Alternative, “learner centered” schools have many similarities, but also have subtle differences in the ways they are governed and educate children. No hard and fast definitions apply, but the following descriptions show some of the schools’ characteristics.
Free schools: More than 300 “free schools” operate in the United States and abroad, including in countries as diverse as Costa Rica, India, Israel, Thailand, and Ukraine. Free schools are all learner-centered environments, which means that students can opt to take classes and lessons, or spend their time doing other things.
Democratic schools: In these schools, the student body is directly involved in decisionmaking, there is equality between staff members and students, and the community is considered an extension of the classroom. Many democratic schools offer structured classes, but students are free to skip the lessons. There are no required courses or tests. All democratic schools are free schools, but not all free schools are democratic schools.
Sudbury schools: Based on the philosophy that all children are learners by their very nature, these schools—modeled on the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Mass.—expect students to initiate all classes and lessons. Students are encouraged to learn at their own pace and to follow their interests. All Sudbury schools are both free and democratic.
A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 2004 edition of Education Week as Shared Traits