When The Whole World Is School

Bright (for Medium)

What happens when families on the move try to inspire (rather than require) their kids to learn?

By Bliss Broyard
January 6, 2016

A year ago last fall, I sat among huge potted ferns and birds of paradise on the patio of a guesthouse in the self-styled adventure town of Jinga, Uganda, with my then eight-year-old daughter. We were both crying. I was trying to get her to write an essay about an arts organization we had visited outside Kampala, Uganda’s capital city, a week earlier, and she didn’t want to do it. We (my husband, my daughter, my five-year-old son, and I) were barely a month into a nine-month trip around the world, and I’d already lost my patience for homeschooling.

I’d been hoping that our travel through Africa and Asia would inspire my kids to learn more about what they were seeing, but each time we sat down to “do school,” there was more resistance, and now tears.

In desperation, I turned to a Facebook group of other “Families on the Move,” some who were traveling for the school year like us, and others who were traveling indefinitely. The advice was swift and unanimous: Don’t try to duplicate “school” with its textbooks, worksheets, and age-determined curriculum. Let the kids’ interests dictate what to study. Trust that children by nature want to learn and that the world is the best classroom one could ever hope for.

As proof that this approach worked — which people in the group variously termed as worldschooling, roadschooling, or unschooling  — they offered up their own children as examples: nine- and 10-year-olds conducting independent research projects about foreign countries, irrigation systems, or currency markets; a 16-year-old already at university, where he got straight As and thought “exams are fun because he gets to discuss in writing things that are interesting to him”; daily demonstrations of compassion — the trait American parents say they value most in their children — and grit, which research demonstrates is the number one predictor of academic achievement.

The group didn’t offer any hard-and-fast rules about how to worldschool or any set curriculums or pedagogies beyond an interest-directed, hands-on learning experience. The degree of structure, planning, and intentionality varied from parent to parent. What these traveling families had in common was the context for learning — the world around them — and the goal of preparing their children to live in an increasingly global and diverse world.

Eli Gerzon, a 32-year-old social justice organizer from Massachusetts, is credited with coining the term worldschooling almost a decade ago. During his first year of high school in Arlington, Massachusetts, he discovered the concept of “unschooling,” which puts the focus of and responsibility for learning in the hands of the learner. Gerzon then left high school and spent the next three years pursuing studies on his own. At 18, he began to travel extensively. Realizing the educational value of “putting yourself into situations where you are challenged in profound ways and need to learn things,” Gerzon started to organize trips overseas for homeschooled teenagers, which he described as worldschooling. On his site, he defines it this way: “It’s when the whole world is your school, instead of school being your whole world.”

In 2012, the Department of Education estimated that 1.8 million, or 3.4 percent, of American children ages five to 17 are homeschooled, which serves as the catchall term for schooling overseen by parents outside a formal institution. Those estimates, however, were based on a mailed survey, which presumably worldschooling families weren’t home to receive. While it’s hard to pin down the actual number, anecdotal evidence suggests that worldschooling is growing.

Blogging about their travels and educational approach helps nomadic families support themselves—with ebooks sales, affiliate marketing, sponsored stays or activities, and advertising — but many of these posts function also as testimonials about the benefits of worldschooling and describe how to do it. A recent thread on a Facebook group devoted exclusively to worldschooling describes visits to Chichén Itzá to study the Mayan civilization, the northern hills of Nicaragua to learn about coffee production, and Crystal Springs, Florida, to snorkel with manatees. Since its founding a year and a half ago, this group has added 5,500 members representing 20 countries.

These families range from single mom Lainie Liberti and her son, Miro, who run temporary immersive-learning experiences for teens and young adults around the world, to the Inion family with nine kids, four of whom have special needs. Many worldschooling parents are tech-savvy or former educators or both. With high-speed internet available around the world and professions in technology or digital media making it increasingly possible to work remotely, these families have discovered that life itself can be location independent.

Once a family figures out how to pay for their extended travel—shorter-term travelers often rely on some combination of savings, renting out or selling a home, or a sabbatical salary if their job provides one—the next priority is figuring out how to educate the kids. Some set out with worldschooling in mind. Others stumble upon it after painful hours bent over worksheets or textbooks lugged halfway across the world while real-life ruins or fascinating sea life beckon outside a guesthouse window.

No matter what style of education traveling parents settle on, most resort to workbooks or online sites such as Khan Academy (free) or Mathletics (subscription) for math instruction. Those who are planning to reenroll their children in public school might keep a closer eye on grade benchmarks so their kids won’t fall behind.

Laws regarding homeschooling vary from state to state, ranging from Texas with no requirements to New York’s requirement that parents file individualized home instruction plans (including syllabi, textbooks, and other curriculum materials) with the school district and quarterly reports detailing the total hours of instruction and materials covered. Compliance for traveling families, however, is harder for school districts to enforce. My children were allowed to reenter their public school in Brooklyn, New York, without assessment tests or documentation of study at the discretion of their principal, who had already given his blessing for their year of immersive learning around the world.

Nancy Sathre-Vogel, author of Changing Gears, spent three years cycling the length of the Americas, from Alaska to Argentina, with her husband and 10-year-old twin boys. Sathre-Vogel is a former special education teacher, and her husband had been teaching middle school math and science, so they felt well qualified to teach their children.

