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.

When Harriet Tubman Helped Lead a Civil War Raid That Freed 750 People

A portrait of Harriet Tubman, the legendary Underground Railroad conductor and Civil War nurse, scout, and spy
A portrait of Harriet Tubman, the legendary Underground Railroad conductor and Civil War nurse, scout, and spy
Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images

As clouds flitted across the moonlit sky on the night of June 2, 1863, three gunboats snaked up the Combahee River in South Carolina’s Lowcountry region. The Civil War was raging and the vessels were filled with Union troops, many of them from the 2nd South Carolina Colored Infantry, on a mission to strike Confederate plantations. There to guide them on this perilous expedition was a black woman already famed for her bold excursions into hostile territory: Harriet Tubman.

From Underground Railroad to Union Spy

Born into slavery, Tubman—the subject of the soon-to-be-released movie Harriet—had liberated herself in 1849, fleeing north from bondage in Maryland to freedom in Philadelphia. Though a fugitive with a price on her head (her former slaveholder promised $50 for her capture, $100 if she was found out of state) Tubman repeatedly returned to Maryland to usher other slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad, a clandestine network of people, both black and white, who facilitated the escape of enslaved people northwards. It is believed that Tubman rescued around 70 slaves this way, and by the end of the Combahee River Raid on that June night in 1863, she had helped free some 750 more.

After the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, John Andrew, the abolitionist governor of Massachusetts, had asked Tubman to head to the South and assist with the "contrabands"—a term used to refer to the thousands of enslaved people who fled to Union camps amid the chaos of the conflict. It was a fitting role for Tubman, since helping African Americans shed the bonds of slavery had become the driving purpose of her life.

She volunteered in Fort Monroe, Virginia, before heading to Port Royal, South Carolina, where she worked as a nurse for soldiers and liberated slaves. Disease ran rampant during the war, and Tubman was skilled in herbal medicine. She also oversaw the building of a laundry house, so she could train African American women to become laundresses—a vocation that would prove useful as they embarked on a new, free chapter of their lives. But according to H. Donald Winkler, who writes about Tubman’s wartime exploits in Stealing Secrets: How a Few Daring Women Deceived Generals, Impacted Battles, and Altered the Course of the Civil War, “many believe that the humanitarian aspects of her trip … were a cover for her real work as a spy operating within enemy lines.”

Biographer Catherine Clinton, author of Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, agrees that it is possible Tubman was sent to the South at least in part to gather intelligence. “Certainly she was someone who was able to go behind the lines and make contact in a way that the soldiers were not, because she had done that on the Underground Railroad,” Clinton tells Mental Floss.

Time and again as an Underground Railroad rescuer, Tubman had proven her cunning, charisma, and steely resolve, slipping into slavery territory and back out again with multiple fugitives in tow. She secretly reached out to enslaved people to encourage their escape, scouted dangerous areas, and cultivated contacts who were ready to offer shelter and support. Tubman liked to stage her rescues on Saturday nights, because Sunday was a day of rest; by the time they were discovered missing on Monday, Tubman had been given a head start.

She also possessed an uncanny ability to avoid detection, often with the help of disguises. In her book, Clinton writes that on one trip through a town near her former Maryland home, Tubman caught sight of a man who had once been her master. Fortunately, she had a bonnet pulled low over her face and two live chickens in her hands. When the man came close, Tubman pulled on strings tied to the birds’ legs, causing them to fuss and flap—and giving her an excuse to avoid eye contact.

Such exploits earned Tubman a legendary reputation among abolitionist circles. She was nicknamed “Moses,” after the biblical figure who led the oppressed to freedom.

Whatever the initial purpose of her journey south, by 1863 Tubman was working as a covert Union operative. She recruited a small but trustworthy group of black scouts, several of whom were water pilots with a thorough knowledge of the coastal landscape. The spies would sail along waterways, take note of enemy positions and movements, and communicate the information back to Union brass. Colonel James Montgomery, a fervent abolitionist, relied on Tubman’s intelligence to stage several successful raids, according to Winkler. The most famous of these was the Combahee River Raid.

Tubman's Turn to Lead

Combahee River basin, near the Harriet Tubman Bridge, Beaufort County, South Carolina
The Combahee River basin in Beaufort County, South Carolina, near the Harriet Tubman Bridge and near where the raid is believed to have taken place.
Henry de Saussure Copeland, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The goal of the mission was to destroy Confederate supply lines, disable mines in the Combahee River, and cripple prosperous plantations along the shore. As Tubman had shown with her Underground Railroad rescues, “the great weapon was to go into enemy territory and use the subversive weapon of the enslaved people themselves,” Clinton says. So if all went according to plan, Tubman and Montgomery intended to free the plantations of their slaves, too.

But first, they would need to plot their attack. Before the fateful night, Tubman and her team of spies secretly sailed up the Combahee to map the locations of rice and cotton storehouses. Tubman also found the enslaved people who had laid Confederate “torpedoes”—stationary mines beneath the water—and promised them liberation in exchange for information. It was important to spread the word about the upcoming raid, so that when it happened, the slaves would be ready to run.

Montgomery, who had worked with Tubman to raise the 2nd South Carolina Colored Infantry, was in command of the several hundred black troops who ultimately set out up the Combahee to execute the raid on June 2. But Tubman was there to guide the ships through the mines, which were difficult to spot on a dark and cloudy night. She thus became, according to Smithsonian Magazine, the first woman in U.S. history to lead a military expedition.

One of the three Union gunboats stalled after it ran aground, but the other two were able to proceed as planned. John Adams, the lead boat, pushed up to Combahee Ferry, where there was an island, a causeway, and a pontoon bridge. Montgomery’s men burned the bridge. They also set fire to plantations, storehouses, and rice mills, pillaging whatever food and cotton supplies they could carry, according to an account by the U.S. Army. And when the gunboats approached, slaves came pouring onto the shore, where rowboats were waiting to bring them to the ships. Tubman was floored by the scene.

“I never saw such a sight,” she later recalled. “Sometimes the women would come with twins hanging around their necks; it appears I never saw so many twins in my life; bags on their shoulders, baskets on their heads, and young ones tagging along behind, all loaded; pigs squealing, chickens screaming, young ones squealing.”

The scene grew all the more chaotic when it became clear that there were too many fugitive slaves for the rowboats to accommodate at once. According to The New York Times, those left behind held onto the vessels to stop them from leaving. Hoping to restore some calm, a white officer reportedly asked Tubman to speak to “your people.” She didn’t care for the turn of phrase—“[T]hey wasn’t my people any more than they was his,” she once said—but she nevertheless began to sing:

“Come along; come along; don’t be alarmed
For Uncle Sam is rich enough
To give you all a farm.”

Her voice had the desired effect. “They throwed up their hands and began to rejoice and shout ‘Glory!’ and the rowboats would push off,” Tubman remembered. “I kept on singing until all were brought on board.”

All of this commotion did not go unnoticed by Confederate troops. But their response was sluggish. “With malaria, typhoid fever and smallpox rampant in the [Lowcountry] from spring through early fall, most Confederate troops had been pulled back from the rivers and swamps,” Winkler explains. A contingent did approach Combahee Ferry, with orders to push the Yankees back, but reportedly only succeeded in shooting one fugitive slave. Major Emmanuel, the Confederate ranking officer in the area, came after the retreating ships with a single piece of field artillery, but his men got trapped between the river and Union snipers. They were only able to fire a few shots that landed in the water.

The raid was, in other words, a tremendous success, and Tubman’s contribution was “invaluable,” Clinton says. For the next year, Tubman stayed in the South, assisting in guerrilla activities and working to support liberated slaves.

Recognition Deferred

During her three years of military service, Tubman had been paid just $200 (about $3000 in today's money). Finding herself in difficult financial straits after the war—she was the sole supporter of her elderly parents, whom she had extricated from the South during her Underground Railroad days—Tubman appealed to the federal government for additional compensation. Her cause was backed by a number of influential supporters who believed that Tubman deserved a veteran’s pension, but her campaign for payment would nevertheless span more than 30 years.

It was only in the early 1890s that Tubman began receiving a pension—not for her own wartime work, but because her late husband, Nelson Davis, had served with the Eighth United States Colored Infantry, which entitled her to $8 per month as a veteran widow. In 1899, Congress approved an Act raising that sum to $20, but as the National Archives points out, “the Act did not acknowledge that the increase was for Tubman’s own service.” The government’s resistance may have stemmed, at least in part, from the fact that documentation of Tubman’s activities on the frontlines was lacking. But Clinton believes other factors were at play.

“I found evidence that one of the members of the [pensions] committee was a South Carolina politician who blocked her pension,” Clinton says. “And it was really in many ways a point of honor ... that a black woman not be given recognition as a soldier.” Upon receiving the increased funds, Clinton adds, Tubman used the money to “bankroll a charity. That’s who she was.”

When Tubman died in 1913, she was buried with military honors in Auburn, New York. The Combahee River Raid was just one remarkable chapter in her remarkable life, but it left a powerful impression on her. Looking back on that night, when hundreds of slaves rose up and made a dash for freedom, the woman known as Moses would remember them like "the children of Israel, coming out of Egypt.”

30 Words and Phrases From Victorian Theatrical Slang

An 1884 illustration of spectators in the theater
An 1884 illustration of spectators in the theater
suteishi/iStock via Getty Images

In 1909, the English writer James Redding Ware published a dictionary of 19th-century slang and colloquial language called Passing English of the Victorian Era. Relatively little is known about Ware’s life—not helped by the fact that much of his work was published under the pseudonym Andrew Forrester—but among the other works attributed to him are around a dozen stage plays, many of which were first performed in the theaters of London in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

It was this firsthand experience that undoubtedly helped Ware to flesh out his dictionary with a host of slang words and expressions used by Victorian actors, actresses, theatrical producers, and backstage workers. From nicknames for incoherent actors to mooching companions and noisy babies, although many of the entries in Ware’s Passing English have sadly long since dropped out of use, they’re no less useful or applicable today.

1. Agony Piler

An actor who always seems to perform in weighty or sensationalist parts.

2. Back-Row Hopper

An audience member who visits bars frequented by actors and flatters them into buying him a drink.

3. Blue Fire

“Blue fire” was originally the name of a special effect used in Victorian theaters in which a mixture containing sulfur would be ignited to create an eerie blue glow on stage. The effect astonished audiences at the time, who had never seen anything like it before, hence "blue fire" came to be used to describe anything equally amazing or sensational, or that astounded an audience.

4. Bum-Boozer

A heavy drinker.

5. Burst

The sudden swell of people out onto a street when a play ended.

6. Button-Buster

A terrible comedian.

7. Celestials

Also known as “roof-scrapers,” the celestials were the audience members in the “gods” or the gallery, the highest tier of seats in the theater.

8. Charles His Friend

A nickname for any uninspiring part in a play whose only purpose is to give the main protagonist someone to talk to. The term apparently derives from a genuine list of the characters in a now long-forgotten drama, in which the lead’s companion was listed simply as “Charles: his friend.”

9. Deadheads

Audience members who haven’t paid to get in (as opposed to those who have, who were the livestock). Consequently, a nickname for journalists and first-night critics.

10. Decencies

A term referring to an actor’s strategically padded costume, defined by Ware as “pads used by actors, as distinct from actresses, to ameliorate outline.”

11. FLABBERDEGAZ

A fluffed line, a stumbled word, or a mistimed joke. Also called a Major Macfluffer.

12. The Ghost Walks

A reference to the famous opening scene of Hamlet, saying that “the ghost walks” (or, more often than not, that “the ghost doesn’t walk”) meant that there was (or that there wasn’t) enough money to be paid that week.

13. Gin And Fog

Hoarseness caused by heavy drinking the night before.

14. Greedy Scene

A scene in a play in which the lead actor has the stage all to him or herself.

15. Joey

To mug to the audience, or to lark about to attract someone’s attention.

16. Logie

A fake gemstone, or fake jewelry in general. Supposedly named after David Logie, an inventor who manufactured fake jewels out of zinc.

17. Matinée Dog

A nickname for the audience of a matinee performance. To "try it on the matinee dog" meant to test a new act or a new reading of a scene during a daytime performance, as the afternoon audiences were considered less discerning than the more seasoned and more demanding evening audiences.

18. Mumble-Mumper

An old, inarticulate performer whose lines cannot be easily heard or interpreted by the audience.

19. On The Pross

If you’re on the pross then you’re looking for someone to buy you a drink or a meal—pross is a shortening of “prosperous,” in the sense of searching for someone wealthy enough to buy you dinner.

20. Palatic

Very, very drunk. Probably derived from a deliberate mispronunciation of “paralytic."

21. To Play to The Gas

To make just enough money to get by—literally just enough to pay your gas bill.

22. Scorpions

An actor’s nickname for babies, whose constant noise could ruin a performance.

23. Star-Queller

An inferior actor whose terrible performance ruins the excellent performances given by everyone else.

24. Swan-Slinger

The playwright Ben Jonson famously called Shakespeare “The sweet swan of Avon” in a memorial poem published in 1623. A swan-slinger, consequently, is a Shakespearean actor.

25. To Take a Dagger And Drown Yourself

To say one thing but then do another. To stab yourself and pass the bottle, meanwhile, meant to take a swig of a drink and then pass the bottle onto the next person.

26. Thinking Part

A role in which an actor is required to say little or nothing at all. Likewise, a feeder was any role in which an actor was only required to “feed” lines to the more important character.

27. Toga-Play

Also called BC-plays, toga-plays were either classical period dramas, like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, or plays by classical-era playwrights.

28. Twelve-Pound Actor

A child born into an acting family.

29. Village Blacksmith

“The Village Blacksmith” is the title of a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the third verse of which begins, “Week in, week out, from morn till night, / You can hear his bellows blow.” It was the “week in, week out” line that inspired this expression referring to a performer or worker who isn’t a complete failure, but whose contracts rarely last longer than a single week.

30. Whooperup

A terrible singer.

[This list first ran in 2015 and was republished in 2019]

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