5 Alternative Teaching Methods

Maria Montessori, an Italian educationalist.
Maria Montessori, an Italian educationalist.
Topical Press Agency, Getty Images

Traditional schools "“ with their lectures, homework, and report cards "“ aren't for everyone. Here are five alternative approaches to education.

1. Montessori

Dr. Maria Montessori, the first woman in Italy to earn her physician's degree, developed the educational model that bears her name while teaching a class of 50 poor students on the outskirts of Rome in 1907. Dr. Montessori, who previously worked with special needs students, rejected the notion that children were born as "blank slates." Rather, she believed that children were born with absorbent minds and were fully capable of self-directed learning. Montessori developed the framework for a prepared educational environment in which children, empowered with the freedom to choose how they would spend their time in school, would seek out opportunities to learn on their own. Her pioneering work formed the basis for the Montessori classroom, which endures primarily in preschool and elementary school settings today.

Montessori believed that children enjoyed and needed periods of long concentration and that the traditional education model, with its structured lessons and teacher-driven curriculum, inhibited a child's natural development. Montessori students are free to spend large blocks of the day however they choose, while the teacher, or director, observes. Dr. Montessori was a major proponent of tactile learning. Classic materials, such as the Pink Tower, Brown Stairs, and the Alphabet Box "“ a set of wooden letters that children are encouraged to hold and feel before learning to write "“ remain staples of Montessori classrooms.

Montessori classes typically span three-year age groups.

The lack of grades, tests, and other forms of formal assessment helps ensure that classes remain non-competitive. The first Montessori school in the United States was opened in Tarrytown, New York, in 1911. The New York Times described the school as follows: "Yet this is by no means a school for defective children or tubercular children or children who are anemic. The little pupils in the big sunny classroom at Tarrytown are normal, happy, healthy American children, little sons and daughters of well-to-do suburban residents." Today, the Montessori method is employed in roughly 5,000 schools in the U.S., including several hundred public schools. A 2006 study comparing outcomes of children at a public inner-city Montessori school with children who attended traditional schools provided evidence that Montessori education leads to children with better social and academic skills. Among the many celebrities who can attest to the value of a Montessori education are Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page.

2. Steiner/Waldorf

steiner.jpgIn addition to creating the field of anthroposophy, which is based on the belief that humans have the inherent wisdom to uncover the mysteries of the spiritual world, Austrian philosopher and scientist Rudolf Steiner developed an educational model that focused on the development of the "whole child" "“ body, soul, and spirit. Influenced by the likes of Goethe and Jean Piaget, Steiner believed there were three 7-year periods of child development, and his educational approach reflected what he thought should and should not be taught during each of these stages.

Steiner founded his first Waldorf school (the term Waldorf is now used interchangeably with Steiner to describe schools with curriculums based on Steiner's teachings) in 1919 in Stuttgart, Germany, for children of workers at the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory. The original curriculum spanned 12 years and aimed to prepare students "for living," with an emphasis on creative expression and social and spiritual values. Within 10 years, Steiner's school in Stuttgart was the largest private school in Germany. When the Nazis closed German schools during World War II, Waldorf teachers fled to other countries, contributing to the methodology's increased post-war popularity.

The curriculum that defines the Waldorf method has remained relatively unchanged in the last 90 years. Steiner believed the first 7 years of a child's life, a period marked by imitative and sensory-based learning, should be devoted to developing a child's noncognitive abilities. To that end, kindergartners in Waldorf schools are encouraged to play and interact with their environment instead of being taught academic content in a traditional setting. Steiner also believed that children should learn to write before they learned to read, and that no child should learn to read before the age of 7. From age 7-14, creativity and imagination are emphasized. During this stage, Waldorf school students may learn foreign languages, as well as eurythmy, an expressive dance developed by Steiner, and other performing arts. By age 14, students are ready for a more structured environment that stresses social responsibility.

Some critics of the Waldorf method argue that it borders on religion. According to the curriculum, students learn about Christian saints in second grade and Old Testament figures in third grade. Despite those concerns and the restricting demands of standardized testing, there are more than 800 schools that employ some variation of Steiner's teaching method throughout the world. Rudolf Steiner College, which was founded in 1974 in Fair Oaks, California, serves as the center for anthroposophical studies and the training ground for future generations of Waldorf teachers.

