Have you ever wondered what school may be like on the road? Have you ever wished you could break away from home and explore new roots?
Recently (at AERO 2016), I chatted with one parent who decided to do just that. Along with his partner and their five year old son, Spencer has been spending this year driving around the country, learning and living along the way. Here are his responses to some questions I was curious about!
(Feel free to follow Spencer's journey on Instagram: @spencerbabcock.)
How would you describe the adventure you and your family are currently on?
I would describe our adventure as two part. Part quest to find interesting new experiences and part quest to find a place. A place that has a community that we feel we can connect with and feels like the right spot to put down some roots.
We live and travel around in a 1977 Dodge class c RV. We have renovated the inside and out, complete with solar so we can be off the grid. We tow a little Geo Metro car for side trips. We have also brought with us our big old Dutch Shepherd dog Baxter, five house plants, our bikes, and an inter-tube for floating rivers. Some might describe our journey as Road Schooling.
What inspired you to take this step?
We were inspired to take this journey after we got back to the U.S. after living and volunteering for a year and a half in an extremely remote part of Northeast India, in the Himalayas near Bhutan and Tibet. We were unsure where we belonged after that rich experience. The idea of exploring just seemed like the right thing to do.
First, don't assume that you have no other options. Read, read, and read some more, about other options. Challenge your own assumptions about learning. Challenge how you think about the what, when, where, why, and how things "have" to be learned.
Can you share a story of a day in the life of this on-the-road journey?
Connecting with different people has been some of the most rewarding experiences in our travels and a great way to learn new things. One such experience was when we did a work exchange with a guy (A.) on his remote homestead in northern New Mexico.
We learned so many things while we were helping A. keep up with many projects. Kai, my son, helped right along side us as we collected eggs from the hundred or so chickens, learned how to milk a goat, played with dogs, helped feed two Ravens, watered the many green house gardens and helped build a pumice stone house.
We also learned about the solar and wind power system, bio gas digester that created gas for cooking, solar hot water heater for taking hot showers and the straw bale house where we cooked and hung out. There is so much to learn from other people.
What are some insights you’ve gained from the past year?
I think one of the biggest insights we have gained from traveling has been the constant opportunity to learn new things in authentic, up close ways. We learn from interacting with many different people, cultures, histories of places, geography, and ecology of the landscape. We can't help but have real experiences and learn from the things around us because we are immersed in them.
We have found joy in taking time to really see more. Life on the road with no deadline or destination brings about a fundamental shift in how we think about exploring. It allows us time to take the slow side roads and pause to look at unique features. We have time to stop and play along the way. We can stop for an hour, a day, a week or whatever, as we wish.
How does your son feel about this experience?
Kai is really enjoying the experience. The other day someone asked him if we were on vacation. He said, "We are always on vacation!" At times it does feel like that.
At another time he said he is ready for a house without wheels so he can have a fish. He said, "We can't have one now because the fish will get a headache from sloshing around and the water will spill out of the fish bowl." One day he will get his wish for a fish without the sloshing.
What has your personal experience with education been like?
My own experience with education growing up was mostly conventional public school. However, when I was six I asked my parents for art classes for Christmas. I didn't want just any art classes. I wanted to do "real" art like I saw masters from the Renaissance had created. We went to half a dozen different classes around town looking for that "real" art class. I finally found an after school art program that had artists from the community sharing their skills with kids. I loved it. I ended up taking classes there from age six to eighteen.
The thing that was interesting about that art program was that it wasn't a teacher sitting in front of the class teaching. Each class focused on a subject like maybe, a person sitting for us for a portrait and a material like oil paint but then there was very little instruction. We would learn through intuition, practice, experimenting and experience. The artists were there to mentor and support us, but they were not there to lead us in a lesson. It was a big contrast to learning in school with everything being dictated by a teacher or a textbook instead of real experience.
I think this translated into a different experience in college too. Often if a subject really interested me then I would put in much more effort then was required instead of just doing the minimum to get the "A" grade or to just pass the class.
