Education = Learning = School?

ed•u•ca•tion [ej-oo-key-shuh n]  –noun

  • the act or process of imparting or acquiring general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally of preparing oneself or others intellectually for mature life.

learn•ing [lur-ning]   –noun

  • knowledge acquired by systematic study in any field of scholarly application.

It’s funny how we associate these two words with school.  A brick building broken into classrooms filled with desks and chairs and blackboards.  School = education = learning Synonyms all three.

And yet – are they?  What is education?  What’s true learning?

I’ve talked quite a bit about our sons’ education in this blog – how we’ve allowed Mother Nature to provide most of the lessons; how we’ve trusted our sons to learn about the world around them.  About how education is so much more than school.

I’ve been asked over and over again about “holes” in my sons’ education. Will they know everything they’re “supposed” to know?  How are we ensuring their education is up to “standards”?

My question is:  What are the standards?  How are they defined? And then I can answer my own question:  They are pretty much random.

As a 21-year veteran of classroom teaching, I’ve served on my share of curriculum committees. I’ve sat there for hour after hour hammering out a curriculum – a list of standards that kids will learn. I’ve also seen just how random that list is.  If I’ve learned one thing from my adventures in and out of the classroom, it’s that schools don’t have all the answers.

Don’t get me wrong – the idea behind a curriculum is fine.  They try to ensure that each child learns the same things as another – regardless of which teacher he/she has.  I suppose there is some value in knowing that all children entering fourth grade in a particular school will know the phases of the moon or the parts of a flower.  It makes it easier for the fourth grade teacher for all of her students to have the same base.

But really – does it matter if a kid learns about the phases of the moon in third grade or seventh?  Is there something magic about being ten years old that makes it easier/more effective/more real/more whatever to learn about the history of your state at that age?  Does it really matter when a kid learns something? And is Idaho history really one of those must-knows?

We recently landed in Puerto San Julian along the Atlantic coast of Argentina for a few days.  The area was rich with history so we took advantage of our time there to learn about the history of our world.  We visited a life-sized replica of Magellan’s ship and learned about his voyage and how they wintered in San Julian because the weather was too severe to travel.  OK, then – we can check that one off the curriculum.  Yes, that is on the curriculum.

replica of Magellan's ship

But San Julian also happened to be the staging ground for the Argentine military during the Falklands War in 1982.  For the Argentine people, the war is recent and very meaningful.  Emotions, even though 30 years have passed, are still raw and jagged. The pain of defeat is still evident.  Extraordinarily evident.

To make the lesson come even more alive, we happened to be in San Julian with a British cycling friend – so we heard the story from both points of view.  In short, we were living history for a few days.

Some would argue that learning about the Falklands War is nothing more than useless trivia – after all, it’s not in the curriculum.  It’s not “supposed” to be taught.

I beg to differ.

My sons saw history up close and personal while we were world schooling in San Julian.  They saw an actual warplane with pictures of the six British ships it sank painted on its side.  They heard the stories from both sides.  They heard about a ruthless, egomaniacal dictator and an obstinate, pigheaded prime minister.  They saw the folly and the wisdom on both sides of the argument. They understand why Argentina invaded and why Britain fought back.  Who’s right?  The jury is still out.

fighter plane from Falklands War

But the lessons here go so much deeper.  Just as there were many, many reasons for the Falklands War, so were there many reasons for any other war in history. The American Revolutionary War was, in many regards, similar to the Falklands.  The Civil War?  Certainly some parallels.  WWI?  WWII?  The Vietnam War?

Once the idea of the “causes” of war became clear, it was only a short step to considering the causes of other wars. And they all come down to two sides; two stories.

So I ask you – is there a “hole” in my sons’ comprehension of history?  Or is a comprehensive understanding of the intricacies of world politics sufficient? What is education anyway?

For the record, I think my sons have a much greater understanding of the world’s wars than most seventh graders you’ll talk to.  Even though they’ve never studied them.

