creek’s philosophy would be anything but alternative. It’s hard not to feel a bit envious of Finnish educators who are able to function within a public system where the common practice and continual examination of such values are the norm.
One response to this reality is to engage in local, regional and national conversations about the future of public education. We already do so via our long-standing relationship with Northfield Public Schools, our authorizer, great connections with local charters like Arcadia and in networking activities with organizations like MAAP and the Progressive Education Network. Our teachers routinely welcome college students into our school and present before college education programs.
As part of our strategic outreach, we are now considering further ways to share our mission with other educators. A future initiative was discussed at our most recent strategic planning session. Next fall we will host a one-day progressive education conference.
Perhaps one day progressive, child-centered education will be regarded as normal.