How Does High School Work After Homeschooling While Travelling?
A lot has been written about how easy it is – or otherwise! – to do education on the road. But nobody seems to have written much about how unschooling, or world schooling, or homeschooling while travelling, actually converts into school.
That’s partly because a lot of people who unschool, home school or world school are philosophically opposed to school. I’m not, and nor is my son. Both of us feel that there’s stuff you just should know, and that herd socialisation is generally a good thing, so a return to regular school was always on the cards at some point. It’s also because, I think, a lot of people who blog vigorously while doing a RTW trip, or while doing long-term travel as a family, tend to stop blogging once they get back home.
In fact, the only reason Zac and I settled in Bali after four years of homeschooling while travelling was that he was ready, after world school interspersed with the occasional patch of real school, notably in China, to start high school and get a formal education, complete with relevant bits of paper, that will hopefully put him in a position to achieve his ambition of going to a top-flight uni.
His longterm ambition, at the moment, is to “become a philanthropist” – by making a tonne of money in business first (though he’s also been interested in politics). And so, though I’m well aware that many successful entrepreneurs drop out of uni, and some others skip it altogether, university is important to both of us.
Science, especially hard science, the area he’s most interested in, is insanely hard to do well without the resources of a fixed abode or, frankly, a school.
Now, our fairly lackadaisical world school approach worked absolutely wonderfully when Zac was at elementary age. Here’s his “report” from the first year; here’s an essay he wrote off his own bat when he was eleven.
Once hormones kicked in, homeschooling while travelling ceased to cut it. Not in an aggressive, angry way. Just… Zac wasn’t learning at the rate he had been. He wasn’t motivated. And, circularly, nor was I. (And, yes, that matters: kids learn more if parents are motivated to learn with and, often, ahead of them – although the lovely Laurence managed to teach himself through to age 16 BEFORE THE INTERNET.)
Further – there is a lot of high school that’s almost impossible to manage on the road.
Zac is interested in science. And science, especially hard science, the area he’s most interested in, is insanely hard to do well without the resources of a fixed abode or, frankly, a school. Try getting dissection scalpels across the Israeli border, fitting a microscope into a backpack, lugging bunsen burners onto a plane, or finding the right place to buy chemicals for chemistry in a Chinese city. Not. Easy.
And, yes, Khan Academy is absolutely great. But watching videos just isn’t the same as actually doing something.
Clearly, it dawned on the pair of us in Egypt with (on my side) mounting horror, it was time to pack this longterm travel lark in and head for school.
Zac’s take on it? “I just want to get learned, Mum.” He was desperate for some structure – to follow a fixed curriculum with set learning goals.
The way I saw it, school was also an opportunity for Zac to have a quote-unquote “normal” adolescence, develop fixed friendships, perhaps start relationships, and generally do his growing up in his own private space. That’s especially important for an only child, but I suspect siblings need time apart from each other too.
By “his own private space” I mean not only the physical space of his own bedroom, with a lock on the door, but the chance to build his own friendships – one of the great things that high school provides – and to negotiate adolescence at a healthy distance from me. I’m told there’s something hardwired within the adolescent brain, especially the adolescent male brain, to make space from the family around age 13, and this certainly seemed to be the case for us.
Zac’s take on it? “I just want to get learned, Mum.” He was desperate for some structure – to follow a fixed curriculum with set learning goals, rather than the more haphazard, organic approach we’d used. (You can read some of his take on it here.)
Zac still denies that friendships were a factor in his decision to stop travelling, so I guess I’ll have to go with that – although he does seem to love having a social circle that’s all his own, so I’m fairly sure that was a part of it at some level.
Whatevs. Zac and I have been in the school routine long enough – over a year! – for me to have a fairly coherent view on how homeschooling while travelling, the way we did it, works as preparation for high school. So… here goes!
What Didn’t Work So Well About Homeschooling While Travelling
My spawn has never been sporty – going down the park to kick a ball around wasn’t part of his childhood, as none of the adults in his life were especially convincing when endeavouring to kick anything, or interested, for that matter. He did a great deal of physical stuff as we travelled – he can ski and dive, he’s got basic surfing, windsurfing and more, and he did the Everest Base Camp trek aged 12. He has, however, done absolutely sodall by way of team games, ball sports and those weird aerobic activities that only seem to happen in school PE lessons, like running backwards round and round the gym. He’s just below the expected level for his age in PE, although he’s made good progress.
What I’d Do Differently: Nothing. To be honest, neither of us really gives a monkeys about PE, although I encourage him to try, and want him to be fit.
Entering high school midway through Year 8 after four years out of education, Zac simply hadn’t had the practice at the basic logistics of high school life. By which I mean things like efficiently packing all your stuff into your bag at the end of a lesson and getting across school quick-sharp to the next one, ensuring your pencil case is fully-stocked, or keeping on top of your homework. But we talked about organisation skills, put some strategies in – like getting a good school bag with lots of pockets – and I get the impression that, by the standards of 14-year-old boys, he’s relatively well organised.
What I’d Do Differently: I would have bought Zac a decent school bag with lots of pockets before he started school, checked his homework planner daily so that he used his planner daily, and talked to him about getting and staying organised. It’s all worked out OK now, though.