3. Harkness

harkness.jpgThe Harkness method isn't based on a specific curriculum or a particular ideology, but rather one important piece of furniture. Developed by oil magnate and philanthropist Edward Harkness, a large, oval table is the centerpiece of any classroom that employs the Harkness method of teaching. Students sit with their classmates and teacher around the table and discuss any and all subjects, from calculus to history, often in great detail. The Harkness method represents a significant departure from the traditional classroom setup of a teacher at a chalkboard lecturing to students seated in rows of desks. Individual opinions are formed, raised, rejected, and revised at the Harkness table, where the teacher's main responsibilities are to ensure that no one student dominates the discussion and to keep the students on point. No conversation is ever the same, which can help teachers avoid the burnout that might result from teaching the same lesson from year to year.

In 1930, Harkness gave a multi-million dollar donation to Phillips Exeter Academy, a private secondary school in New Hampshire, under the condition that the money be used to implement a new educational method that would involve all students in the learning process. Part of Harkness' endowment paid for the hiring of 26 new teachers, which enabled Exeter to shrink its average class size. This was imperative, as the Harkness method is most effective in classes of 15 students or less. "The classes are now small enough so that the shy or slow individual will not be submerged," Exeter principal Dr. Lewis Perry told the New York Times in the early years of the program. "The average boy, similarly, finds his needs cared for. In short, the Harkness harkness-table.jpgplan is best defined as an attitude. It is a new approach to the problem of getting at the individual boy." The method was effective from the start; Exeter reported a decrease in failing grades of 6 percent during the first three years of the Harkness approach.

The intimate setting of the Harkness table forces students to take responsibility for their own learning and encourages them to share their opinions. In addition to learning about topics being discussed, students also learn valuable public speaking skills and to be respectful of their fellow students' ideas. Studies have supported the method's effectiveness in increasing students' retention and recall of material. It takes time to delve into subjects using the Harkness method, which is one reason, in addition to class size limitations, that it hasn't become more popular in public schools.

4. Reggio Emilia

emilio.jpgReggio Emilia is an educational approach used primarily for teaching children aged 3 to 6. The method is named after the city in northern Italy where teacher Loris Malaguzzi founded a new approach to early childhood education after World War II. Malaguzzi's philosophy was based on the belief that children are competent, curious and confident individuals who can thrive in a self-guided learning environment where mutual respect between teacher and student is paramount. While the first Reggio Emilia preschool opened in 1945, the approach attracted a serious following in the United States in 1991 after Newsweek named the Diana preschool in Reggio Emilia among the best early childhood institutions in the world.

Reggio Emilia schools emphasize the importance of parents taking an active role in their child's early education. Classrooms are designed to look and feel like home and the curriculum is flexible, as there are no set lesson plans. Reggio Emilia stresses growth on the students' terms. Art supplies are an important component of any Reggio Emilia classroom and traditional schools have an atelierista, or art teacher, who works closely with the children on a variety of creative projects. Reggio Emilia teachers often keep extensive documentation of a child's development, including folders of artwork and notes about the stories behind each piece of art.

"It's about exploring the world together and supporting children's thinking rather than just giving them ready-made answers," said Louise Boyd Cadwell, who was an intern at two Reggio Emilia schools in Italy in the early '90s and then wrote a book about the teaching method. "Reggio Emilia is about full-blown human potential and how you support that in both intellectual and creative terms."

5. Sudbury

sudbury.jpgSudbury schools take their name from the Sudbury Valley School, which was founded in 1968 in Framingham, Massachusetts. Sudbury schools operate under the basic tenets of individuality and democracy and take both principles to extremes that are unrivaled in the education arena. In Sudbury schools, students have complete control over what and how they learn, as well as how they are evaluated, if at all. At the weekly School Meeting, students vote on everything from school rules and how to spend the budget to whether staff members should be rehired. Every student and staff member has a vote and all votes count equally.

