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Call Me Alternative: Education Internships Outside the Box

I recently visited a group of education students at a local university who were learning about internships available at “alternative education” placements. Translated, this means informal, not in a school or sometimes not in a traditional public school.

In many ways, faculties of education across Canada are beginning to transcend their teacher’s college roots and are moving from job training for school teachers to faculties of the broader study of education. I am grateful that my alma mater took on this challenge. It is my hope that at some point alternative placements will be mandatory for all aspiring graduates (teachers and others alike).

—*Fist bump* to universities exploring these opportunities for their students. —

Museums aren’t alone in their alternative education label: religious education, correctional programs, outdoor education, science and recreation centres, independent schools, home schooling, extracurriculars and so many more are also considered alternative education. The Nova Scotia Department of Education recently announced that it would give a Personal Development Credit to high school students taking part in qualified out-of-school programs (, further legitimizing alternative education. In fact, it seems there is more education “out” than “in.”

During the Industrial Revolution (see Sir Ken Robinson’s talk), education in schools became the only real education and education “in the world” became something else (experience, perhaps). So what does that mean? Should we all start singing "Little Boxes"? With school reform being a hot button issue around the world, perhaps being alternative isn’t such a bad thing.

As for me, I balk at this word “alternative” every time. Is it an insult? Is it a compliment?

A small part of me likes it. I still remember where I was when the “Voice of a Generation”[1] died on April 8, 1994 (Mr. Vistorino’s gym class). If you belong to Gen X, you know what I’m talking about: alternative has a positive spin.

Alternative education therefore would be education that is edgy, real, gritty, non-institutionalized, of the world and different than what has come before, not to mention unspeakably awesome. However, as we age and wash the grunge out of our hair, the albums on our playlists change and so too do our understandings of words like alternative—alternative to what? Does that make it on the outside? Does it give power and legitimacy to what it’s reacting against—what it is alternative to? Is this just a way of saying a new emerging paradigm that will eventually become mainstream? Likely. A true alternative has equal standing and the chance of being selected. Have we lived up to our label?

You may begin to wonder, as I did, why museum (and other) education is “alternative” education? Why isn’t museum education mainstream, assumed and first choice? In fact, despite the labels, in some cases it is. Most of us have visited a museum in our lifetime—half of us within the last 12 months. Research suggests that museums are more trusted than teachers, books, the internet and even family members[2]. Maybe we should spend less time trying to get “in” and more time being proud of being “out.” Alternative educators spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to work with mainstream education but perhaps we should spend more time just leading the way: doing our own thing well. Schools already do a good job at being schools.

I bravely (in my mind bravely) told the students that I encouraged them not to think of museum education as a fallback choice for when they didn’t get jobs in classrooms. The classroom is a valuable and important place, but there is something very special about museum education, something liberating, something…alternative.

I can explore current theories of education. I can teach inter-generationally with mixed age group socialization. I can teach cross-culturally and across economic divisions. I can employ student-centred approaches. I can teach across subjects and even without subject divisions. I can integrate new technology. I can allow for free open course/program design. I can develop programs outside of and across proscribed curriculums and even involve students in shaping their own curriculum. I can create a skills-based approach. I can redefine student to include anyone interested in growing. Together, my students and I can share education; we can democratize education; we can liberate education.

Alternative education is my first choice.

So, you can still find Oasis, R.E.M. and Nirvana in my playlists to this day, in amongst the things my younger self would have considered “parent music.” I’m a little older and a little wiser and I can handle some divergent thought. I suppose it’s time to embrace the title alternative and proudly say we are unique in museum education. We are edgy, we are gritty, we are real, we are…alternative.

A group of people are sitting around a table doing some messy craft activities and all are wearing aprons.

Former Intern Esther Penner

Children are painting beautiful drawings on big brown pieces of paper.

Former Intern Ashley Tomlinson

A beautiful blonde girl and young child are seated at a table and both smile happily for the camera, there are craft supplies on the table.

Former Intern Ashley MacPherson

A young girl seated at a desk gives information to the children standing in front of her.

Former Intern Sarah Porter

  1. Chris Molanphy, Kurt Cobain: Voice of a Generation (Barnes & Noble, 2003), 3rd edition.