The world as our laboratory

Nadja Bester

When you’ve been unschooling – a.k.a. self-directed life learning – for half your child’s life and worldschooling for nearly two years, it’s a somewhat daunting task to “Write about learning on the road.”

There is so much to say that it necessitates a process of elimination, and the brainstorming phase ultimately centres itself around what to leave out rather than what to include. This focal point becomes especially relevant when the audience consists primarily of educators, since many questions tend to arise from the statement, “The world is our classroom.”

To stay true to the mandate, and more importantly, the word limit, I had to set myself firm parameters: Focus on the essence of what learning is, and illustrate how it happens when the inside of your suitcase becomes your version of “home”.

What is learning?

Alexander walking in Sri Lanka
At this point, it’s important to delineate the definition of learning, because standardized, systematized education does have a slightly different focus than that of home education. The range of this spectrum becomes all the more pronounced once we compare formal education with the concept of unschooling, and by the time worldschooling has its turn, we might very well be having two different conversations.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, learning is “the acquisition of knowledge or skills through study, experience, or being taught”. Note that the act of teaching – the realm of formal education such as primary and high school – is one of three primary methods through which, according to the textbooks, learning takes place. Yet notice, also, that two-thirds of this threefold denotation relies on the learner, whether it’s the input of study or the data processing of experience.

Our family has a unique flavour of learning, which we’ll dissect later in the article:
Study takes place via unschooling, experience through worldschooling, and teaching thanks to skillschooling.

Learning isn’t a given
I’m a former educator. Post-career in psychology and medical research, I returned to university so that I could join the world of education, solely because – like most of you reading this – I care deeply about how we’re supporting young people to step into their roles as the leaders of tomorrow. I taught languages and life skills in especially challenging educational settings where the very definition of what it means to be “educated” was never fixed and always fluid. These included schools focused on special needs or court-mandated reform, as well as poverty-stricken schools in informal settlement areas (i.e. slums).

During this period of my career, I experienced first-hand that having access to a teaching setting, a teacher, and teaching materials is in no way a guarantee that learning will be “successful” (as judged by standardized testing). Indeed, access to such resources is in some instances not even a guarantee that learning will take place whatsoever. The reason for this is of course, that fundamentally, a learner is required to take ownership of their own learning journey. They need to want to learn, or they simply won’t.

Learning aspect #1: Unschooling (“Study”)
As unschoolers, this is the innate philosophy our learning journey embodies: When the student is willing, especially when they initiate their own learning journey, it results in a deep-rooted knowledge base that transcends the parrot-style learning we so often equate with school-based learning.

My son, Alexander, has been unschooling, in one way or another, for seven years out of his 12. Before exchanging our home base for a permanent travel lifestyle, learning took place – then, as now – in and as a result of interaction with, the world around us.

He learns what he likes when he likes it. Since the topic of unschooling is not the primary focus of this article, I’ll provide only one of countless examples of self-directed learning: This form of “study” has turned him into more of a mythology buff than I am – and I guest lectured mythology at university.

Learning aspect #2: Worldschooling (“Experience”)
What travel has done is to broaden the scope of the world as our schoolyard. We shifted from unschoolers living in the socio-cultural and linguistic familiarity of our native South Africa to worldschoolers who repeatedly exchange one location (whether continent, country, or city) for another.

In becoming worldschoolers, we are constantly expanding the proportions of the size of our ‘classroom’. Each new destination introduces an altogether new ‘curriculum’: One that both mother and son have to take the time to learn, since daily experience leaves us no other choice.

We’re persistently confronted with a wide variety of minds that hold perceptions vastly different than our own, personalities engaged in practices that sometimes surprise and often puzzle us. Thus, history, cultural, and political studies are no longer mere theory, nor are they optional.

Likewise, math and economics intertwine as we exchange, convert, budget, and partake in local economies using local currency.

Linguistics is not a matter of specialized tertiary level-study: Instead, it’s a topic of fascinating and at times, even survival, when our understanding of our own language needs to find common ground with that of another when neither party can speak a word of the other’s mother – or any other – tongue.

He doesn’t learn geography on a map. Grasping it becomes a matter of consequence as we move from one place to the next.

Alexander doesn’t have a set learning plan stipulating that he follow rubric-guided learning criteria, neither are there any requirements to complete specified project-based learning deliverables. He’s not preparing for “the real world”. He’s already in it.

Learning aspect #3: Skillschooling (“Teaching”)
Currently, we’re engaged in what we’ve termed “skillschooling”. Over and above the knowledge acquisition brought about by interest-led unschooling and necessity-led worldschooling, skillschooling is where we skill up. I say “we” because this is in no way an Alexander thing. We’re both on individual learning journeys, and sometimes they converge, as in the case of our current Coding Is Cool challenge.

He wants to learn VFX, special effects techniques used in large-scale film productions such as Hollywood movies. For now – he’s only 12, after all – he’s easing into it, taking it step by step, whether that’s continuing to expand his Adobe Illustrator graphic design skills or getting acquainted with 3D design software.

At the moment, both of them temporarily based in India, he’s skilling up his video editing expertise with the help of an American YouTuber for his AlexanderLunosaur project.

Learning farming skills in Thailand, blacksmithing in Vietnam, grocery shopping in Nepal
Both are travellers in a foreign country: The teacher, in this case, is someone who “made it” career-wise, only to reject the status quo in favour of indefinite world travel and a global following. The student’s motivation is a competition entry where he stands to win one Bitcoin.

Is this “worth less” than being taught by a qualified teacher in a formalized computer class that has as its outcome a pass/fail school grade? That’s up for individual judgment, but it’s certainly far more real.

To that end, is learning on the road “worth less” than sitting behind a desk for 12 years and being awarded a school-leaving certificate? Again, this is subjective, but what’s evident is that instead of preparing to enter the world at some distant point in the future, it’s full-scale immersion in the here and now.

What tomorrow may bring
A question I often get is what will happen once he turns 18 and the freedom of childhood is replaced by the ever-increasing responsibilities of becoming an independently functioning member of society?

As the only child of a single mother, he’s always been privy to the necessity of being economically active. He’s experienced first-hand, the ups and downs of being a work-at-home mom, a mom in the labour market – ranging from public service to large multinational corporations to startups, and a digital nomad mom.

He’s seen me fall and get back up, and he’s seen me reach great heights only to climb back down and move on to another mountain because the one I was ascending didn’t meet the entirety of my needs financially, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

I’m not his only inadvertent career role model (for better or for worse, as the case may be!). Every other long-term traveller he meets as we live our way around the world is someone who has made, and continues to make, a conscious choice to design and live their life their way, on their terms.

All this means that the question, “How will he study for a degree or get a job?” takes on an entirely different meaning than it would for someone not in his position, devoid of the experiences and examples he’s exposed to.

How will his life pan out? However he so chooses. He lives his life frame by frame and changes the script as he sees fit.

The author is a writer, journalist, communications specialist, and intentional living coach. She blogs about her family’s lifestyle and learning journey at EasternHeartWesternMind.com. Follow her on Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/easternheartwesternmind/) or Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/EHWMLiving/), or connect with her on LinkedIn.