An Introduction to Non-Traditional Education

Non-traditional education, despite its name, is not new, and is not necessarily disconnected from traditions that pre-date our present educational mainstream. However, it presents what to many is a deliberate challenge to the way education is organized and conceptualized. Many find this challenge profound in its call to understand education as a holistic experience integral to the human condition.

Non-traditional education is more than just another educational choice. It is an explicitly political set of values.

“Brookfield (1993) maintains that adult educators need to consider that self-directed learning is often political, for power and control are frequently catalysts for self-directed learning influenced by “political” structures and conditions…[Brookfield] notes that Brockett and Hiemstra (1991) recommend: “The political dimension of self-direction continues to be largely overlooked by adult educators, and this needs to be remedied” (p. 220). Brookfield (1993) argues that self-directed learning is inherently political in nature, and maintains that, “Instead of being equated with atomistic self-gratification, self-direction can be interpreted as part of a cultural tradition that emphasizes the individual’s standing against repressive interests” (p. 225). Moreover, when individuals take control of their learning, it will likely bring them “into direct conflict with powerful entrenched interests” (p. 237) and structures.”
[Source: Cynthia Lee Andruske, “Self-Directed Learning as a Political Act: Learning Projects of Women on Welfare” (University of British Columbia)]

What is non-traditional education? 
Let’s open with a question. Who owns education? If we think of education as we are encouraged to by politicians and the public sector, as a “public good”, we might come up with some obvious answers – the government, the universities and schools, the educational establishment. Actually, none of these answers are correct.

You own education – yes, you the individual. You have the right to determine your own education for yourself as you see fit, and no-one has the right to take that away from you. Charles Hayes tells us “When we fail to take control of our education, we fail to take control of our lives. Self-directed inquiry, the process of taking control of your own education… is the lifeblood of democracy.”

The collusion of government and the education establishment – whom we will call “traditional education” – have encouraged you to give away your ownership of education, to bow down to their “expert class” of academics, to accept that education is being run not for your benefit as the consumer, but instead for the benefit of the cartel of vested interests – administrators, tenured faculty, professional associations, government – that depends on you not exercising your educational freedom, on you giving away your educational rights without most probably even being aware that you have done so.

However, there is another way. Go back to your childhood. How did you learn to talk, to count, to know the names of things, to develop skills in communication? Were you taught these things in school? Chances are that you learned them through two sources: mentored instruction (such as your parent or carer) and personal experience. Were these good ways to learn? Well, how many of those things we listed have you forgotten? Now think about what you learned by traditional instruction in class during high school. Not as easy to remember, is it?

These are generalizations, but they reveal an important truth. We learn in its fullest sense through experience, and we keep on learning like this our whole lives. Certainly we can absorb theory and discuss concepts. But the eureka moment comes when we match knowledge with experience to create meaningful learning. One reason why you haven’t forgotten how to talk or how to count is because you use these skills all the time – you reinforce your knowledge through experience. The same would probably be true of the core professional skills you use at work every day. You might like to reflect on how much of what you learned in school or university that claimed to be preparing you for the future, but that you’ve actually left behind and forgotten because it lacked relevance to what you do.

What if we were to think about education in terms of this concept of experience as the best teacher? This is a revolutionary idea, because it turns the present-day educational establishment on its head. Instead of the institution, or the government, or the professor having the power, you have it. So now you have the power, what are you going to do with it?

If you have even an average amount of motivation, organization and intelligence, you can devise a model of education that centres around your own abilities, needs and interests. And you can tell the university that you want it to do a different job. Instead of being an authority figure telling you what you should know, how long you should spend learning it, and which hoops you need to jump through to prove you know it, you can make it into a knowledge facilitator. The knowledge facilitator asks you what you can prove you know and can do, and which one out of many possible methods you want to choose to provide that proof to a verifiable level. It assesses learning rather than controlling it. It is focused on results, not the process you chose to get to them. It is non-traditional education.

