Alternative pedagogies: a galaxy with varied political aims

Of the twelve million children and teenagers attending school in France, only a few tens of thousands are enrolled in curricula claiming to use alternative pedagogies.

Sylvain Wagnon, University of Montpellier

Alternative pedagogies, such as Montessori, claim to be part of the new education movement. Shutterstock

Activist websites such as Le printemps de l'éducation put the number of children concerned at 60,000. An "official" figure of 24,851 children is given by the Miviludes report(Mission interministérielle de vigilance et de lutte contre les dérives sectaires) for children not attending school with their families or at a distance.

If we stop at statistics, the phenomenon may seem marginal. Nonetheless, their progression is real, and the discourses of the militants of these pedagogies meet with a great echo in the media and in part of society. In a recent study for Tréma magazine, we sketched out an analysis of the definition and contours of this heterogeneous galaxy.

What do a religious "traditionalist" school have in common with a Montessori school, or a Freinet school with homeschooling? To analyze this nebula is to attempt to establish the unifying principles of these movements, without underestimating the oppositions between the actors of the different currents. It also means highlighting the effective role of initiators, supporters and the ideological and financial ramifications.

The heritage of new education

The idea of alternative is not a recent one, since the currents of new education stemming from the pedagogues Célestin Freinet, Maria Montessori, Rudolf Steiner and Ovide Decroly have been present in France since the first half of the 20th century, and were built in reaction to the traditional school. The alternative pedagogies of the 21st century differ in their political aims, methods and scientific foundations.

Given that they are mainly made up of non-contracted private establishments, the question of links with the school system is raised. A study of the rhetoric of the various currents reveals that the "attacks" on public education are not all of the same nature.

Home schooling activists are opposed to the school in principle, but other movements, such as democratic schools, advocate bypassing or competing strategies in the name of pedagogical freedom. Is this a short-term resistance? Is it part of the liberalization and privatization of education? These questions remain unanswered.

Neuroscience in the background

In his latest book, Philippe Meirieu lucidly clarifies the issues at stake in current debates between supporters of the "traditional" school, militants of the new education and activists of today's alternative pedagogies, who wish to radically redefine all pedagogical relations by condemning adult domination. Philippe Meirieu defines them as "hyperpédagos", which is debatable, since some activists reject the very idea of pedagogy as a tool for dominating children.

Behind this typology lies a political divide. The Freinet movements, and to a lesser extent Decroly, claim an emancipatory purpose and a political transformation of education, whereas today's alternative movements usually claim to be "apolitical", putting forward the "evidence" of personal development legitimized by neuroscience. However, this refusal to be "labeled" does not preclude a discourse and practices that refer to clearly identified political and pedagogical universes.

The alternative pedagogies of the 21st century, whether in or out of school, implicitly or explicitly take their cue from the new education movements of the early 20th century. They are sometimes direct offshoots, as in the case of Montessori schools and Freinet classes. However, the scientific foundations of the two currents are not the same.

The currents of new education stem from the thinking and practices of child psychology and social psychology. The alternative pedagogies of the 21st century, while taking up part of this corpus, legitimize their practices through advances in cognitive science and neuroscience in particular. What's more, we're witnessing a kind of alliance between neuroscientists and alternative pedagogy activists in the face of public education.

Breaking out of myths

Our analysis of the galaxy of alternative pedagogies reveals three archipelagos with divergent or even antagonistic political aims.

  • The first archipelago is that of the historical currents of new education (Decroly, Montessori, Steiner or Freinet), which are well represented today in the French public and private educational landscape. This is by no means a common "front". The ideals of social diversity and educational transformation remain strong anchors in the Freinet and Decroly movements, while the Steiner and Montessori currents focus above all on personality development.
  • The second archipelago proposes a pedagogical project centered on "tradition", on the transmission of knowledge before any socialization. This group is mainly made up of traditionalist Catholic schools. These schools are ideologically opposed to most alternative schools advocating societal transformation. Nevertheless, this movement sees a convergence in certain alternative schools, in this bypassing of public education and liberalization of education.
  • Finally, the third archipelago, which is currently expanding, is a nebulous group of educational experiences, associations and players based on the concepts of family education, personal development and neuroscience. Its growth remains negligible in quantitative terms, but highly offensive in media and political terms. One of the new aspects is the capture of the idea of innovation by schools or experiments that are not attached to any particular form of education. We are witnessing a tug-of-war between individualistic withdrawal and a desire to transform the existing system.

Then, as now, schools are obviously a political issue. The difficulty for reformers within the public education system is to defend the idea of a school for the common good, while at the same time being critical of the education system itself. This does not mean that the situation is unchangeable, but it does seem to us that we need to get away from the myths.

Education nouvelle was not a uniform movement, nor did it irrigate the French education system with its "pedagogism" - reformers remained marginalized within the public education system. The struggle to define an emancipatory education is even more topical in the face of growing social individualism and exacerbated nationalism.The Conversation

Sylvain Wagnon, University Professor of Education, University of Montpellier

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.