What about education?

FAQs and (mis)conceptions

Whenever we tell other parents about our plan to take the boys out of school to go sailing the first question inevitably concerns their education and their social development. Since this entire enterprise of ours revolves around education and education is not meant to be a by-product but the center of it, I will give this topic its own space here on this website.

  1. What about school?

I should put beforehand that I am crazy about education. I love it myself, I could do courses and trainings full-time and I am as passionate about our boys’ education as I am about mine. Schooling them won’t be a must-do on the side of our adventure, on the contrary: education is one of the motives we came up with this idea all together!

But let me elaborate.

First of all: Yes, the kids will of course have school while on board. The sailing usually takes up merely around 20% of the time, the rest will be anchoring together with other families where the kids can interact and even be schooled along with their friends. Us parents will serve as teachers, supported by professional material, some of us even by distance learning schools (about that in a minute).

The best part about school on a cruising boat is the kids have lots of hands-on experience: Biology (will be surrounded by it), ecology (dito), geography (well.), foreign languages (what better way to learn a language than by actually using it?), physics (what better way to understand the laws of physics and how physical forces work than on a sail boat? Electrics, engine, sails, solar and wind energy, even astrophysics – suit yourself!), history (you can read about Troja or you can visit and experience it. Kids can read about slavery or they can visit places where slaves used to be marketed, you can learn about Columbus or you can try crossing the atlantic in something else than a plane, the list goes on). And they learn things they won’t learn in a normal school, at least not to the same amount: sustainability, recource scarcity, crosscultural competence, meteorology and climatic change.

Which is also the reason why we won’t enroll the boys in a long distance school programme. Especially the German long distance school is quite out-dated, especially material-wise (surprise surprise!). We are told until very recently students would receive video tapes along with the other books and material. Video tapes! On top of that they are sent two big boxes twice per school year with everything they need to pass their grade. Two big boxes per year per child! Have you ever seen a sailing boat from the inside? Ha well, what can I say.

But most importantly we would have to stick to a curriculum that just isn’t ours. Why study the French revolution when you are cruising the Aegean with access to places of the Iliad and Odyssey (ok, no Sirenes or Cyclopes there but the remains of Troy and the isle of Ithaka)?

Why memorize the names, habitats and life-spans of middle European beetles when the kids can observe dolphins as a class project together with their friends? I’m not saying the French revolution or middle European beetles aren’t important things to know. But understanding and knowledge are infinitely deeper and more sustainable when one can generate it from actual experience and relevance.

Being schooled together with other kids by differing parents has even more advantages: the more parents the more skills, the more skills the more interesting projects. There is a doctor around? Let’s teach those kids about the human body and how to treat ailments and wounds. An artist available? Well, let’s learn and experience with a specific technique. Or era. Or else.

I am completely aware that there is a lot to teaching children and I don’t want to make it look easy – it isn’t. I have seen artists without educational background who were completely swamped by a group of 23 children with their own idea of how to organize their art lesson.

But then there are plenty of teachers with educational background who are still overwhelmed and burnt-out from the system they have to obey to.

Let’s say, we are all learners in this, there is no academic degree (yet) that fully prepares you how to really teach sustainably. I know, any trained teacher reading this is (with full right) going to bash me and please do! I am happy to discuss.

Secondly, I would like to comment on some of the main presumptions concerning school education altogether (and when I say school, I’m mostly speaking about traditional schools, not those institutions that already imply progressive education methods).

  1. School educates our kids for life. They learn how to calculate, to read and write and whatever holds the world together in its inmost folds

Yes and no. Yes because students do learn how to read and write, they are taught math, science, languages and other subjects. No because, how much of it will they remember after the next school exam, not to mention after they have finished school?

How many kids are traumatized for life because they never understood calculus or French grammar? I regularly hear adults say things like: „I have always hated math“, „I’m terrible at languages“, „I can’t draw“, „I can’t sing“, „I have been a disaster at physics in school“ – the list goes on.

School (as we know it) does many things but misses out on more. It misses out on considering each child as a miracle with individual sets of skills, differing learning approaches and habits as well as different needs. Traditional schools tend to regard children as empty vases that teachers have to fill to the rim with knowledge, using the same method for every student likewise. But kids are immensely resourceful, creative and genius at improvisation. Watch Sir Ken Robinson’s famous TED talk and Animation: Changing education paradigms on this subject.

School also misses out on having children make the most important experience of all: to make a difference – or to use the psychological term – self-efficacy, one of the key factors for a happy life (what a loaded expression, I know I know).