Here are some other posts about how and what our sons have learned on the road:
What we learned in three years on the road
Life lessons from a bike trip
How can travel help kids learn?
Travel can help foster creativity in children
Effects of travel on children’s education
Travel is the best education children can have

This is a great post by Theodora at Travels With a Nine Year Old about what her son learned on the road: Our World School End of the Year Report

Read the boys’ essays written on the road about whatever we were learning about at the time.

Check out our extensive resource section! We’ve got tips and advice on a wide range of topics from bicycling with children to finances for long term travel to roadschooling and more.

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

About Nancy Sathre-Vogel

After 21 years as a classroom teacher, Nancy Sathre-Vogel finally woke up and realized that life was too short to spend it all with other people's kids. She and her husband quit their jobs and, together with their twin sons, climbed aboard bicycles to see the world. They enjoyed four years cycling as a family - three of them riding from Alaska to Argentina and one exploring the USA and Mexico. Now they are back in Idaho, putting down roots, enjoying life at home, and living a different type of adventure. It's a fairly sure bet that you'll find her either writing on her computer or creating fantastical pieces with the beads she's collected all over the world.

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22 Responses to Education = Learning = School?

  1. Neil March 7, 2011 at 2:50 pm #

    Well said.

    Formal instruction is good for some things, but even that doesn’t have to be done in a classroom. Learning about evolutionary theory while in the Galapagos is no doubt more instructive than just having the book. But just visiting the islands without any instruction on the topic probably won’t teach you anything.

    It seems like you’ve got both sides of education down, though.

  2. nancy March 7, 2011 at 2:56 pm #

    In some ways, it’s like my sons just pick up the collective knowledge of an area just by passing through – I’ve been amazed at what they’ve learned when I hadn’t even said a word! But in other ways, it does help to sit down and talk about it – or in our case we tend to talk about it while we’re walking about town…

    But being there and seeing it and living it opens the doors. The boys started asking the questions – I didn’t drill it into them. I started by explaining a little bit about that plane, and then they took it from there. Their curiosity had been piqued and they wanted to know.

  3. Amy March 7, 2011 at 3:45 pm #

    As an unschooler I agree wholeheartedly that learning that is lived is worth so much more than learning that is taught in a classroom. Your sons have learned more on your adventure than they could have ever learned at school and they will actually remember the lessons!

  4. Jeanne @soultravelers3 March 7, 2011 at 4:58 pm #

    We are on the same page on this one and I couldn’t agree with you more.

    When we have dipped into schools from time to time ( primarily for language immersion for short periods) or when we have taken classes with Johns Hopkins University CTY online classes, our daughter is always far ahead of the regularly schooled kids even from the best schools. At the moment she is the youngest and only Caucasian in a top all Mandarin high school in Asia ( at 10) and still far ahead.

    We’ve also managed to travel the world with her violin and a piano & found fabulous teachers on other continents via webcams etc. There are endless possibilities today & education that is one on one, focused on an individual child’s needs takes much less time and is waay more effective than that geared for a classroom and only for passing tests for more money for the school.

    Education has to change because today’s schools are teaching kids for good jobs in the 1950’s and 21 century global citizens need something completely different in this fast changing world. Schools teach compliance, mediocrity, how to follow rules, crowd control etc and our kids need much more.

    Learning is EVERY where and we all learn best when we initiate our own learning. No matter if you send your child to school or not, parents are the primary influence on a child’s education. Give them love, direct rich experience, love of books, teach and demo a work ethic and life long learning, TIME, thoughtful discussion and you can’t go wrong.

  5. Diego March 7, 2011 at 5:20 pm #

    I told you once and I tell you twice: You are a great example of whate parenting is.

    Many times we are confused about the idea of what “education” means. And it’s clear in your definition: Is growing a CRITICAL person, who is capable of analyzing new data and extrapolate it into new situations, it’s someone who can actually THINK, and that’s not what we are learning in schools right now… if you think carefully, they’re preparing people to be repetitive, to be -in the sense I defined- “stupid”: that is, with no judment… because the are more easy to control!