The Sudbury philosophy is that students are capable of assuming a certain level of responsibility and of making sound decisions; in the event that they make poor decisions, learning comes in the form of dealing with the consequences. While many public and private schools are constantly looking for new ways to motivate students to learn, Sudbury schools don't bother. According to the Sudbury approach, students are inherently motivated to learn. One Sudbury educator uses the example of an infant who learns to walk despite the fact that lying in a crib is a viable "“ and easier "“ alternative as support of this belief.

Sudbury schools, which have some similarities with the "free schools" that gained popularity in the U.S. during the 1970s, do not divide students into different classes by age. Students regularly engage in collaborative learning, with the older students often mentoring the younger students. Annual tuition for the Sudbury Valley School, which welcomes students as young as 4 years old, is $6,450 for the first child in a family to attend the school.

The Fascinating History Behind Why Jewish Families Eat Chinese Food on Christmas

iStock
iStock

For Jewish New Yorkers, scoring a seat at one of veteran restaurateur Ed Schoenfeld’s Chinese eateries on Christmas Day could be compared to a holiday miracle. “I think on that day we do more business than many restaurants do in three months,” Schoenfeld tells Mental Floss. “We serve all day long, we stay open all day long.”

Schoenfeld is the Jewish owner-operator of RedFarm, an Asian-fusion dim sum restaurant with two locations in New York (plus one in London), and Decoy, a West Village shrine to traditional Peking duck. While his expertise lies in Far Eastern cuisine, Schoenfeld grew up in Brooklyn and learned to cook from his Eastern European grandmother. And just like his customers, Schoenfeld and his family sometimes craved Chinese food on Christmas, eschewing homemade fare for heaping plates of chow mein and egg foo yung. The future restaurateur's grandmother kept a kosher kitchen, but outside the home all dietary laws flew out the window with the single spin of a Lazy Susan. Suddenly, egg rolls with pork were fair game, transfigured into permissible delicacies through hunger and willful ignorance.

As Gentiles feast on turkey and roast beef during the Yuletide season, why do many Jews opt for chop suey? For starters, it's convenient: Chinese restaurants are open on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. But as historians and culinary experts tell Mental Floss, other ingredients play a part in this delicious story.

Jews developed their love for all things steamed, stir-fried, and soy-sauced after leaving the Old Country. Between the mid-1800s and the 1930s, waves of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Germany, and Greece began settling in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a gritty, inexpensive neighborhood teeming with tenements, docks, and factories—and filled with synagogues and kosher butcher shops. “You started here, and then moved on," Sarah Lohman, author of Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, says.

While Jewish immigrants found community on the Lower East Side, "there was a lot of discrimination against Jews at the turn of the century,” Lohman adds. "They were often criticized not only for not dressing like Americans and not speaking the language, but also for not converting to an 'American' religion."

Right next door to the burgeoning Jewish community on the Lower East Side was the city's nascent Chinatown. Many Chinese immigrants had initially come to the U.S. to work on the Transcontinental Railroad. After its completion in 1869, these laborers faced violence and discrimination in the western states. They came to New York City seeking new business opportunities, and some opened restaurants.

By and large, Chinese restaurateurs didn’t discriminate against Jewish customers. Joshua Eli Plaut writes in his book A Kosher Christmas: 'Tis the Season to be Jewish that the Chinese, as non-Christians, didn't perceive any difference between Anglo-Saxon New Yorkers and Jewish immigrants; they accepted all non-Chinese customers with open arms.

Jewish customers embraced Chinese food in return. The restaurants were conveniently located and inexpensive, yet were also urbane in their eyes. Jews saw dining out as an American custom that they wanted to try, largely because they sought upward mobility among other Americans. According to Yong Chen, a history professor and author of Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America, "[Diners] were attracted to Chinese food because, in their mind, it represented American cosmopolitanism and middle class status." And they weren't deterred by the fact that food in Chinese restaurants wasn't kosher. But they could easily pretend it was.

Dairy wasn’t a big part of Chinese meals, so Jewish diners didn’t have to worry about mixing meat and milk (a no-no in kosher diets). And non-kosher ingredients like pork or seafood were often finely chopped, drowned in sauces, or mixed with other ingredients, like rice. These elements were well disguised enough that they could pass for more permissible forms of meat. “You could kind of willfully ignore that there might be pork in there," Lohman says. "It’s like a vegetarian eating a soup that has chicken stock. If you’re a little flexible about your Judaism, you would just ‘not notice’ the pork in your fried rice.”

