Most people have never heard of worldschooling, but once they do there are three questions they always ask: ‘Why do you worldschool?’ ‘How do you pay for it?’ and ‘How are your kids going to get into university?’
That’s our cue to explain how we work with our sons Lochlan, 11, and Seth, 10, to create a curriculum that’s based on projects and places. How that meets their needs much better than regular school ever did. And how this has led to adventures we could never have captured in a syllabus. Among them we’ve participated in traditional funeral rites in Sulawesi; thrown pots in a 500-year-old studio in Uzbekistan; sweated in the traditional saunas of Lithuania; reenacted a battle in a restored castle in Georgia (the country, not the state!); eaten scorpions in China and—this is one of our boys’ favorites—biked to the birthplace of Zeus in Crete. In every place, we used the medium that teachers throughout time have used faithfully: we told stories.
If you think that it all sounds like an extended vacation, we would add that we still manage to pull off reading, writing and arithmetic, with plenty of time left over for the boys’ interests, like coding, drawing, cooking, sightseeing or whatever else the day brings us. Which sometimes means just hanging out and being together.
So yes, worldschooling is like homeschooling on the road, but it’s so much more than that, too.
By now we’ve visited more than 40 countries (on the last count) in Southeast Asia, Europe, North America and Scandinavia. On hearing our tale, you may have questions with subtexts like this: ‘Are you some kind of self-indulgent, anti-establishment dropout?’ ‘Aren’t your kids lonely without their friends?’ ‘You must be rich to travel all over the world like that!?’ or ‘Aren’t you afraid you are destroying your kids’ future?’
Or, you might just get it, as we’re sure many readers of Momentum already do.
Making the leap
We were dropouts, in a way. Or at least, we left a life we no longer believed in. We were deeply disillusioned with some fundamental aspects of modern living—the insatiable consumerism, the interminable ‘busy-ness’ and the epidemic in children’s mental health issues, to name just a few. We were searching for something different. Better, simpler, eye-opening, enriching, stimulating and more in line with our values. In short, we needed a bigger box (or no box at all) to live, work and learn in.
Our eldest is ‘learning different,’ and the idea of sticking him in a school where he might be medicated, bullied or unsupported was unappealing to say the least. We knew there had to be something better for him, and for all of us, than spending thousands of dollars to help him fit into a system that couldn’t really accommodate him anyway.
With worldschooling, we’ve given Lochlan the space to explore and gain confidence in his passions, and the patience he needed to work on his challenges. Quite quickly, he felt less anxious and more inspired. Before long he was talking about what he was learning in ‘school’ as animatedly as he used to speak about video games. That was big progress.
Turns out his parents needed that kind of space in their lives, too. In 2009, 10 years of negotiating the bureaucracy of the international aid world had rendered us wounded idealists. We were living in Cambodia and working for the UN, but needed a change. As so many others do when they’re looking to reinvent themselves, we turned to Bali. After a stint participating at the Green School, a learning community on the island specializing in sustainability, we were struck by the realization that successfully resolving the world’s biggest problems depends on our ability to live, work and learn together.
We wanted our kids to feel at home everywhere. We wanted them to see social and environmental problems firsthand, and be inspired to solve them in creative ways. Taking them on the road was our way of animating their learning with real life.
It wasn’t all heavy stuff, though. When they were obsessed with Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, we traveled to Greece. When they wanted to learn how America got so powerful, we traveled to DC and learned about American history. We took them to the UN offices in central Asia to see where Mommy and Daddy used to work, so they could learn about our history. So they could feel part of a global tribe, we visited other worldschooling families and joined worldschooler meet-ups. We now have friends all over the world, and the tribe is growing.
Lessons along the way
Worldschooling allows you to curate a curriculum, and a life, that’s more about who you are than how you’re supposed to be. Everybody—parents, kids and even the folks back home—benefits from being relieved of the pressure to perform within systems that may not be bringing out the best in us, and the ripple effects are stunning. With the time and space to be creative, to connect and to have conversations that last longer than five minutes, whole new worlds are discovered.
New business ideas are born (we first dreamed up the idea for Hubud, the co-working space we’ve created on Bali, in Cambodia). Hidden talents are unearthed in your children (Lochlan and Seth now write novels and have hobbies they never had time for before). Troubled marriages heal (because time is how we spend love) and unnecessary entanglements fall away.
When people ask if we’re worried about the boys’ future, our response is that we’re trying to educate them for the future. By ‘future,’ the person asking usually means exams, university and career, and they’re sometimes surprised to learn that even the most reputable universities now offer alternative entrance tracks if you have a detailed learning portfolio. In fact, many universities prefer applicants who have authored their own learning, because they make more interested, engaged and self-directed students.
As unlikely as it may seem to most harried parents these days, we did not go crazy spending so much time with the boys, nor did we go broke. But we did make many changes. Mostly, our lifestyle got lighter on stuff and richer on time. And we let go of a lot of ‘rules.’ You’d be surprised at the difference that makes. When you don’t have to yell at your kids to settle down, do homework or get out the door on time for school, you cut your number of conflicts by at least half.
It took a while to groove into a new rhythm. First, Seth and Lochlan had to binge on electronics and lassitude before they saw the sense in making a schedule for themselves. As parents, we had to learn how to empower, instead of dictate, that schedule and how they filled it. We had to encourage rather than contrive learning moments (the lessons stick better that way). Instead of forcing them in front of worksheets, we ‘put them in the way’ of learning, and asked big questions, like ‘What do you think would make a guy like Hitler want to kill so many people?’ or ‘What do you notice about the way this building was built?’ Their responses have often impressed us, and always led to good conversations.
Of course, there have been plenty of questions we couldn’t even guess the answer to, but these are the moments when we can prove to our kids that everyone, literally everyone, is a teacher—your uncle, that tour guide, the online tutor, a neighbor, a family friend, the author of the book you’re reading, and of course, Google. What a relief it was for us to realize that we did not have to do all the teaching ourselves.
Learning with other people has not just been about study, it has been about bonding. Now they have mentors who are experts in all walks of life. We count this as one of the most invaluable aspects of the worldschooling experience. Yet, it is also the most difficult to measure. You cannot capture that kind of experience in a test score.
This is the real world we are talking about, though. So yes, worldschooling has its challenges, too. If you are a higher-end traveler, it can be hard to pay for it all, so it’s best to tap into the creative economy and its crib, the co-working world, to get some advice on how to earn a living the ‘location-independent’ way. Many people are running very lucrative online businesses in industries as diverse as web development, finance, fashion and architectural design, as well as coaching or consulting in their particular area of expertise. While they have forgone the benefits and security of more corporate lives, most claim to be happier—and that’s worth a lot more in our books.
Sometimes our sons do miss other kids. That’s why we spend about half our time settled in Bali or Canada, so we can feel grounded when we need to and the boys can reconnect with friends. Once we build our platform for worldschoolers and other nomadic families, connecting to meet-ups, mentors and learning maps should be a lot easier. In the meantime, we have made some amazing new friends, both virtually and when our paths cross, and through Facebook groups such as Worldschoolers, which has more than 10,000 members. Social media, by the way, is the best place to discover ways to worldschool on a budget because house swaps, itineraries and (nearly free) online resources are always being exchanged there.
Truth is, there are as many different ways to worldschool—with family and friends or organized tours; part-time or full-time; with tutors, mentors, meet-ups or totally solo; by bike, train or plane—as there are countries on the map. That’s what makes it all so exciting. You get to make your journey your own.
Do you practice worldschooling or were you worldschooled yourself? Share your experiences with #momentumtravel.