    But that isn’t happening with your sons, ther are aware of most of the things that the common people are not, and above all, they seem to be CRITICAL people… and that’s all that matter, everything else it’s just an abstraction, a way to get the criticism that makes you a real INTELLIGENT person.

    And, of course, sorry for my bad english 😛

  6. Michelle G March 7, 2011 at 5:51 pm #

    man I wish you were my mom when I was growing up!!! Thanks for sharing!

    Can’t wait until the finish line!!!

  7. Wilma in WV March 7, 2011 at 6:16 pm #

    I agree with you completely. I am a retired public school teacher and I feel that I really tried to present “out of the box” thinking. Being able to think critically is important for ALL students, not just those in special GT programs. I always felt that students, my own children included, learned more when they traveled if their parents allowed them to interact with the new environment in which they found themselves.

    I would like to recommend this post on my FB page. May I have your permission?

    Best wishes as you continue your journey.

  8. Gayle March 7, 2011 at 8:12 pm #

    As a homeschool mom, I agree with you. My girls have learned so much more than facts from our travels. Living and understanding another culture is a lesson that is priceless. What our world needs are more people who can understand and value others for their uniqueness. Instilling a love of learning is important in a child’s education because that love of learning will stay with them throughout their lives.

  9. Ken Embry M.D. March 8, 2011 at 7:31 am #

    Nancy you are absolutely right. Safe riding to journey’s end.

  10. Jacqueline March 8, 2011 at 8:15 am #

    Ditto. ditto Ditto.

    I had the good fortune to have an international, first hand education. I attended many schools with a wide range of curricula and teacher expertise interspersed with long periods not attending a brick & mortar school.

    I checked all the “school” boxes, passed all the tests, graduated from university. In the end, the experiential education is the one I turn to again & again.

    I have wide ranging interests, a global perspective, a questioning mind and I love to debate – in English and French.

    I wouldn’t trade my wonderfully eclectic education for anything.

  11. lili March 11, 2011 at 4:40 am #

    This video, which should be an essential piece of education for anybody, explain lots of things about the world, that mass media avoids, and also explain the parallels between those wars, and others:

  12. 4th Grade Teacher March 14, 2011 at 9:07 pm #

    As a public school teacher, I whole-heartedly agree. Thank you for allowing my students to learn vicariously through your journeys. My students started watching you during 2nd grade summer school. Now, some of those same students are watching you complete your travels in my fourth grade class. They have learned so much and dream of traveling!

  13. David Ferguson March 15, 2011 at 7:28 am #

    I retired from teaching in an elementary school because our school system reduced education to teaching testable standards. They also expend a lot of energy and resources to insure that the classroom teacher is conforming to this.
    I feel you might ponder over this for a brief minute as you and your family experience some of the real feelings about the war over the Islas Malvides.
    Congratulations on your wonderful decision to undertake this experience.

  14. Jessica April 17, 2011 at 7:39 pm #

    Thanks for pointing me to this post, I loved it!

  15. EdH September 5, 2011 at 4:30 pm #

    I think I would add it’s two sides/two stories. There are almost as many stories as people, and to appreciate the nuance may be the real education. It’s what I do when I travel, or at least try to…

  16. Janette Cunningham December 13, 2011 at 10:05 pm #

    Your sons are aware of most of the things that the common people are not, and above all, they seem to be CRITICAL people… and that’s all that matters, everything else it’s just an abstraction, a way to get the criticism that makes you a real INTELLIGENT person. They have learned so much and dream of traveling!

    • Nancy December 14, 2011 at 6:33 pm #

      @Janette Cunningham,
      My boys have seen much more of the world than most people see in their entire lives. To them, traveling the world is just a normal, natural thing to do. I’m very curious to see what all this does for them as they grow up!


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