Chinese food was exotic and new, filled with surprising flavors, ingredients, and textures [PDF]. But for some Eastern European Jews, it also had familiar elements. Both Eastern European and Chinese cuisines shared an affinity for sweet and sour flavors and egg-based dishes. "[Chinese restaurants] had these pancakes, which were like blintzes,” says Joan Nathan, author of King Solomon's Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World, and the wontons resembled kreplach (both are meat-filled soup dumplings).

The fact that the Chinese and Jews were America’s two largest non-Christian immigrant populations brought them together, Jennifer 8. Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, tells Mental Floss. Unlike, say, Italian restaurants, Chinese restaurants were open on Sundays and on Christian holidays. They also lacked religious imagery, which may have made them appear more welcoming for Jews.

Combined, these factors caused the number of Chinese restaurants in urban East Coast cities to skyrocket during the early 20th century. Jews soon accounted for 60 percent of the white clientele in New York City's and Philadelphia’s Chinese restaurants, Chen writes, and Chinese restaurants would often go out of their way to cater to these clients. The eateries delivered their food to Jewish neighborhoods and to individual customers.

Yet an unwavering affection for Chinese food wasn't shared by all Jews. In an example cited by Chen and Lee, a reporter for Der Tog (The Day), a Yiddish daily newspaper in New York City, noted in 1928 that Jewish diners were in danger of drowning their culinary roots in soy sauce. To take back their taste buds, Jewish-Americans should hoist protest signs reading “Down with chop suey! Long live gefilte fish!” the journalist joked.

But Jewish cookbooks had already begun including Americanized dishes like chop suey and egg foo yung, which Chinese chefs had specially created to appeal to homegrown appetites. And as Lower East Side Jews moved to different neighborhoods, boroughs, and suburbs, Chinese restaurants followed them.

By the mid-20th century, Nathan says, Chinese restaurants had become de facto social clubs in Jewish communities. Familiar faces were always present, children were always welcome, and eating with your hands wasn’t just encouraged—it was required. Everyone left filled with food and gossip, whether it was Christmas or an ordinary Sunday evening.

Thanks to immigration patterns, nostalgia, and convenient hours of operation, this culinary custom has stuck around. “Jewish guests want to go out and eat Chinese food on Christmas,” Schoenfeld, the Manhattan restaurateur, says. “It’s become a tradition, and it’s extraordinary how it’s really grown.”

This story originally ran in 2017.

You Can Gift Your Favorite Nerd a Subscription to Famous Letters From History

Letterjoy
Letterjoy

Letter writing may be a lost art at this point, but you can still give someone the gift of getting a great letter in the mail, without ever picking up a pen yourself. Letterjoy, a subscription service for historical letters, sends out a different archival letter each week, giving subscribers the opportunity to dig through their mail and find a work of great writing rather than a pile of junk advertisements.

As part of the service, Letterjoy sends out one authenticated historical letter or telegraph each week, according to monthly themes. The letters are largely drawn from the last 400-plus years of American history, sourced by Letterjoy founder Michael Sitver from historical archives and private collections. Previous monthly themes have included "presidents and the press," "the right to vote," "Civil War spies," and "the birth of aviation." The letters often come from famous figures like Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, Clara Barton, and the Wright brothers.

Recipients don't just get a photocopy of an archival letter. Each letter is custom-designed by Letterjoy, either typed up on a Smith-Corona typewriter (for more modern missives) or handwritten by designers and enhanced with software. The goal is to make each letter look and feel as authentic as possible while maintaining readability—since the whole point is to read the letters, not just look at them.

Every letter comes with a context section that explains what the letter is and why it matters, including who the letter-writer and recipient were and the historical events surrounding its writing.

You can buy someone (or yourself) a yearly plan for $160 ($13.33 a month), a six-month plan for $100 ($16.66 a month), or a three-month plan for $50 (also $16.66 a month). Discounts are available for educators who want to use the letters in their classrooms.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER