Alternatives to Traditional Classroom Learning

Written by Sally Bunce, a Clonlara School guest blogger, (***Clonlara School does not endorse or recommend any product/service in connection with this author***).


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Although still swimming against the mainstream, alternative schooling has been present in America since colonial times. Education varied depending on wealth and location and could have been conducted at home by private tutors or in groups under religious guidance, for example. In fact, there seems to have been many more accepted options back then, which have been filtered and ‘refined’ into the main educational systems that the majority follow today.

These systems can be pretty restrictive, though, considering how unique each child on the planet is. And the systems don’t really seem to have developed or adapted much in line with the changing world. Coercive schooling can be difficult for children. Natural instincts to explore, question and play are muffled in favor of strict curriculums enforced through the logic of reward and punishment. By nature, children are designed to control their own learning. You can see this working up until the schooling age. At this point, though, learning becomes a chore.

Alternative learning is about creating the worlds required for children to continue to flourish — environments that encourage curiosity, exploration and diversity. Suppressing these vital instincts can be crushing and promote feelings of anxiety and helplessness that may become lodged in the mind. These feelings continue throughout the schooling system and a legacy of fear and inadequacy often rules. You don’t have to look far to see this at work. Placing a child within a school that will nurture their spirit as well as their academic spark seems to be the obvious choice when it comes to education.

Imagine a school where children could continue to learn in ways that make them feel happy and calm, where parents can contribute to their child’s particular learning scheme so that the right approach is taken for the individual and where children have choices. There are a variety of alternative learning options available and it’s worth exploring all avenues if you have an interest. Benefits of alternative schooling include the following.

Tailored Programs

Teachers, specialists and parents work together to design a plan of education that suits the needs of the child. This always involves looking at a wide range of learning approaches and materials. Although it takes time, the plan will evolve with the student and the results are extraordinary.

Holistic Approach

Most schools focus purely on the academic at the cost of individuality and creativity. Alternative methods look at what’s beneficial for the child’s happiness and health because these things have a direct effect upon development and achievement.


Students can take charge and have a say in their education. There’s not a blanket curriculum, so there is flexibility in how students choose to study. No matter how old a child is, feeling independent at the same time as knowing you are safe is an important but sadly overlooked necessity.


No matter where you come from or what decision has led you to alternative education, these schools have an inclusive, nurturing philosophy that embraces all types of learners.

Sally is a serial networker and writes for Richmond University. She enjoys traveling around the country, advising students on how to make the most out of their studies, encouraging people to explore all of the options available to them.


Collaborative Learning in the Classroom

Written by Gael Luzet, a Clonlara School guest blogger and author of the Collaborative Learning Pocketbook (***Clonlara School does not endorse or recommend any product/service in connection with this author***).

Much has been said recently about the power of learning with others, but how can collaborative learning make a significant difference in the classroom?

Collaborative learning is a planned opportunity for two or more people to work together in an educational context. It is not just about putting pupils in groups, it is about facilitating their team work and providing great outcomes. Historically, collaborative learning has always been at the forefront of effective teaching and learning. Plato in Ancient Greece used to give his students philosophical dilemmas to solve through a dialogical process. Students who collaborate effectively have developed important lifelong learning skills such as:

•    The ability to express their thoughts with clarity
•    The ability to listen to and understand others
•    Awareness  and management of their own emotions and feelings

Collaborative learning tasks tend to be open-ended and require high levels of thinking. They demand a wide range of skills that younger learners may not have acquired yet. It is important to assist them in improving their cooperative skillset. Students learn that the answer does not always have to come from the teacher. In fact, the teacher becomes more of a facilitator, a guide on the side who paves the way for learners to acquire knowledge.

Thorough planning is crucial for the teacher-facilitator who ventures into the collaborative learning world. Set the ground rules for group work, which can be discussed with your class in advance (pupils should take it in turn to speak, make eye contact and encourage everyone to participate, be silent during instructions, etc…). It is useful for the teacher to have a zero noise signal. A whistle, a bell or a hand clap could do the trick. Consider the composition of your groups: should pupils sit in friendship, mixed gender or mixed ability groups? How many pupils should there be per group? How about the roles within each team (a leader, a scribe, a researcher, etc…)?

And last but not least, give careful consideration to unwilling learners, the ones who sit with their arms crossed or a giant bubble gum in their mouth when you speak to the class. Regardless of their reluctance to participate, they have to be included in the task. They need to be placed with the right peers and the teacher has to boost their motivation before group work starts. By and large, children crave acceptance from their peers. Reluctance generally comes from a lack of confidence buried behind a confrontational or indifferent front. When handled properly, collaborative learning helps the unwilling learner to become a more active (and happier) classroom participant.