I am well aware that this is a harsh verdict and it certainly doesn’t apply to all schools nor all teachers, alas! But at least in Bavaria, in that conservative part of Southern Germany, this is an observation I made again and again and it was an experience we encountered with both boys.

The school system here goes like this (there is no such thing as a German school system, Germany has a federal education policy – each state has its own education system. Terrible idea by the way.): kids will visit elementary school for four years and then get split up. They have to decide (as early as age 9 or10!) whether they want to go to Gymnasium (the highest secondary education, a bit like grammar school in Britain), Realschule (for the average) and Mittelschule (well, you figure.). This system goes back a long way and used to serve a society where a small elite with an academic background was needed to lead the masses and a huge amount of people was needed for working in factories and doing simple jobs.

Hence the teachers aren’t the problem (at least mostly) – the system is and our (us parents’) unquestioned expection of what we think school education is or should be.

Maybe it’s time to take a step back and ask some very vital questions, the most vital of them being: what do I wish for my child when he/she grows up? A second, also very crucial question should be: how do we imagine society to be like, what skills are needed to hold everything together (with global warming and an ever growing stream of refugees society is facing different challenges than half a century ago)? And the last vital question: Does school like we know it, provide our kids with the skills needed to cope with these tasks in the future?

  1. School prepares them for higher education

Well, yes, that’s its designated goal but…

…maybe here, too, we need to look a little further and ask ourselves whether higher or university education really is the VIP-backstage ticket to success and high income that it used to be. Julian Nida-Rümelin, a German philosophy professor and politician champions the opinion (and I agree) that academic degrees become more and more inflationary and only in some areas guarantee a better-than-average salary (mainly anything with IT).

Law, Architecture, Social Sciences, Humanities and more won’t be included in that list.

Which doesn’t mean they are any less worthy of pursuing in the future, of course. But for different means than financial security and status.

Nida-Rümelin even points out that many of the non-academic professions like carpenter, technicians, electricians, installers, contractors etc. nowadays prove to be more secure and even better paying.

Which leads us to the intitial question whether academic education still is the holy grale we want our kids to chase if in the future it won’t keep its promise for a better life.

What other goals can we help them set for themselves? In what ways is our society changing? What should society look like in the future?

What other skills will be more important (already are more important) than being able to reproduce knowledge. Team spirit, empathy, project management and tech-savvy are already key competences today (that aren’t taught in traditional schools I might add. „Don’t copy from your neighbour!“ instead of team work and oh: where the heck are the modern IT rooms and the IT lessons?! The rasperry pie programming clubs? The arduinos? The social media classes? A dead loss, at least in traditional schools in Bavaria). Yes, humanities are important, universal education as well but it has to be combined with contemporary content.

So maybe we need to open our mind just a bit more and look for different goals than just academic education.

I don’t mean to sound all tech-enthusiastic because I’m not. But technology and social media are taking up a huge part of our lives now and my generation at least is widely uneducated towards them I have to say. Most people barely understand how things work and they don’t care as long as they work. I would wish for our kids to be responsible and critical users instead exploitable consumers. But in order to be that they need to be educated about the how and why.

It’s nothing but irresponsible to not teach our kids all this only because we ourselves are clueless. We are resting on an idea of classical education, have a deep mistrust towards IT where at the same time we are heavy consumers – that’s a paradox!

Tech- and IT-related subjects have to play a bigger role in our kids’s education. But along with literature, history, science, philosophy, languages, economy etc. – instead of displacing them.

  1. Kids (should) learn social behaviour in school

 100% agreed. But even more than just social behaviour they learn (or they should learn) how to build relationships and maintain them. That is of course a problem when going sailing with kids. If there are siblings they have each other which is better than taking an only child I suppose. And they constantly meet new friends whenever we anchor somewhere with other families. But the emphasis has to be on „new“ more than on „friends“. Maintaining relationships is difficult if after a couple of weeks each family sets off into different directions and the kids rarely ever see each other again – at least not in the foreseeable future.

On the other hand again, building and maintaining relationships in traditional schools is not easy either. The class might stay together for years but teachers are constantly changing (with the exeption of elementary schools) and if they don’t teach a key subject and only have a few hours per week in a class, after three months they might not even remember their students’ names – left alone know anything about them at all. What kind of relationship is that?

So neither is ideal and it’s our job as parents to bear this in mind, on a sail boat as well as in school.

Ha, Amen! And don’t forget to discuss 🙂