It’s the nature of most forms of home school, travelling or otherwise, that assignments kind of sprawl: many homeschooled children have abysmal time management. Initially, it was hard for Zac to settle down, focus, and turn out homework assignments in the requisite amount of time. Yelling does still come up occasionally, for topics he’s not enthusiastic about, but, based on conversations with my mum friends, he’s rather better at doing homework than the typical 14-year-old boy.
What I’d Do Differently: I’m not sure we could have worked on time management while maintaining the relaxed, lackadaisical lifestyle that we had, and peer pressure resolved this one PDQ once Zac was in school. That said, there IS value in working to deadlines, and if you’re doing longterm travel with high-school-aged kids, I’d recommend integrating some deadlined or timed tasks into whatever sort of education you do.
Zac had done precisely two exam-type timed tasks when he re-entered school aged 13. The first was his KS1 assessment, which British 7-year-olds do in primary school, and the second was a 2-hour maths test in Chinese. He struggled, initially, with timed assignments, particularly those involving handwriting: we’re doing weekly timed writing tasks to cover off this gap in time for his age 16 exams (in the UK curriculum, which his school follows, these matter).
What I’d Do Differently: I would have asked Zac how he felt about doing timed assignments for practice at key skills every so often over the last couple of years. One timed task every three months would have made a lot of difference, I think, without screwing up our lovely lifestyle too much.
When we started travelling, when Zac was nine, I took the view that, as a 21st-century child, the art of handwriting was largely irrelevant, since, surely, by 2017 all exams would be on computer anyway. And so, Zac, who’s always hated handwriting, did all his writing on computer. Sadly, it emerges that the education system hasn’t moved on that fast. At both 16 and 18, and possibly even at 21, timed, handwritten essays will form part of his assessment, despite the fact he’s unlikely ever to use handwriting in his professional life. Couple never having done much by way of handwriting – not copying things down from a board, not writing stories, not answering questions – with only ever having worked to time twice, and being male, and being left-handed, and he’s way behind at this. Timed writing tasks seem to be helping, though, not just with the handwriting but with getting his sentences right first time in a way you don’t have to when you can just copy and paste.
What I’d Do Differently: The computer was great for getting Zac actually writing when he was little. That said, if I’d known that handwriting was going to continue to matter this far into the 21st century, I might have tried to persuade him to do timed writing tasks regularly over the last couple of years. Regular daily handwriting practice would have been too school-y, almost impossible to do when doing active travel and generally no fun at all, but that would be an effective strategy for parents with a different style.
Zac didn’t want to learn his times tables, because he didn’t see the point, and, further he seemed to be doing OK without them, so I let those slide. He’s doing extremely well at maths now, but his teacher did identify number bonds as a gap that’s holding him back. That said, he thinks he’s caught all his number bonds up now just through doing a lot of maths.
What I’d Do Differently: I wouldn’t do anything differently with this child. Zac had formal education in Chinese school and, erratically, over Skype for maths that has stood him in good stead. He’s caught up on his number bonds fine, and rote learning and chanting would have been an absolute nightmare: we’d just have fought about it. With a child who was weak at maths, I’d probably have won the argument about times tables being necessary.
Zac has never had any interest in music, so he didn’t do any, which is a shame, because it’s lovely to know how to read music and to play an instrument. We did do some art classes on the road, nice things like pottery and silver-smithing and painting classes and fruit carving and woodworking, but he struggled in art a little initially because of gaps on basics like drafting and perspective. He’d never done any drama – but he’s enjoying it and doing well at it now. He’s now also hugely enjoying design and technology. Creative arts are difficult to do well on the road. A lot of resources – like lasers and 3D printers for design & technology, or potter’s wheels – are the sort of kit that, generally, only institutions invest in. Groups are essential for drama (and dance). And, although some families do carry them, musical instruments aren’t portable.
What I’d Do Differently: If we were to do the whole thing over again I’d have had Zac do much more art – multi-day courses rather than the occasional one-off session – and probably more contemporary design & technology or science modelling projects. A three-day painting course would have given him grounding on drafting and perspective etc. in a way that a 2-hour course just doesn’t. I’d have gone the extra mile to research before our trips to science museums so that he could join workshops to make things (we missed a robotics class in Milan, which looked great, for example).
What Did Work About Homeschooling While Travelling
After being thrown in the deep end with Chinese, Spanish is a walk in the park, and Indonesian should be too. Zac’s reasonably good at languages – we’re about to pick up Chinese again after a gap while our teacher is on maternity leave – and, fundamentally, anything that’s not Chinese seems easy. This is one area where he definitely learned much, much more than he would have done in school.
What I’ve Learned: If a child’s going to learn multiple languages, start them with the hardest one – it makes everything else look easy.
Both Zac’s humanities teachers have commented on how much fun he is to teach. Obviously, world travel is a great preparation for both geography and history, and provides a perspective way beyond one’s years: Zac’s hung out with everyone from hunter-gatherers to diplomats, chatted politics with Islamists, visited Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and Hezbollahland in Lebanon, explored hydro-power plants and seen retreating glaciers, picked up fossils and visited Xanadu. Further, some of the writing Zac did in world school was structured as essays. Here, too, he learned much, much more than he would have done in school – although he’s hugely enjoying group activities in class, which is again something that can’t be done on the road.