For example, before visiting the Panama Canal, her boys extensively researched it online, which allowed them to ask more informed questions of the docents at the adjacent museum. The boys then considered the history of the canal’s construction, the economic impact of cutting a week off a trade route, the mechanics of raising the ships up and down, and the ecological aspect of connecting two oceans, all of which culminated in blog posts demonstrating the synthesis of this history, economics, physics, and natural sciences lesson.

Rachel and Greg Denning, who with their six children have visited 20 countries on five continents over the past eight years, run a business providing curriculum support for worldschoolers who wish to take a more structured approach. A sample curriculum for Morocco highlights age-appropriate books about Islam and the Prophet Muhammad and demonstrates how to connect a camel ride and the kids’ favorite fruits to a lesson about Islamic migration to make the history more relevant and interesting.

Likewise, Talon Windwalker, a 47-year-old single father originally from Washington who has been traveling for the past 4.5 years with his 14-year-old son, whom he calls Tigger, says, “It’s really easy to do a worksheet about the Mayans and feel no connection, but stand in the midst of their ruins and talk about their society, see how they did things, discuss the issues that led to the demise of their civilization, and you get so much more.”

Windwalker and his son’s approach to worldschooling, however, is more holistic and less determined. Tigger decides what he wants to study depending on where they are and what catches his interest. For example, during a stint on a small island in Honduras, Tigger spent a lot of time diving with his father (diving lessons for tourists is one way Windwalker earns money on the road). Curious about everything he was seeing underwater, Tigger began researching on his own, via YouTube documentaries and other online sources, everything he could find about marine biology and ecology. “That he was inspired rather than required to learn made him go deeper and retain his knowledge better than he might have otherwise,” says Windwalker.

Child-directed learning doesn’t mean parents are written out of the process completely. Melissa Church, a former elementary school teacher, who, along with her husband, a high school teacher in Philadelphia, worldschooled their three kids, ages three to 10, while traveling through South East Asia for nine months, says, Kids need adults to support them, love them, guide and facilitate them, to drive their butts around and pay for stuff, but they don’t need us to shove knowledge down their throats.”

Worldschooling worked so well for the Church family that they decided while still traveling that they would continue to worldschool their children after they returned home. “Worldschooling is not as much about what we do or where we do it, but rather how we think about ourselves and our educational goals,” say Melissa Church. Two questions they constantly ask themselves: What does the world have to teach me? What do I have to give the world?

Does worldschooling advantage or disadvantage students when applying to college?” Top-notch colleges receive many qualified applicants in terms of test scores and grades, but diversity matters to these institutions, says Kat Cohen, founder of IvyWise, a Manhattan-based admissions counseling firm that specializes in international students. “Being worldschooled could offer students an edge in terms of not being the norm, but students still need to ensure they are meeting the criteria of selective schools and demonstrating how they would fit into the fabric of the campus.

Jennifer Fondiller, dean of admissions at Barnard College, receives a handful of applicants each year who describe themselves as unschooled. While some of them have traveled extensively, either with their families or through volunteer programs or homestays, none so far have specifically described their education as worldschooling. “Their life experiences can be fascinating,” she says, “and these students have the potential to showcase rich learning experiences that highlight their intellectual curiosity, breadth of knowledge, and desire to seek more… all of which can add tremendously to a classroom setting and to campus life.”

Reviewing these applicants, however, presents a challenge. “If students have not followed any structure, it is often difficult for them to find evidence of achievement in key areas such as literacy, mathematical skills, and critical analysis,” Fondiller says. “Successful students have submitted journal reflections, lists of books read, countries visited, volunteer work, jobs held, and they have created daily schedules of how they’ve spent their time.”

Because homeschooled students typically don’t have a high school transcript, many universities and colleges require additional SAT and ACT tests and weigh these scores more heavily, says Cohen. Kate Green, a mother of five worldschooled kids ranging in age from 10 to 27, has created her own transcripts for each of her college-bound kids. She notes the requirements for each grade in her home state of Florida, fills in what her kids have done in the respective subject area and the texts they’ve read, supplies a grade in consultation with her child, and signs it.

Green’s two oldest children received full scholarships, one to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and the other to Oglethorpe University in Atlanta. Her third child was accepted into every school he applied to, including popular choices like University of Vermont and Rutgers. Green says that the universities wanted him because of his experience abroad, even though he was a B student at the university in Dubai, where he’d received an associate of science degree.

As for my family’s experience in worldschooling, once my husband and I backed off from forcing our daughter to learn, she found her own way to study things that ignited her interest. At a guesthouse in Rishikesh, India, she came across a 700-page comic book, Gods and Goddesses: From the Epics and Mythology of India, which she burned through in a few days. Throughout the rest of our stay in India and while touring Angkor Wat in Cambodia, which was originally constructed as a Hindu temple in the 12th century, she narrated to us the stories of the gods depicted in the temples’ bas reliefs.

Having more control over her own education allowed my daughter to recognize that she wanted to learn and excel academically for her own enrichment, not simply because her parents were forcing her to. Before we left, she’d been an attentive student but hadn’t seen herself as belonging at the top of her class, nor did she seem interested in doing what it took to get there. Since we’ve been back, she’s made the advanced math team, co-founded a school newspaper, helped organize her fellow students to improve school lunch, and run for student council. More important, she knows firsthand that the world is much bigger than her school classroom and that what a person does can matter beyond its four walls.