We travel full time as a family of 7. We began this journey when our youngest was 7 months old and our oldest 11. Sometimes when I think back to our old life, I am amazed at how much we have changed. Not long ago, we were fairly normal. Well, we have our own special brand of weirdness, such as a strange and obsessive love for dressing-up, sci-fi, 80's music and the acquired taste for ice-cream in bread as a desert, but other than the odd thing or two, we were on track for a mainstream type of western existence, especially as regards our children's education. Our kids went to kindergarten and school. I hoped they would go to University. I knew the system was not perfect, I could feel a growing dissatisfaction with my children's experiences in the mainstream education system, but I was too sleep deprived and busy as a mother to do much about it. Besides, I only knew one home-schooled family, and they were weirdos living in the mountains. No thanks.
We have changed dramatically since then. Our attitudes, expectations, and practical approaches to our children's education have taken a huge leap forward. I would like to share our journey.
First, my husband left a stressful and all consuming job. He wanted to find employment that was more meaningful and less pressured. We were free to make a new life! For more on that story, read our account here.
I first dreamed of going to the Middle East with my young family. Ross and I have history there and a true love for the Arabic people and culture, we thought to try our luck as English teachers in the UAE. I researched enough to quickly realise that we could never afford the fees for international schools over there, so for the first time, I began to allow myself the idea of homeschooling. Trust me, it was never something I'd wanted. I had said on more than one occasion that people who home-schooled were crazy! Meaning that the idea of spending all of that time - all day, all night with my kids, plus being responsible for their education, as well as all the duties that come with mothering and homemaking....was craziness to me! But, my desire to live in the Middle East surpassed even that conviction, and I began to look at the possibilities.
By true luck, or divine providence, I happened upon a blog post about Worldschooling. The idea of using travel as a form of education intrigued and amazed me. I came to be lit on fire by the idea of learning in a hands-on way 'at source'. How wonderful to see, hear, touch and experience the world around us! We were so inspired by this idea, this revolutionary idea that seemed possible if you only had the courage to go out there and make it happen, that we left everything behind and embarked on our journey. We did not go to the Middle East as planned, we saved that for a future time, and instead we left for Europe on a 9 month family gap year - click here for the full story of why we chose Europe.
We had no real idea of how it would all go with the kids education. They might fall behind, they might become brilliant little historians, they might hate every minute and beg to go back to school. Actually, I knew the last option was not likely, my kids were pretty unhappy in school before we left, for a variety of reasons, but each of them seemed to not fit in. My older son was sensitive and arty, not sporty like the other boys. My daughter was a very literal, free thinking, independent and stubborn 10 year old who had a habit of clashing with all of her teachers. My younger daughter was exhausted and an emotional mess from navigating the best-friend drama games that girls tend to play in grade one and two. Most days they came home crying. I barely saw them. The time I did get with them was in the evening when they were wound-up and fractious. Because of this, we were happy to get out there and try something radically different. This is brave, but it did feel very much like stepping into the dark. It felt like a voluntary social experiment that we were performing on ourselves and our children.
We packed a whole heap of workbooks for the kids that we promptly ditched in China on the layover from hell. Once we arrived in Europe, we had whittled our educational resources down to a few Kindles and a couple of notebooks. Then I very quickly came to realise that I was not cut out for my imaginary version of homeschooling. I was barely coping with the basics in our life - breastfeeding, lack of sleep, feeding my gaggle of children with foreign food, and navigating a brand new culture and country. I was not going to sit down and teach 'school'. I accepted things as they were, and hoped that the travel experience would be enough. It was.
We did in fact do a lot of learning together. I know there are a myriad of ways that such a journey could be improved upon, such as thoroughly researching a place before arriving together as family, or studying a language ahead of time. But even our last minute, slap-dash style of travel brought forth so many learning opportunities.
We learnt all about WWII in such a wonderful way. I had felt as a teenager that the topic was covered ad nauseam and although I had read a wide variety of literature on concentration camps and written papers on the plight of the Jewish people, nothing compared to actually going there and seeing things for myself! We experienced walking through the House of Anne Frank, we climbed through Corrie Ten Boom's Hiding Place, and we looked out over Germany and Austria from the Eagle's Nest, and my kids sat in a little kitchen in Germany with our new friends and listened to stories about what it was like on the day the Berlin Wall came down. Absolute magic.
