Not school: how our kids want to learn while traveling

We had an interesting discussion at the dinner table last night.  It started with a conversation about one of the apps the kids are using to improve their reading/literacy skills.

Although it’s perfect for Eli and Ben, we had thought the app would be a little basic for Jake, who is almost eleven.  Turns out, he is really enjoying it.  In explaining why, he described the fact that when he’s using the app he’s learning, but it doesn’t feel like learning.  Except the way he said it, it was like, “Thank GOD it doesn’t feel like learning because that would SUCK!”

That made my ears perk up a little.  Something clicked in an uncomfortable way – even in my own boys, somehow learning has been equated with discomfort, to be avoided if possible.

I shouldn’t be surprised.  Kids dislike school.  School is (typically) where learning happens.  Therefore kids dislike learning.

It’s a shame, but it’s worse than that.  Think of what would happen in just a single generation with this outlook?  An aversion to hard work.  Avoidance of ideas that challenge our thinking.  Attachment to oversimplified world-views.  Perhaps we are already seeing the results manifest in our choice of political leaders . . . Scary.

I wanted to probe this further so I asked the boys to describe all the things they could think of that would make learning enjoyable.  This is what they came up with.

Frequent breaks – Lessons that alternate with little games make you want to keep learning.  Those little neurons need time to breath.

Small rewards – Many apps incorporate earning virtual coins or jewels that can be collected and/or traded.  At the end of the day we’re all hoarders and spenders so even though it’s all virtual it appeals to our basic wiring.

Surprising discoveries – It’s not as much fun to learn only what you thought you would learn; we want lots of, “Wow! Really?!” moments.

Exploring interests – Spend an hour on something you’re interested in versus an hour spent on something you’re not, then see how much you recall a month later.

Fascinating subjects – Even if you didn’t know you wanted to learn about black holes, they are super-interesting.  The Kreb’s cycle? . . . oh, sorry, I must have dozed off.  Again.  Is that drool?

Achievable goals – What would get you writing?  Having a year to write a novel or taking a day to write a short story?  Baby steps, baby!

Learning Pace – It takes me a long time to understand math.  Owen signed up for a four week online course and finished it in under a week.   Learning is more fun when you’re neither rushed nor held back.

I’m sure this list is far from comprehensive, but a few things are already obvious.

The school system’s fundamental design makes it very difficult to make learning fun.  From lack of individual attention in large classes to cookie-cutter curricula to setting a learning pace that will be either too fast or slow for most students, the school system is fighting an uphill battle.  This isn’t just our opinion.  We hear it over and over again from the wonderful and well-intentioned friends and family we have who are doing their best within that system!

There are alternatives.  The one we are taking is called “Worldschooling” which, to us, just means using our travel and the time the kids would have spent in the educational “machine” to explore any learning opportunities that seem interesting and relevant at the time.

We’re new to this and far from experts so we’re not pretending to be.  At this stage we’re taking it easy, letting the kids explore a range of options, promoting conversations, and just generally trying to re-frame learning as a fun choice rather than a forced chore.

I will end this post with a quote from one of my favourite writers and author of “Stop Stealing Dreams (What is school for?)”, Seth Godin:

Our job is obvious: we need to get out of the way, shine a light, and empower a new generation to teach itself and to go further and faster than any generation ever has.

How best to do this?  I think there are many ways and there is value in exploring as many as possible.




  1. Keeping “learning” interesting is really challenging. The word itself soon becomes synonymous with work and is approached with a lacklustre state at best! We’re constantly figuring out better ways of communicating and reinventing the process of learning to our homeschooled kids, but its a feedback loop that continues to morph into one slippery strategy to another. We may well crack it, but the reading of similar challenges is certainly heartening!

  2. Matt… I have read lots of your posts and this one read hit me for obvious reasons. As an educator I find myself so personally challenged because I find myself part of a system that I see the failings of clearly. I remember when Lindsay asked my opinion on your decision to travel and take the year and how emphatically I said “Do it!”. It was like I felt a sense of relief that one of the families I worked with could break free of the limits of “formal” education. Don’t get me wrong…. I am very proud of the work my staff and I do and what we accomplish with students everyday…..within the limits that the structure of education allows. I almost feel sometimes that my job is to help students navigate and get the best out of a antiquated system that no longer really fits the reality of youth of today. As you and Lindsay reflect on whether your kids are learning “enough” or staying caught up this year, remember 2 things. 1. Kids learn in spite of us. They are natural learning beings and grow from every experience and you are providing them with such rich experiences; and 2. While in formal education we are always trying to emulate tasks that are real and meaningful (we say that all the time), you are actually giving your kids those experiences. We are preparing our students for the “real world”. You are actually taking them into it. If you ask me, your boys are getting the best education possible.

    1. We love every single comment we get on our little blog, but this one is extra special. It chokes me up for several reasons. First of all, that conversation you had with Linds way back when we were planning this trip had a huge impact on how we think about the kids’ experience out here. In fact, we retell that story frequently as it is so illuminating for other families considering “breaking free of the limits of “formal” education”, as you say. Second, as a physician, I can totally relate to the internal conflict of being proud of your own hard work and dedication while at the same time admitting that the best I could do was “help [people] navigate and get the best out of a antiquated system that no longer really fits the reality of [people’s health care needs] today.” Lastly, having the approval and encouragement of someone as kind and qualified as you are to be giving this perspective (for those reading, Naz is a school Principal) is just so validating . . . if we could hug you right now, we would. Thanks, Naz.

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