Travel matters more than “school”

A prospective parent for Triangle Learning Community middle school (opening in fall 2013) asked whether it would be a problem for her son to miss some of his first year of TLC. They are planning a family trip to Costa Rica; they will probably leave in January 2014, and will be away for 3-4 weeks. It sounds like a wonderful trip.

“Would that be a problem?” she asked…

A problem? That sounds like an amazing learning opportunity — both for the student in question and for our learning community back in North Carolina. Imagine what her son will learn from spending several weeks in Costa Rica with his family. And it’s not like they’re going to a Club-Med type resort where they would be sheltered from the local environment — they’re going to be out-and-about, learning as much as they can about the unique culture and the biology of Costa Rica.

Before the student leaves, we can help him and his family learn as much as they can about various aspects of Costa Rica. Once he gets there, the student would have internet access, and so much of what we do at TLC will be transparent that it will be easy for him to keep up with the project work we’re doing back in North Carolina.

What’s more, he would share with us whatever he’s learning in Costa Rica through his blog (all TLC students will be blogging regularly). Students back in North Carolina would certainly have all sorts of questions about his Costa Rican adventures; they could post those questions as comments on his blog, and he — and his family and any experts they met in Costa Rica — could field those questions.

We would track where he goes using Google Earth so we could better empathize with his adventures. And on occasion, we might even set up some synchronous sessions, using tools such as Skype or Google Hangout.

What an opportunity!

I’m not surprised that most schools would resist letting a student take that much time away — we seem to have trouble grasping the concept that we live in a world where people can (and do) learn anywhere. It’s not crucial to be “in school” in order to learn — especially in January when the school culture would already be well-established.

I know a high school student who caught a good bit of grief because his mother was traveling to Singapore for two weeks for business, and he had the opportunity to go with her.

Here’s his account of what happened with his school:

I went through all the formal channels to get excused absences. It worked out that I would be missing about 7 days of class. At least part of the time was over break. All of my teachers gave me the go ahead, saying I wasn’t missing anything terribly difficult to make up, and I even ended up taking a couple reams of math worksheets along anyway. In any case, administration was a different story.

When I took my form to the front office, they rejected it, saying I would miss too much class and never catch up. One wonders why I had to fill out the form in the first place. Miffed, my mom and I decided to go anyways, and it was really great. I spent most of the time on my own, learning my way around the city and soaking up culture. I hit the museums and the various ethnic districts. It was a lot of fun.

When I returned, I found that the school had given me an insane amount of unexcused absences – enough to suspend me twice over if I recall correctly. For the rest of the year, I was careful not to be tardy or absent, just on the off chance they all came crashing down on me. It never really manifested as actual punishment, but it was certainly aggravating and punitive. Especially considering I still ended up with on the Honor Roll (all grades of A) even after missing all those days.

Some of the most valuable learning in my life happened when I traveled to Africa and helped lead students on service learning trips to rural Ethiopia (summer 2006) and urban Kenya (summer 2009). Nothing I’ve ever done in a classroom has approached those experiences. When students have those sorts of once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, they should take full advantage of them — and the school should be flexible enough to help the student and his/her classmates back home to make the most of the global opportunity.

I’m reminded of a wonderful travel quote from Aldous Huxley:

So the journey is over and I’m back again, richer by experience and poorer by many exploded convictions, many perished certainties. For convictions and certainties are too often the concomitants of ignorance. . . I set off on my travels knowing, or thinking I knew, how men should live, how be governed, how educated, what they should believe. I had my views on every activity of life. Now, on my return, I find myself without any of these pleasing certainties… The better you understand the significance of any question, the more difficult it becomes to answer it.

Those who attach high importance to their own opinions should stay at home. When one is traveling, convictions are mislaid as easily as spectacles, but unlike spectacles, they are not easily replaced.

Travel matters. It’s way more important than school. In fact, we need to think about what school means in late 2012…

In this fabulous 18-minute TED Talk from Australia, Will Richardson asks a poignant question:

“What’s the value of ‘school’ at a moment when we don’t really need school to do school?”

We don’t need more schools. Schools are industrial-age places where people went to learn things back when information was scarce. That’s not the world we live in. What we need are flexible learning communities, such as Triangle Learning Community, where we will get excited about families who want to take educational trips to Costa Rica, because we know such trips will enhance all members of our learning community.

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About Steve Goldberg

I teach U.S. History at Research Triangle High School, a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning.
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4 Responses to Travel matters more than “school”

  1. Ben says:

    You’ve hit the nail on the head here, Steve. We learn from experiences. School, as we know it now, is NOT an “experience.” It’s something students have to endure. When can we make the shift? Vicki Davis blogged recently that if we don’t start changing, schools as we know them may be out of business in 5 years. Not sure if I agree with her timetable, but I agree with her message. The time to change is now. (That’s why I like TLC so much!)

    And since I have the floor, just a quick rant about the rigidity of schools that exists EVERYWHERE, as referenced by the high school student in your post. Or maybe it’s not rigidity…maybe “hubris” is a better word. As in, schools believe there’s no better place for children to be than in school every day. Even if they’re confined to desks and shushed and lectured into near comatose states. And it’s not just schools who believe this. I think the opinion is pervasive in society. I’m reminded of an advice column I read in a newspaper a year or so ago. A mother was writing to say she wanted to take her young child out of school for two weeks while his father was home from the Middle East on leave from the armed forces. The school was encouraging her not to (hubris!)…and so did the columnist!

    We might not be talking about the same thing here, but I think we are. Wow, I’m fired up now! Time to go to work (at a school!).

    • Steve Goldberg says:

      HI Ben. Thanks for your comments! I think we *are* talking about the same thing. Imagine if the student you mention at the end of your comment had been allowed to do an extended interview with his father about what his experiences were like in the Middle East… He could then expand that personal story to explore the larger question of why the US is intervening militarily in the Middle East. Essential question: “Why does my father have to go back to the Middle East?” Is it about oil? Democracy? 9/11?

      Of course, it matters how old the student is — I’m not sure I’d do that exploration with an 8-year old. But as students approach middle school age, many of them are ready to deal with the world. I don’t think we do them favors by keeping them sealed in the “school” bubble. There’s a whole world out there to explore.

  2. staciataylor says:

    Thank you for your article! I could not agree more!
    We have had to homeschool in order that our children can travel. My husband travels extensively, around the world, but our public schools would rather hold them back over them not being in their seats even though they have passed every test at the highest levels. It is truly a shame to be so short-sighted. My girls have great insight as global citizens that any school would benefit from.

  3. Loni says:

    Fantastic! We traveled extensively through homeschooling as well, and my oldest (16) travels the country and world playing tournament bridge. The real-life experiences are way beyond anything they could ever hope to experience in a classroom setting. I think describing a school’s “hubris” is quite accurate.

    Kudos to your upcoming Triangle Learning Community…sounds like what a place for learning and engagement should look like!

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