Paris, Shanghai, Rome … Teacher Takes Children Out Of School For A Better Education
Sue Cowley, a parent and teacher, asks what education is in her latest book. Is education about the daily grind of school, following rules, and memorizing facts? Or could it be experiential and take place outside of the traditional classroom? Cowley has spent a lifetime in education and, after becoming frustrated with changes in the education system in England, set off on a six-month adventure across Europe and China with her two children. The trip was planned around the children’s interests and documented in her book Road School, which offers practical advice for parents who want to step out of the system and experience education on the road. Cowley is part of a growing movement of parents who are choosing to give their children a non-traditional education, either by homeschooling or through "ed-ventures". Although the government argues that children cannot be learning if they are not in school, Cowley disagrees and believes that learning can happen outside school. Cowley’s trip with her children, Alvie and Edite, was not without rules but they were different from those found in a traditional school. There was no uniform, no timetable, no government tests, no detentions, and no homework. Cowley was not worried about interrupting her children’s education because she believed that learning is not hindered by absence from school. Education should be experiential, and children can learn while traveling.
In her book’s final sections, Cowley presents a "road school curriculum" framework for parents who are not teachers but wish to educate their children while constantly on the move. She recommends writing letters home as an English lesson, while math can utilize distance traveled, restaurant menu prices, and currency conversions. Physical education can take the form of cycling or walking tours of the local area while art, history, geography, and modern languages can all be explored easily while traveling.
Despite Cowley’s lack of formal teaching qualifications, she notes that her children have benefited significantly from this educational approach. Both of her children possess an interest in learning that they did not previously exhibit and take pleasure in reading. After their trip, Edite constructed an impressively accurate map of Europe from memory — a challenge that even many adults cannot complete. The depth of understanding instilled in her children while traveling was remarkable; Cowley notes that their experiences have improved their ability to tolerate the unexpected surprises of life. During their journeys, Cowley’s son Alvie once caught a train while she and the rest of the family were left behind. When they caught up with him later on, he was reading a book and not at all flustered by the situation.
While Cowley’s children have been able to adjust smoothly back into traditional educational settings upon returning home, she has struggled more with the transition. Cowley has nothing but praise for her children’s schools, she is extremely concerned about the state of education in general. She feels that drastic funding cuts and changes to accountability measures are inadequately preparing children for a successful future. After hearing other parents’ stories about their own children struggling with readiness for standardized testing, Cowley has even considered mounting a movement against the SATs exams. Though she does not encourage all families to try this nomadic lifestyle, she believes that exploring new places and having other experiences created a fulfilling and exciting learning opportunity.