Non-traditional education and lifelong learning 
Once you’ve understood what non-traditional education is, you’ll appreciate that it is a way of seeing education as a lifelong experience with you at the centre. Lifelong learning is a concept much talked-about in traditional education. In reality it means much more than simply improving university access for senior citizens. To be lifelong, education must be appreciated as a continuous process that starts at birth and hopefully will continue until we die. And just as our changing experiences of life affect our assimilation of learning, so we have the right – yes, the right – to expect that those educational experiences that are capable of responsible assessment can be presented to an institution with that aim in mind. Non-traditional education pioneer Melvin M. Suhd said “Lifelong learning is both a right and a responsibility that cannot be ignored without denying life at its root.”

Part of this appreciation comes in realizing that educational experience is not bounded by classroom walls. If you learned a foreign language by going to live in a foreign country, and after some time became fluent in it through using and absorbing the language, this is in every respect as valid a learning experience as attending formal classes and doing assignments. In the non-traditional setting, that validity is respected, and you can proceed directly to the exam or other assessment. In the traditional setting, it is not, and you must sit through classes, mark time, and pay richly for the privilege of being taught what you already know.

This is also true for all disciplines which are essentially practically and experientially-based (which is the majority of disciplines), and for business in particular. Many businesspeople acquire the skillset of MBA holders not through attending college, but instead through educating themselves by experiencing success and failure in the management of a commercial enterprise, through reading and reflecting on significant texts, and through attending short courses and seminars that distil the experience of others. These people, too, have much to gain through an understanding of the non-traditional approach.

Some traditional programmes that claim to assess lifelong and experiential learning place artificial limits on how recent that experience must be, saying that anything learned or undertaken more than five or seven years ago, for example, cannot be presented for assessment. This again is a betrayal of the non-traditional concept, and often has at its root the desire to make you jump through further hoops at a greater cost to you of time and money. The right thing to do is to admit the experience to assessment, but to require that information also be submitted detailing the subsequent influence of the experience and any updating factors.

A long history of support for non-traditional education 
Here are just a few quotations from prominent figures which indicate support for the principles of non-traditional education:

“…that is what learning is. You suddenly understand something you’ve understood all your life, but in a new way.”
Doris Lessing

“The discovery of identity comes…via the ability to listen to your own guts…and to what is going on inside you. This is also an experimental kind of education that…would lead us into another parallel educational establishment, another kind of school.”
Abraham Maslow

“Experience is, for me, the highest authority. The touchstone of validity is my own experience. No other person’s ideas, and none of my own ideas, are as authoritative as my experience. It is to experience that I must return again and again, to discover a closer approximation to truth as it is in the process of becoming in me.”
Carl Rogers in On Becoming a Person

“Self-directed learning describes a process “… in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes.”

Malcolm Knowles

“It is time we had uncommon schools, that we did not leave off our education when we begin to be men and women. It is time that villages were universities and their elder inhabitants the fellows of universities to pursue liberal studies the rest of their lives.”
Henry David Thoreau

“I learned grammar when I was a private soldier on the pay of sixpence a day. The edge of my berth, or that of my guard bed was my seat to study in; my knapsack was my bookcase; a bit of board lying on my lap was my writing table; and the task did not demand anything like a year of my life. I had no money to purchase candle or oil; in winter time it was rarely that I could get any evening light but that of the fire, and only my turn even of that. And if I, under such circumstances, and without parent or friend to advise or encourage me, accomplished this undertaking, what excuse can there be for any youth, however poor, however pressed with business, or however circumstanced as to room or other conveniences?”
William Cobbett

Key links 
Carl Rogers and Humanistic Education (C.H. Patterson)
Carl Rogers and Experiential Learning Theory (
Malcolm Knowles and Andragogy (
The Encyclopedia of Informal Education –
Nontraditional Education – Alternative Ways to Earn your Credentials (US Department of Labor)
Non-traditional learning (Roger Hiemstra, Elmira College)
Nontraditional College Degrees for Language Teachers and Other Professionals (Alex Shishin, Everette A. Toombs, The Language Teacher Online)

