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Learning in Nontraditional Environments: An International Perspective.

Public education has been a generally successful endeavor for most of the world's countries. These governments can expect that when children exit school, they are literate, possess valuable job skills, and are able to take their places in society. Most public or national school systems do fulfill these expectations for the majority of students. Of late, however, researchers have begun to question the real success of these efforts.

The authors of this special issue explore the following questions:

* Who is responsible for the education of poor children?

* How does bureaucracy interfere with children's opportunity to learn and a teacher's ability to teach?

* How is access to quality education determined?

* How can resources and facilities available for various target groups be improved?

* What are parents' roles, rights, and responsibilities in their children's education?

Shortcomings of Traditional Schooling

In the United Kingdom and the United States, policymakers recently implemented curriculum reform accompanied by new forms of assessment. While the reforms were intended to build up citizens' confidence in schooling, neither curriculum nor teaching was improved (Firestone, Fitz, & Broadfoot, 1999). Instead, teachers concentrated on test performance, making only cosmetic adjustments in instructional delivery. Furthermore, teachers did not teach higher-level problem solving or more sophisticated reasoning to students who were not perceived as college-bound. A Dutch study reported differences in education and preparation for secondary teachers assigned to teach students in highest versus lowest tracks (Brabander, 2000), and students in different tracks received instruction that varied in quality. In the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States, much of this differentiated instruction resulted from teachers' own prejudices, rather than students' actual abilities.

A second area of scrutiny for public education is the "gatekeeping" function of schooling (Kumashiro, 2000). Non-citizens' or immigrants' access to schooling has been debated in political arenas and courts (Petronicolos & New, 1999). Furthermore, members of minority groups or lower socioeconomic classes often receive different treatment in the education system than do members of the ethnic majority groups. Thus, education can function to prevent some immigrant and minority groups from gaining economic stability and access to a better standard of living.

Minority teachers may be held to differing standards and expectations (Madsen & Mabokela, 2000). Like their students, minority teachers may feel that they have to transform themselves to resemble the majority culture's mores. Socioeconomic status also can be problematic. Poor parents may be hindered from participating in their children's schooling (Heymann & Earle, 2000). For children who are at risk of school failure, however, parents' active involvement can be the determining factor. Thus, the gap between children from middle class and those from poor households will widen.

Some politicians and business leaders offer solutions for improving education that reflect a market mentality. Competition between institutions, vouchers, and private enterprises all have been proposed in the United States as viable alternatives to public education. A study in Great Britain, however, found that treating education as a consumer-driven business has not resulted in increased parent or student choice or better access to quality education and schools (Finkelstein & Grubb, 2000).

The Promise of Learning in Nontraditional Environments

Upon recognizing that public schooling may fall short of its goals, parents and teachers should explore available alternatives. What changes should be made to the facilities, the curriculum, and instructional delivery? How can we address the real needs of our children? Indeed, the notion of nontraditional education is broad and complex, reflecting the multiple and heterogeneous forms and approaches it can take in terms of improving the educational opportunities and fulfilling the needs and interests expressed by individual and groups within or across cultures and countries (Hamadache, 1998). This issue includes articles from around the world that identify the problems, propose solutions, and explore the issues.

Who Are the Students? Children from all walks of life receive all or part of their education in settings other than schools. Some children are those overlooked by the public and nationally run schools. These students include the impoverished, neglected children living on the streets of Brazil described by Cesar Rossatto, the children of war in Thai refugee camps we meet through Diane Tillman, and the rural Vietnamese in Thai Thanh Son's article. Within the United States, Vicki Dimidjian introduces us to preschool children of migrant parents working the fields of rural Florida, and Jim Hoot features inner-city African American children learning language and literacy along with their parents. Bob Elliott and Hitendra Pillay highlight ways that Australia's geography and educational bureaucracy can diminish elementary and secondary students' opportunities and choices.

In other instances, education beyond the school walls is an advantage available mostly to middle and upper class children. Such opportunities may provide children with the advantage of firsthand knowledge of cultures, individualized instruction, and enhanced performance on important examinations. Deborah Byrnes shows us ways children can learn as they travel the world with their parents. Christian Beck examines the state of home schooling in Norway, while Mark Bray outlines the implications of intensive tutoring programs in East Asian countries.

What Is the Teacher's Role? In nontraditional settings, the teacher's role and the requisite knowledge base expands. Understanding students' cultural backgrounds is even more essential in these settings as teachers use cultural songs, games, and dances to build concepts and connect learning. Often it is expected that teachers will visit their students' homes, establish partnerships with parents, and facilitate social services. Teachers collaborate with parents to set goals and to take advantage of cultural and community learning opportunities. When children need help making the transition from one environment to another, the teacher serves as a facilitator.