What I’ve Learned: Reading books and watching films about a historical or geographical topic while you’re in that country really does intensify understanding: internet alone is pretty rubbish.
For English, my aim was to ensure Zac could spell, punctuate and use paragraphs, to ensure he did writing that used a range of genres, and to encourage him to read widely. This has translated quite well into the English that he’s doing in school, though he seemed to learn a hell of a lot more when he could work at his own pace, and enjoy it more as well. He does well in English at school (he’s always been articulate and a good speller, and I think he writes well), but he’s not really enjoying it very much.
What I’ve Learned: If you get someone who writes for a living teaching a bright child English one on one, the results are likely to be some way ahead of the school curriculum, even if you’re only spending a few minutes on it every once in a while.
We did science on a very hit and miss basis, which meant that Zac had some bizarro gaps – at one stage, he could bullshit fluently about sub-atomic particles, but didn’t know the boiling point of water (“Doesn’t it vary with altitude?”). Further, I’m fairly sure basic scientific rigour was missing from what we did: the Sinai desert is a great place to study erosion and fossils, and the Derawan islands was a wonderful place to research marine ecosystems, but I’m not sure either project would have cut it at high school age. You do, though, learn a lot of science just through qualifying as a scuba diver, and through the Outdoor First Aid course we did. Anywise, there is a lot of repetition in science, which means that everything gets done over and over again, and he scored insanely high in an international science test he did lately, so whatever gaps he had appear to have gone.
What I’ve Learned: While I hesitate to say we did anything right here, I think that if you leave a kid with abilities in science to get on with it, try the odd structured vaguely scientific exploration and keep up maths on some level, he’ll be fine until age 13-14 or so. At that point he or she will need the attentions of a science teacher.
Zac is naturally good at maths. He’s also ahead on maths solely because of his stint in Chinese school – he did have some good Skype tutors who did interesting work with him, but trying to keep up with his Chinese peers was highly educational. Interestingly, as he and pals started preparation for their maths competition in Hong Kong, he remarked: “I’m finally working back at the level of a Chinese 11-year-old.”
What I’ve Learned: Chinese maths is excellent preparation for any type of maths, and doing maths in an academically selective Chinese school (not that I knew this when we signed up) enables you to give anything your best shot even when you’re aware you’re outclassed.
I’d assumed that, as an only child who’d been out of school for four years, Zac would struggle with group projects. As it happened, he didn’t. I have no idea why this is. Maybe he’s just a nice kid? Maybe travel makes you more tolerant? Maybe it’s just really nice to be doing group projects after four years out of school?
What I’ve Learned: Group projects can be cool or totally suck, depending on the teacher, the topic and the people in the group. They’re also great preparation for real life.
Because Zac chose school, he’s highly motivated to do well in school: he works, generally, relatively hard and requires fairly little chasing (by the standards of teen boys). Because he did lead in a lot of his education prior to heading back to school, he thinks critically about what he’s being taught and takes ownership of his own learning. One important set of attributes travel has given him, I think, is self-belief, determination, and a willingness to have a go at absolutely bloody anything: I’d say Everest Base Camp, and in particular the Cho-La Pass, were extremely good for him. He’s very independent – being free range in different countries helps with that – and I’m fairly sure his broken arm in Mongolia has further intensified his awareness of risk and risk management.
What I’ve Learned: Travel is a great preparation for all sorts of aspects of real life, and adventure travel builds confidence.
It’s intuitive that four years out of school, and choosing to go to school, would give you a new appreciation for what school has to offer – and that’s certainly the case here. I rarely joined in stuff at high school – I was a thoroughly miserable adolescent and couldn’t see the point – but Zac is headed to Kuala Lumpur for the Model United Nations, went to Hong Kong for his maths competition in February, has a part in the school play, and goes to an after-school club once a week.
What I’ve Learned: Opportunities for joining in are much more precious when you haven’t previously had an opportunity to join in. I don’t think Zac would have been doing a fraction of this stuff had we stayed in London.
School After Travelling – In Summary
Zac and I talk a lot about travelling – those four years were a massive part of both our lives. We’re both definite that longterm travel was the right thing to do, and, further, that stopping at this stage was the right thing to do as well. Although – Jesus! – I do miss that footloose and fancy-free existence.
Academically, Zac is top of his year group in several subjects and behind in only two (PE and music, neither of which he likes): the only gap that may be hard to make up is handwriting. He represented the school in a maths competition (thanks, China!), is doing both the school play and the Model United Nations, and is on track to do very well at IGCSE, the international version of the exams that British children sit at age 16. Most importantly, he has a range of good, close friends.
I like to think – though I may well be delusional here – that he got the very best out of longterm travel, and that we got back into school in time to cover off the odd academic and skills gap while still benefiting from the massive educational and life advantages that longterm travel brings.
But I’d be interested to hear your experiences. If you’ve travelled with the spawn and put them back into school, how did it go for you?