Strategies for collaborative learning range from the simplest technique to the more complex one; from the small scale paired activity to the full blown group project which stretches over several lessons. Here are four simple strategies to facilitate group learning:

1.    To create mixed groups of pupils, give each member in the class a number from one to four. Ask all the ones, the twos, the threes and the fours to sit together. You now have four heterogeneous groups of learners ready to tackle the collaborative task ahead.
2.    To encourage students to talk to each other, sit them opposite each other in a long line and ask the students on one side to move down a seat every 3 to 5 minutes. This speed dating-style activity works well when the task involves peer questioning or data gathering.
3.    Mind maps and graphic organizers are the perfect partners to classroom collaboration. Enthusiastic pupils sitting together around a large mind map are more likely to discuss, negotiate, evaluate and compromise.
4.    Group activities such as the card game ‘Higher or Lower?’ provide a great opportunity to develop ordering and sequencing skills. Create a set of cards with ideas to rank in order of importance, value, chronology, etc… Ask pupils in pairs (or threes) to reveal each card in turn, and place it higher or lower than the other visible cards on the table.

It is generally accepted that once children understand the value of working together in unity, performance, motivation and outcomes improve.  Of course, children should also be given time to think for themselves and work on their own, but collaborative learning adds another string to their skills bow. A string which is invaluable as it gives them the confidence to interact effectively with the world around them.

Author Bio:  Gael Luzet, Advanced Skills Teacher, teacher trainer and author of the Collaborative Learning Pocketbook

Top Ten Tips for Going Back to School

Written by a representative from Tutor House, a Clonlara School guest blogger (***Clonlara School does not endorse or recommend any product/service in connection with this author***).

The end of the summer holidays and the beginning of a new school year is an equally stressful and exciting time for many parents and students alike.

London-based private tutoring agency Tutor House has come up with its top ten tips for going back to school, aimed to help students and parents prepare for the new school term.

1.    Morning Organization – Get Back into the Routine

Create a routine for the mornings to ensure that everyone is out of the house at the right time.

Ensure that everything needed for school is prepared the night before the first day back to avoid the unwanted stressful manic rush in the morning.

2.    Prepare the Calendar – Highlight Key Dates

Having a family calendar is a great idea and solution for effectively preparing for key term dates, as the whole house can always be kept up to date with what everyone has planned.

Mark key term dates and the days kids are doing after school activities.

3.    Lunch and Breakfast Supplies

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, so it’s worth having the fridge and cupboards filled up with a range of healthy breakfast items.

If lunch boxes are required then ensure that you have plenty of lunch box fillers available so in the morning it is quick and easy to rustle something up.

4.    Reading List – Get Ahead of the Class

If the school has issued a reading list for a particular subject before the term starts, get these books as soon as possible.

Summer holiday reading or a 20-minute session before bed is the ideal solution to avoid last minute cramming as students will learn more effectively.

5.    Holiday Work – Slow and Steady

A continuing theme here is to ensure that nothing is left to the last minute. Holiday work is often left to the eleventh hour, causing stress and ineffective learning.

By steadily completing holiday work earlier on in the holidays ensures that students will keep their minds energised, avoiding that horrendous last minute dash to finish off 10 pieces of homework the night before the first day of school.

6.    Labelling – Get the Sewing Kit out, Mum!

Labelling all the uniform and sports kit is a sensible idea as it helps avoid having to keep buying new uniform to replace potential items of lost property throughout the school year.

An arduous task for many, but dedicate an evening or two to spend with the sewing kit – it’ll be worth evading the potentially expensive mid-term uniform replacements!

7.    Regulate Sleeping Habits – No More Late Nights

Traditionally the summer holidays can bring change to a child’s sleeping habits, especially teenagers.

Try to regulate sleeping patterns a week or so before term starts to avoid a shock to the system on the first day back at school.

8.    Brush up in Key Areas – Private Tuition?

Make a flying start to the new term by brushing up in a few key areas. Whether it’s an important exam year or a new start, hiring a private tutor for a few hours before term starts can really make a difference.

9.    RELAX!

Putting all the excitement and stress of starting a new term aside for a second, it’s actually correspondingly important to keep calm and have a positive attitude.

These schooling years are so precious, and won’t last forever so enjoy them as much as benefitting from them.

10. Avoid the Uniform Rush – don’t leave it all last minute

By shopping for school uniform well before the end of summer rush parents can benefit from avoiding manic shopping trips and can often pick up very good deals.

Currently Debenhams are offering 70% off Kids school uniform and other retailers are offering deals such as; 2 for 1 and 3 for 3 on school uniforms.