When teachers use sophisticated technology and communication media in these nontraditional settings, they must adjust their approaches to teaching. Teachers may correspond electronically with students rather than having face-to-face communication. In other settings, teachers are expected to use technology to implement developmentally appropriate programs and collect assessment data. Furthermore, teachers of vocational students are expected to possess firsthand, expert knowledge of the workplace. Some teachers described in this issue demonstrate best practices in their classrooms, which are then broadcast to universities as part of preservice teacher education.

What Do Students Learn? The charter school and the early childhood center described herein foster young children's language and literacy through experiences and culturally appropriate programs tailored to their needs. These facilities also offer parents opportunities to complete their education and build better parenting skills. Both programs recognize that low-income parents' educational levels must be addressed to ensure their children's futures. These nontraditional environments invite parent involvement in their children's education, accommodating low-income working parents.

The Thai refugee camps and Brazilian street schools develop empowerment, as well as literacy. As children recover from the traumas of war or the stress of surviving on the street, they develop coping skills and confidence. Through both formal and informal activities, the children establish social bonds with others and build communication skills they need for the future. In these settings, children are free to talk about issues, problems, and events central to their lives and experiences. It is unlikely that these discussions would be welcome or valued in traditional school settings.

Home-schooled children not only learn reading, writing, mathematics, and science, but also their parents' values and beliefs. Home-schooled children may also learn to approach learning and questioning differently than their public school peers. Both home-schooled and travel-schooled children have unique opportunities to learn. When children travel for extended periods, their parents can guide their discovery of geography, cultures, and values. Thus, children in each setting receive unique learning support and feedback from their parents.

Nontraditional environments afford students access to information, skills, experiences, and instruction deemed vital to their future success. Through intensive tutoring or cramming, students can develop the knowledge to pass important national examinations, thereby guaranteeing access to future schooling and better employment. For these students, intensive tutoring outside of school supplements inadequate instruction and increases opportunities to learn. When vocational training and education are structured to reflect workplace values and expertise, secondary students are prepared for employment and economic stability as well as for future education. In rural areas, technology has supported distance learning. Poor children can access information, acquire new languages, and increase their levels of literacy. Through technology and distance learning, students' economic futures are brighter than ever before.


The articles collected in this issue indicate that a variety of situations and conditions lend themselves to nontraditional educational approaches or methods. Given the challenges faced by traditional education and schooling in the new millennium, more alternative education routes are needed to promote literacy, effective learning, and quality of life for our children. As teaching and learning in nontraditional environments becomes an integral part of the education system in many countries, it is important that teachers, administrators, parents, students, and policymakers educate themselves about such nontraditional methods. Teacher educators should examine current practice and conduct more comparative research. By providing education in nontraditional settings to disadvantaged children and marginal groups, we can ensure them their best chance to attain their goals and actualize their potential to the fullest.


Brabander, C. J. (2000). Knowledge definition, subject, and educational track level: Perceptions of secondary school teachers. American Educational Research Journal, 37(4), 1027-1058.

Finkelstein, N. D., & Grubb, W. N. (2000). Making sense of education and training markets: Lessons from England. American Educational Research Journal, 37(3), 601-631.

Firestone, W. A., Fitz, J., & Broadfoot, P. (1999). Power, learning, and legitimation: Assessment implementation across levels in the United States and the United Kingdom. American Educational Research Journal, 36(4), 759-793.

Hamadache, A. (1998). Non-formal and alternative approaches to basic education: Comparative studies. In Education: The complete encyclopedia. New York: Elsevier Science Ltd.

Heymann, S. J., & Earle, A. (2000). Low-income parents: How do working conditions affect their opportunity to help school-age children at risk? American Educational Research Journal, 37(4), 833-848.

Kumashiro, K. K. (2000). Toward a theory of anti-oppressive education. Review of Educational Research, 70(1), 25-53.

Madsen, J. A., & Mabokela, R. O. (2000). Organizational culture and its impact on African American teachers. American Educational Research Journal, 37(4), 849-876.

Petronicolos, L., & New, W. S. (1999). Anti-immigrant legislation, social justice, and the right to equal educational opportunity. American Educational Research Journal, 36(3), 373-408.

Rebecca Harlin is Director of the Educational Specialist Program, Adrian Dominican School of Education, Barry University, Miami Shores, Florida, USA. Ramsey Koo is Senior Lecturer, Department of Educational Studies, Hong Kong Institute of Education, Tai Po, NT, Hong Kong.
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Article Details
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Author:Harlin, Rebecca P.
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 15, 2001
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