Traditional vs. non-traditional 
Would it come as a surprise to you to learn that traditional institutions have in the main been utterly fazed by the non-traditional concept? At the beginning of this paper, non-traditional education was presented as a deliberate challenge to the mainstream. Here’s how:

  • It looks different: non-traditional education is individualised, and focuses on a person’s experience. Non-traditional papers are usually first person narratives placing the individual at the center of their learning experiences. They don’t claim to be or look like traditional academic papers where the emphasis is on the explanation of existing concepts and theories and on relationships to a canon of knowledge in a particular field. The emphasis is real-world, practical and personal, on learning how to learn as much as simply displaying what has been learned.
  • It assesses different things: non-traditional education considers method and results to be a holistic and individual construct. The emphasis is not on telling the student the way they must do things, but on allowing them to determine for themselves what their programme will contain and how it will be assessed. Learning may have occurred in any setting; the job of the university is to assess it, not control it.
  • It challenges the established structures of campus-based education: the combination of non-traditional and distance education creates the possibility of totally online institutions with none of the need for expensive campuses, libraries, sports teams and the other impedimenta that traditional institutions charge the adult student dearly to maintain, but that are not integral to the learning process. Instead, the student can learn in their community and use the resources available within it as their framework for learning.
  • It does away with the need for tenured faculty: instead employing adjunct faculty to teach as and when needed in accordance with demand. This means that the university no longer necessarily supports a campus or lab-based “research community”, leaving it to the private sector to continue supporting research in areas considered of importance. Not surprisingly, tenured academics and those dependent on public sector funding react to these ideas with horror, since they take away their comfort zones and instead subject them to the test of the market. In doing so, they eliminate waste, increase accountability and ensure that appropriate priorities are met.

The arrival of serious non-traditional education in the form of online self-regulating private sector universities has disconcerted mainstream providers to the extent that they have gone out of their way to disparage non-traditional education and discredit those institutions that offer it. Although a number of institutions of low quality have claimed falsely to be part of the non-traditional education spectrum, the real targets have been legitimate self-regulating schools whose offerings present the mainstream with substantial competition. These schools have included the former Columbia Pacific University, Greenwich University and Summit University of Louisiana, to name a few of the most prominent.

Rather than accept non-traditional education’s legitimate difference or embrace its methodologies to the full, mainstream academics have realized that, since its attractions for the consumer are tremendous, only the most prestigious and successful traditional institutions can compete fairly with it, by using the brand power of their reputations. Lower-ranking public sector institutions, their accrediting agencies, and state bureaucrats protecting their interests have instead reacted by claiming that what is different in non-traditional education within the legitimate self-regulating sector is actually “wrong” or, in their chosen phrase, “fraudulent” – they, by contrast are “right” and “protecting the consumer”. This is a remarkable display of moral absolutism. Such media-supported chicanery has become an organized and well-financed campaign of activism in which self-serving dogma in support of the mainstream cartel’s conservatism and vested interests is uncritically presented as fact.

As well as endeavoring to stamp out legitimate non-traditional self-regulating competitors, mainstream universities and their accrediting associations have also suborned the concept of non-traditional education itself. In a tactic that owes much to the Soviet Union technique of the reformulation of concepts, attempts are made to convince the public that the term “non-traditional” is applicable not to the radical philosophy of education outlined on this page, but in fact refers to any programme, however traditional, that is merely delivered by correspondence or online. Moreover, there have been many claims that the methodology of non-traditional education is only applicable to bachelor’s degrees in mainstream schools, and has no place at the graduate level.

The very existence of mainstream non-traditional bachelor’s degree programmes highlights the absurdity of the mainstream’s position. If the validity of the non-traditional philosophy of education is acceptable at the bachelor’s level, why should it not be so at the master’s or doctoral levels? You will look in vain for truly non-traditional programmes at those levels at many mainstream universities – they generally exist only in what remains of the self-regulating sector. Even getting the mainstream to accept the concept of a wholly non-residential doctorate is extremely difficult, as the public sector has become so completely wedded to the ideological concept of the doctorate as an apprenticeship for budding academics rather than its original concept as the mark of the expert and leader in his or her field. And even within those elements of non-traditional learning that are accepted within the mainstream, there are impositions and restrictions that are not the outcome of non-traditional educational philosophy, but instead of vested interests and academic conservatism dressed up in the guise of “standards”, rather than real educational standards that are the outcome of the assessment of competencies.