Author Bio – Tutor House is a private tutoring agency based in Fulham, London and offers private tuition for children aged 11 – 18 years old in Common Entrance, GCSEs and A-Levels. Tutor House also offers special education support, careers advice, gap year advice and University guidance.

For more information on private tutors in London and Fulham contact Tutor House on 020 7381 6253 or visit

How Project-Based Learning Will Make Your Kids Successful

Written by Pengfei, a Clonlara School guest blogger (***Clonlara School does not endorse or recommend any product/service in connection with this author***) and has been reposted with the permission of Launch Education Group.

Alex Banayan, 20 years old and the youngest venture capitalist in the world. Still a college student at USC, Alex spends his days flying to various cities, hanging out with people like Zappos founder Tony Hsieh, networking with young entrepreneurs, and writing his own book. He has turned down an offer from MTV (for his own reality TV show) and another from Interscope Records. Alex is at the pinnacle of success at his age. Yet, an interview with his boss, Stewart Alsop, will make you realize that the Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm did not hire him for his grades. They hired him for his creativity, entrepreneurial spirit and social saavy. Above all, they hired him for his confidence.

Most parents believe that academic achievement is the key to a lucrative future. However, we also know that success means so much more than being calculus geek or being able to write a great paper on James Joyce. After all some of our society’s most beloved visionaries are college dropouts.

Because skills like leadership, confidence, communication skills, and curiosity take a lifetime to develop, it is imperative for children to start at an early age. For example, parents should implement a routine activity that stimulates a child’s creativity and develops their confidence. A great way to do this is a project-based learning model described in Lori Pickert’s book Project-Based Homeschooling.

“The first step toward success is taken when you refuse to be a captive of the environment in which you first find yourself.”  -Mark Caine

Although primarily designed for homeschooling parents, the program can be adopted by all families and academic institutions. Project-based learning is a way for kids to choose their own subjects and work on projects that interests them. A time of the day/week is allocated for kids to routinely work on various projects individually or with others. Parents and teachers, for the most part, offer minimal guidance and are only there to encourage and observe. The benefits of this approach are immeasurable.

Take this scenario in the book for example:
“A group of children age three to five are working together to build a large, three-dimensional cardboard whale. Two are crouched on the floor looking at a book, shouting out information and ideas to others, Two are arguing about fin design-they decide they will each make one fin the way they prefer and they’ll use both. Another decides to make krill for the whale to eat, so he sits down and begins cutting paper into tiny pieces… Later she [parent] can use her notes to help the children remember all of their plans. One of the children walks up to her and asks her to write down the colors of paint they will need: he lists them. Another says he wants to measure how big the whale is – he would like it to be life-size. They begin to discuss the best way to measure, and one of the children runs to get a book from the bookshelf-he remembers which book mentioned the exact length of their whale, even though he can’t read yet.”

The activities and learning in this scenario are representatives of the skills the children will develop as they get older. For example, learning how to freely to express their creativity and create a whale according to their own imagination is essential for developing innovative thinking and self-confidence. Learning how to settle arguments (i.e. the aforementioned “fin” example) and working as a group help mold them into team players. Lastly, by starting the project over to build the whale with the correct dimensions, students learn to cope with failure and persevere.

Project-based learning is a workspace that allows children to explore their own talents and ways of thinking. By helping your children develop them at a young age, you are placing them a step ahead of the likes of Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Alex Banayan. Who knows, maybe your child will be on the cover of Forbes as the world’s youngest millionaire a decade from now.

About the author:   Pengfei is a student at Cornell University. As one of the Launch interns, he assists the director, Matt Steiner, with online marketing and business development. During his high school and college years, he has held a couple of tutoring jobs, helping elementary to high school students in math. Pengfei also has strong backgrounds in technological design, social media, and information policy.

Should Entrepreneur Development Programs Be Included In Student’s Secondary Education?

Written by Cormac Reynolds, a Clonlara School guest blogger (***Clonlara School does not endorse or recommend any product/service in connection with this author***)

They say entrepreneurs are born and not taught, they also say that about athletes, mathematicians and any other person with a specialist application you can think of. However, like any of the aforementioned, if a person is not given an opportunity to learn, receive support or are mentored it greatly limits the chances of them fulfilling their promise.

Entrepreneurship education gives students a theoretical and also a practical basis to become entrepreneurs. One of the best ways to learn to be an entrepreneur is to listen to the stories of previous entrepreneurs. They’re failures; successes and how they got there are all part and parcel of learning the skills it takes to be an entrepreneur.