We sang 'Silent Night' in the tiny chapel where the song was composed. We rode bikes along the Kinderdijk windmills and saw how people used to live in the 1700's in the Netherlands. We studied Art - we learnt about the Renaissance from Michelangelo and post-impressionist painting from Van Gogh. We listened to classical music in Gothic churches, we hiked and tasted and discovered so many new things. There were plenty of hardships, oh boy was it hard sometimes! And often my plans for blissful educational experiences went completely awry, but overall, I can see what changed.
It took us out of our box. We were free to look at life and learning as a holistic thing. I think that this was only made possible because we literally left home behind and were forging a new path in unfamiliar territory. Everything was fresh and new and so we were enabled to see the world and our previous assumptions from new eyes. I had often, without realising it, assumed that the way we did things at home was just 'the way'. Our travels showed me that there can be many right ways.
Along our travels we continued to morph, little by little. My German friend Mary and I spent many hours discussing these wonderful ideas of alternative education and out-of-the-box thinking. She showed me a German documentary called 'Alphabet', which looks at different types of education and their effectiveness. I also started researching the idea of inspired learning. Towards the end of our trip, I read the book "Dumbing us Down - the hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling" by John Taylor Gatto. This book literally changed my life. I would read just one or two pages and have to stop and absorb...I could feel my world tilting because I agreed with what he said, and life was never going to be the same again.
We also met other families who were embracing a more relaxed, child-led type education. They were wonderful people and their kids were often confident, well-rounded interesting individuals.
All of these experiences combined to create who we are now. We are still morphing, and we have tried different things at different times depending on the needs of our family. We have come up with our own version of education for our family. We Worldschool / Unschool / Homeschool, and sometimes we dip into traditional school, although not usually for long. My older kids take classes at a fabulous online school that has changed our life! Ross found his dream employment, he now works for Williamsburg Learning, a school that teaches leadership, and encourages individuality and excellence. My kids are learning in an environment free from bullying and the social pressures that can come in mainstream schools. I am constantly amazed that this has come into our life.
My middle kids have attended school for 6 month stints occasionally, and they have also home-schooled. I have come to realise that it doesn't matter so much the form that their education comes in, it matters more that they are inspired and view learning as a lifelong pursuit. Do they need to learn trigonometry or biology? If they're interested. But I am now of the opinion that forced learning achieves very little. We help them along with Maths and English, and other than that they follow their passions.
I was annoyed the other night that my teens were staying up too late on their computers and I went into our study room to tell them to go to bed. My 15 year old son said' "please let me stay up, I'm learning so much!!" We had just bought him a new computer and he was learning about photoshop and editing. My daughter had a similar plea. She was in the middle of creating a new humanitarian website and didn't want to stop her flow.
I am learning to get out of their way. I am learning that all of life is learning, and more than anything, I want my kids to understand that fact. Do I still hope that they will attend University? Yes, if it is in line with their dreams. Although now they might feel more free to avail themselves of the many international higher education options available. Maybe they will study in Germany for free, or maybe they will study online. Or maybe they will try glass-blowing and start an apprenticeship in Italy. Maybe they will become little entrepreneurs by the time they are 17, I guess we'll see. The world has never been more connected and there are such wonderful opportunities available.
What I do know is that our focus for our children's education has changed. It is no longer simply about qualification. It is about helping them to become resourceful, adaptable, critical thinking life-long learners who go out into life with a desire to follow their passions and be happy as a whole person. I am hoping that they will continue to be interested and curious about the world. I am hoping that they will be kind, courageous and empathetic to humankind. My daughter hates Maths, and she's pretty terrible at it, but honestly, she can probably get through life just fine using her calculator on her phone as she pursues other things that she is brilliant at - animal care, art and creative writing.
We are so totally imperfect as a family. Sometimes our journey has been magical, and sometimes it has felt horrible and hard, but despite our failings, ever since our transformational family gap-year I have felt confident about our educational choices. My kids don't need to learn everything all at once, and they don't need to learn to the rate assigned by the government. I want them to learn to love learning, and if that is achieved, then their life will be filled with education.
Come check out our newest video about education!
Our children ages middle school and older attend Williamsburg Learning, a fabulous online school that we adore.
Here is the trailer for the documentary Alphabet