Later, when we had our son and I began to think about what "school" would look like for him. I read about many different education models. The more I read about self-directed learning approaches like unschooling, free schooling, democratic schooling, Agile Learning Centers, etc. It clicked for me because I had taken those art classes with the intuitive hands off approach to learning. I was excited when I realized that the same self-directed learning approach could be applied to learning anything. I knew what freedom in learning looked like and felt like. It feels so natural and right on so many levels, both as a parent and a learner.
What are your hopes for your child’s education, and more broadly, for life?
My hope for my son is for him to grow up loving many things: life, learning how to learn, people and the world around him. If he grows to love those things he will be a success. I think he will figure out how to earn money as a side benefit, but it will be less likely to control his life. I care more about why and how my son learns then what specific content he learns. I have to keep asking myself, is he learning something because he wants to learn it, or because I or someone else wants him to learn it?
Of course I want him to learn some basic things but I feel he will learn those basics more deeply and remember them more fully if I hold the space for him and I'm patient and wait for his desire to learn something come from him.
What advice do you have for other parents who are frustrated with conventional schooling models?
Some thoughts that may be helpful to other parents who are frustrated with the conventional school model would be, first, don't assume that you have no other options. Read, read, and read some more, about other options. Challenge your own assumptions about learning. Challenge how you think about the what, when, where, why, and how things "have" to be learned.
I would also encourage them to consider the thought that just because our society and culture has done something a certain way for a long time doesn't mean it really is the right thing for society in general or the right thing for every individual. If you are considering moving towards a more self-directed approach, be patient with yourself and your kids. It takes time to shift your mindset from an old paradigm.
Idea guy, artist, simplifier, traveler, lover of mountains and father of a puddle-jumping boy. My journey has taken me many places from working in a rice patty in Malaysia, to an art gallery in New York City, to building construction in the Phoenix Arizona sun.
I've also worked with youth in a variety of ways, from helping struggling teens in wilderness therapy in the dessert, to teaching in a middle school classroom in a suburb, to helping kids paint pictures of elephants at the zoo.
I have worked for nonprofits, corporations, and volunteered in many ways. I enjoy helping businesses and nonprofits tell their stories through design and video to support them in their efforts to build community and promote their work. I'm also passionate to find ways to support efforts to help more kids have the opportunities to learn through natural curiosity.
These amazing experiences have introduced me to wonderful people, cultures, new ideas and expanded my love for the world. I can be found perusing the latest tech news, enjoying a climb up a mountain or thinking up something remarkable with colleagues and clients.
Follow the family's roadschooling adventure on Instagram:
In Portland, Oregon last week, I had the pleasure of presenting at AERO 2016 (more to come on that!).
My favourite part of these conferences is the unique connection I find with individuals. One such individual was Tyler Barley, a young man in an innovative degree program at RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology), New York.
Connections and Colonization
During an early Q&A on day 1, Tyler expressed a powerful insight, questioning who the faces were leading "progressive" programs for Aboriginal youth. He pointed out the need to address the imbalances that continue from times of colonization. He was by far the most refreshing voice in this room of educators, parents, students and academics. I remember thinking, "Whoa. Who is this guy? And why isn't he up here giving a talk?!"
Later on, I sat outside with Tyler and Wendy (an Academic Advisor from the School of Individualized Study (SOIS) at RIT). We ended up chatting through an entire workshop slot, about everything from his earlier comments, to the resilience of young people, and the power of Nature.
Since I started lecturing in 2011, I've been thinking about the potential for more individualized learning in higher ed, mainly because I've experienced how uninterested many students can be in standard programs. (I used to ask students on Day 1, "Why are you taking this course?", hoping to hear about their interests. The most common response I would get though, was "'Because we have to!!")
The program Tyler is in through the SOIS on the other hand, allows the learner to tailor the subject areas in their program, leading to a unique and specialized interest area.
This program reminds me of liberal arts programs that friends have taken at the Master's level,
At the undergrad level though, I would love to see and help design more of these offerings, where students who have a specific interest area / key question / challenge they wanted to address, could tailor their studies accordingly. Of course, foundations courses in many fields can be useful, but the ability to weave in more catered combinations of courses feels like the way of the future (/present!) in my opinion.
Check out the quick video above, featuring the stories of SOIS and Tyler. Thanks to Tyler and Wendy for sharing their time with me in Portland!
A passionate educator.. on a quest for a schooling model to love!