Even if people are born to be entrepreneurs, there is no innate way that they can write a business plan for start-up finance or calculate risks. Entrepreneurship education provides this academic area and gives children the skills to increase their chances of becoming successful entrepreneurs. These skills are a necessity and entrepreneurship education helps.

Creates Student Interest

Enterprise also has a different side to it. There is a certain amount of street smarts or even wheeling and dealing with being an entrepreneur. Many children who lose interest in mainstream subjects find that this element of street smarts and dare we say even edginess is of interest. It encourages children to get excited, to take an interest and also shows them the value of other subjects. Children soon learn that if they want to succeed as entrepreneurs they need to pay attention and that their whole education is of worth. They understand they need to read, write and do arithmetic to give themselves the best opportunity as entrepreneurs.

Poorer Backgrounds

For children from poorer backgrounds, entrepreneurship shows them a way out of poverty and allows them to take control of their own destiny in a lot of ways.  This can turn the most academically disinterested child into one with a sense of purpose. It allows children a sense of ownership and allows them to make sensible decisions about their future.
This awareness of career and entrepreneurial options and ‘skilling up’ creates entrepreneurs and in turn it helps society. With over 50% of the UK employment and UK businesses being of the small and medium enterprise nature, more successful entrepreneurs makes for more successful businesses, more jobs and a wealthier country.

The Wealth Gap

It also helps to bridge the wealth gap and income inequality. There is no denying that this disparity in wealth historically has caused riots, civil unrest and revolution. With President Barack Obama saying income inequality is the ‘defining issue of our time’, teaching entrepreneurship education at school is a way to level the playing field and close the gap in income.

One of the other big issues we currently face because of the financial crisis is the level of youth unemployment in the Western World. Youth unemployment is anything from 10% in some countries to 50% in countries such as Spain. This has short term and long term implications for people who not only have a lack of money, but in turn are shown to have a lack of worth. There are also a whole range of other negative societal factors that are attributed to joblessness.

Through teaching enterprise at school and offering entrepreneurship education, countries place the skills on people’s hands. Instead of leaving university into a degree saturated market, where you rely on others for a job, young people will have the skills to start their own.

Of course, if there is no option for learning enterprise at schools there are alternatives in the shape form of internships – something to keep older children occupied in the summer time or during longer breaks.

Alternatively, summer schools can benefit children and there are all sorts of schools that offer this education. London, Cambridge and Oxford summer school are very popular in the UK for this reason, with many students taking classes before university or even in earlier years.

However, whether enterprise should be thought as part of education remains to be seen.

Cormac Reynolds writes for UK company and has written on a number of education blogs across the web.

Helpful Educational Strategies

Written by Jackie Ufer, advisor for the home based education program of Clonlara School.  While this article was written for the homeschooling parent, we believe it is also true of families who are seeking educational choices for their children is campus based programs as well.

Many parents are home educating children who have a disability. Children with learning disabilities and ADHD are the two largest subgroups who receive accommodations through disability legislation (Parker et al, 2011). At times these parents may feel their children’s needs are not being met in the public school system, but also feel anxious or unsure how to effectively address their children’s learning needs on their own at home. Parents often ask their Clonlara Advisor for a product or curriculum that is designed for a child with a special learning need. Although there are several wonderful products and curricula for sale, effective learning best occurs with the use of curriculum material combined with effective strategies. This article is meant to provide and describe research-based strategies that can be incorporated with any learning activity at any age level. The strategies described below have been proven to increase the transfer of information from short-term to long-term memory as well as increase retrieval of previously learned information from long term memory.

Build Self-Efficacy: Self- efficacy is the ability level or confidence a person feels they have in a particular skill area. When a student has a high level of self-efficacy in a particular area they tend to employ higher-order thinking and persevere longer in challenging activities. A sense of self-efficacy is very important for any student, but especially for students who have been told they have a “disability” and may feel inadequate because they cannot learn in the same ways as their peers. It is important to teach these students that they CAN learn and are just as smart and talented as their peers. They just learn in a different way. Help them discover what their talents are and the best ways for them to be successful learning new information.

Goal Setting: Make goals clear at the beginning of a learning activity. Let the student set personal and academic goals. Two useful activities for this are “3-2-1.” The student describes 3 things they already know or think they know- 2 things they would like to learn more about- and 1 thing they find interesting about the topic. And “K-W-L” – what do you Know – what do you Want to learn – and what did you Learn?

Plans for Achieving Goals: Depending on the age level, make a plan for how the goal will be accomplished. Brainstorm activities that sound interesting and productive with the student. With older students, this will give them a sense of control over their own education. Younger students often enjoy monitoring their progress towards a goal. Discuss progress toward the goal and make a visual.