Dr. Roland Meighan, formerly Special Professor of Education at the University of Nottingham, has written,

“Schools may vary at the cosmetic level, so one has a green uniform, and another red, another blue and another black, but at a deeper level, they are all required to have uniform. One school may operate with open space plan, another a variety of spaces and another standard classroom with desks in rows, but they are all require to operate as day prisons since children are coerced to attend. Then, although they may show some variation in timetables, most are required to teach a National Curriculum of assorted adult-hang-ups – which may vary from time to time, as well as from country to country. Although teaching methods vary little, formal teaching being the dominant method, they have in common the feature that they are ‘uninvited’.

John Holt proposed that school was not a good idea gone wrong, but a bad idea from the outset. I would insert the proviso ‘in a democracy’, because schools are a suitable idea in any society with totalitarian tendencies. Mass, coercive schooling, with its endless uninvited teaching and driven by a government-directed curriculum, leads, not to education fit for democracy, but to something else – people-processing and indoctrination into knowing your place. Basing a learning system on the ides of children in captivity, in state-controlled or privately-run day-prisons is, perhaps, fitting for some societies, and this explains why communist, fascist and theocratic societies like this approach. The approach was developed in Prussia in the 1800s as a model of state indoctrination.

But, as Chief Inspector Edmond Holmes pointed out back in 1911, it is a tragedy in non-totalitarian societies. Winston Churchill saw the point: “Schools have not necessarily much to do with education… they are mainly institutions of control where certain basic habits must be instilled in the young. Education is quite different and has little place in school,” Sadly, he did not go on to say what we should do about it.”
[Source: Roland Meighan, letter to the Royal Society of Arts, 15 December 2005, available here.]

The last resort of argument 
In debates on these issues, the mainstream often resorts to the argument that while it will concede non-traditional education in the legitimate self-regulating sector has a place, it will not concede that such programmes should culminate in degrees, and offers that the student would be better off learning for its own sake (with no award) or printing their own diploma. This is a fairly crude anti-competitive argument to which the following counters can be put:

  • As explained above, the mainstream itself offers degree programmes at the bachelor’s level which it describes as non-traditional. The validity of an educational method is not dependent on the accredited or self-regulating status of the institution that offers it. If a methodology is valid, it’s valid anywhere it’s applied.
  • Learning for its own sake is eminently to be valued, but it will not suffice for many. People often want something in the way of external validation to show what they have done, and an award to point to as evidence of their achievement. Our argument is that if they have done the learning, they have a right to submit it and expect assessment to be undertaken. In that assessment, educational grounds should be the sole criterion for success or failure, not the vested interests or conservatism of the establishment, nor the ability to afford the fees that are artificially inflated by the costs of the accreditation process that serves as the establishment’s gatekeeper.
  • The award of degrees by non-traditional institutions is a powerful statement of values and of political and social activism. It says that we believe that our educational methodology is fully the equal or superior of traditional education. It says that we have the confidence to stand up for opportunity and empowerment through the individual, and to challenge dominance by an unelected, unaccountable establishment cartel. In exposing the cartel’s arguments and tactics for what they are, we shine a light on a dark episode in educational history, and urge responsible citizens to join with us in supporting and advancing positive change through market freedom.

It is for these reasons that the self-regulating sector is the true bastion of non-traditional education today. A small number of quality institutions continue to fly the flag for non-traditional philosophies, convinced of their vital importance to the society of the future. The consumer who seeks them out has much to gain. Where a degree programme is personalized to your experience, interests and talents, it becomes truly your degree and stands beyond any conferring institution as your own creation – the degree of your life.