Build background knowledge: Be aware of previous knowledge a student needs to know in order to learn a new skill. Also, be aware of whether the student possesses this knowledge and teach it if necessary.

Short instruction time: Keep instruction time short and engaging. The average attention span is about 7 minutes and the brain usually decides whether the information is pertinent within the first 1 – 3 seconds. If the brain decides the information being presented is important, it will continue to take in the rest of the information and hold in short-term memory for 20- 30 seconds. After that, it will transfer to long-term memory based on follow-up activities using new information. Give short breaks during longer activities and then review when the break is over to get the brain “back on track.”

Chunking: Breaking information into small, manageable parts. When covering a large amount of information, it is best to break it into chunks containing about 7 (+ or -) pieces. Also, try to group information with other related information. If the learner can make a connection to new information, he or she is more likely to retain it.

Scaffolding: When a new concept is introduced, it’s ok to guide learning and “jog” a student’s memory. Giving hints that assist in information processing or retrieval is part of a process called scaffolding. When we scaffold, we give hints and slowly take the hints away as a student becomes more confident with new information or skills.

Multiple modalities: Use multiple modalities for learning so different parts of the brain are activated. Different learners have different processing strengths neurologically. Modalities include visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic (movement).

Errorless Learning: Monitor the learning of new information closely. Once a pathway in the brain of a child with a learning disability has been formed, it is much harder to form a new correct pathway as compared to the brain of a student without a processing disorder.

Modeling: Have a peer or mentor the student respects model a new skill. Often when we see someone we view as similar to ourselves accomplish a task, we will then feel as if we can do it too. When people feel confidence entering into a challenge (self-efficacy as described above), they tend to have higher perseverance, use problem-solving skills, and employ more higher-order thinking to learning activities.

Real life application and Problem Solving: Present students with problems to solve independently that will require them to apply new and old knowledge. Allow students multiple ways to solve a problem.

Constant review: Students with processing disorders need more repetition and structure.

Jackie Ufer is an advisor for the home based education program at Clonlara School.  She wrote this article for The Learning Edge newsletter and kindly let us re-use it.  

Pat Montgomery’s “Herstory”: Take Time

Written by Pat Montgomery, founder of Clonlara School.

Switching from institutional schooling to home educating can be challenging for all parties concerned: parent, student, and other family members. I liken it in my own past experience to having an older student, say a teenager, enroll in Clonlara School after having spent years in conventional school. Chris comes immediately to mind.

He was 13 years old and had attended a private Christian academy since grade one, but he now refused to return, and his parents had had their fill of trying to work with the school. He spent the customary trial week at Clonlara and then signed on for the new school year. Our usual approach with new students was to let them experience the various choices that all Clonlara students had – which class to attend, what activities to engage in, which teachers to communicate most with, etc. The maxim was: do as you choose as long as it is not harmful to yourself or another.

Chris spent most of the day in the treehouse with the younger kids. He helped them hammer together another level. One day I called to him from the path below. He reluctantly came down, and from his facial expression and his attitude it was clear to me that he thought I was going to censure him. His body language virtually screamed: I’m doing what I want and you can’t stop me.

“How are you doing, Chris?” I asked.

“You said we could make our own choices and I choose to do nothing,” he replied.

“Tell me what doing nothing looks like,” I said.

In time he realized that I was not questioning his choice, that I had meant what I said, and that I was really only checking in with him. We ended up laughing together. Years later, he told me that he just knew that I had come out to order him out of the treehouse and into classes. Then we laughed even harder!

Youngsters who have had confining experiences or who have been treated as though their opinions were not worth much, or perhaps were never even asked for an opinion, need time to relax. Ivan Illich called it deschooling. They need time to hearken back to the time when they were self-directed learners – up until they began attending school where adults are the ones who write the rules and determine the order of their days. They need, most of all, to believe they are trusted. They need adults who will talk TO them, not AT them. It takes time. It takes talking together, consulting.

But what if a youngster just sleeps or holes herself up in her room and doesn’t connect with her parent in the home school situation? Or one who watches TV or plays with today’s electronic thingamajigs?

Take deschooling time. Talk to them. Talk to them the way you talk to a friend who is 21 years of age or older. They will come to know that you are not passing judgment, that you are on their side, that together you can get through this period, that you are both members of the family, both wanting the best for them. Honestly.

Pat Montgomery founded Clonlara in 1967, and was its Executive Director for 38 years. We are pleased and honored that she continues to share her knowledge and wisdom with the Clonlara community in the form of “Herstory,” her regular column for The Learning Edge.