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Educated By and On the Road: How Nomadic Education started

 

July 23, 2018  •  3 Comments

As a means of contextualising my project on nomadic education, this post aims to clarify what past experiences and guiding principles led to it, how I am putting them into practice today and where I hope they take me in the future.

Two years ago, I was sitting in a lecture at Heidelberg University in Germany on existentialism, by far one of my favourite topics. And yet, all I could pay attention to was a little bird humming on a tree nearby the window. I couldn’t quiet understand what that image evoked in me, only that finding myself within those walls felt gray, and so did the life I foresaw for myself, which was suddenly scrolling in front of my eyes like an old black and white film. Frame by frame.  Meanwhile the bird was shining bright in the sun. And despite not understanding it at the time, it was that feeling which led me to decline the entrance to the universities I had fought so hard to get into.

And so I threw myself into another gap year, summing up two since leaving high school. What happened during these years, in which was traveling in Brazil and abroad, and how they influenced my further decisions will need a post of its own. Worthwhile mentioning now is that loads of backpacking, volunteering, workaways and courses proved themselves to be experiences that made me feel like growing as an individual as a whole for the first time in my life.

They also woke the desire within me to study in a more integrated and interdisciplinary way, a condition that seemed to be satisfied by the American liberal arts curriculum, as I came to suspect while traveling in the US and being exposed to its educational system. Having greater freedom to choose among and combine courses would put an end to my discomfort towards the need to limit myself to an isolated field, as the German and Brazilian higher education systems require. And it did indeed. 4 months later, I was enrolled at Duke University in NC. And yet, that same feeling I had had in Heidelberg grew stronger and more real throughout the months I spend at Duke. I finished my first and last finals at the end of the semester and left, not for winter break, but for something a little offbeat.

 

I would like to clarify before proceeding, however, that what I decided to do next is not an attempt to claim the failure of university systems in general or that students should drop out of them. There are indeed many aspects of the prevailing educational system that unsettle me and which I will discuss extensively in future posts. However, my decision was caused by the combination of such aspects with many other factors that led to me perceiving my life as alienating and unfulfilling within the walls of the university, such as a painful longing for the wide world I had experienced in the previous two years, a depressive loss of interest in what I used to perceive as purpose, an intense desire for adventure and the unknown and a growing passion for education and the pursuit of somehow contributing to its development and renewal.

Thus, this project is not aimed at finding the universally right or best approach to education. Rather, its intend is to expose that there are many ways education can be addressed and carried out, and the best one is ultimately the one we ourselves choose based on our unique internal and external realities instead of on a social consensus. There are so much more possibilities than we are wired to believe, and if we open ourselves to look at them we will be more capable of designing the unique life that will fit the unique longings and purposes each of us have.

That being said, what approach have I found to fit the reality I am living today? In order to explain it, I would like to first clarify one of Paulo Freire’s educational concepts which represented a starting point in my reflections about the educational system a long while ago: Banking education, described as the oppressive “depositing” of information by teachers into their students. “Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat.”. It implies “a dichotomy between human beings and the world”, the former being "empty "mind[s]" passively open to the reception of deposits of reality from the world outside" (Micheletti, 2010). The individual is then a spectator rather than re-creator of reality.

Although I have seen teachers actively trying to fight this dynamic, I believe it is hard and perhaps impossible to do so within a traditional classroom setting. For if students are disconnected from the contexts they learn about, the teacher necessarily becomes the bridge between (and ultimately possessor of) knowledge and the student’s minds. Let’s assume in metaphorical terms that students were to be taught within a classroom about a piece of land they had never put a foot on. The teacher might draw a 100% accurate map to represent the land, perhaps sketching the location of cities, informing the mileage between them, the length of roads… And yet the students would inevitably be in a passive position of knowledge absorption, simply for they have not been exposed to the land themselves.

I believe, however, that learning should be about re-creation, for that is exactly what humanizes us. It should be a choice-making process in which one needs to decide, among infinite aspects, which ones to put on their map based on the investigation of their personal realities. After all, what if the teacher’s map, despite being 100% accurate in its distances, is not representing the things that are relevant to the student’s personal realities and ambitions? We know there are multiple ways of representing a land on paper. And so a person who wants to drive to another city might find a road map useful, but one who wants to climb a mountain or navigate the seas will need somethings completely different. Hence, if we want to climb or swim or navigate while teachers only give us maps of roads, its essential that we gain the ability to draw maps ourselves; if we want to be creators writing our own history and going beyond where others have been, its essential that we make learning an act of translating experience of reality into own representations rather than reproducing someone else’s.

 “To alienate human beings from their own decision-making is to change them into objects.” (Freire, 2000)

And especially in times where information is abundant and changing paradigms are the norm, the ability to draw conclusions from experiences, translate information into understanding and reinterpret reality as it changes, is more important than ever. But unfortunately, the current system still renders education as a means of learning the right answer, acquiring the ultimate point of view, memorizing the most accurate map – of course, the one the teacher provides, and which students will have to sketch during the exam. Shouldn’t we be learning to ask many questions rather than finding a single and ultimate answer?

In the light of these reflections and the ones I had had in the previous two years, I finally understood where the strange discomfort I had felt at Heidelberg came from. I had been tired of memorising other peoples’ maps, interacting and reproducing exclusively with their arbitrary choices of representation. It simply didn’t feel real anymore.

And so based on this realisation, I had an idea that suggested that the traveler’s life I had led before could not only co-exist, but in fact connect with my craving for academics to a higher purpose: by studying for an online degree and simultaneously traveling to contexts connected to the content of my studies, I would be challenging the tendency to passively absorb knowledge by exposing myself to distinct references of information and thus requiring an active process of weighting different perspectives. By being exposed to the land myself, I could no longer take the teacher’s map as the ultimate reference after all. Interacting exclusively with a representation would thus no longer be an option, I’d finally have to deal with something real and palpable: life itself.

And yet when searching for online programs I got exposed to and ultimately intrigued by new concepts in education, particularly the ones of self-directed and experiential learning. I realised that if I wanted to genuinely draw my own map, i.e. actively engage in the knowledge building process, being exposed to various references would likely not be enough. For despite being exposed to both the teacher’s representation and the reality I’d be experiencing, the expectations set by the course’s evaluation system would still lead to me unconsciously neglecting external references in detriment to the teacher’s (Interested in how evaluation forms influence learning process? Check out “Marton, F. and Säaljö, R. (1976), On qualitative differences in learning”).

In the light of this hypothesis, I decided to give these two concepts a try – which is what I have been doing here in Florianópolis, an island a 10 hour drive south from where I had lived before. In fact, I just finished my first trimester within the scheme I designed. Given that this approach of learning was a little bit more radical and less structured than I had planned (and thus required more external structure and internal discipline), I decided to spend these months on the island only, a place I chose due to the connection it has to the things I wanted to learn about –  thus, proving itself to be a good educational “playground”.

In fact this exact connection is one of the guiding principles of the scheme I designed: the selection of subject matters that are connected both to my internal reality (my unique interests, desires and talents) and external (opportunities in my environment, i.e. “playground”). Unfortunately, school often ignores both, and so we are asked to memorize road maps while we might live on a boat and need to learn to navigate. Well, these 3 months I decided to study water currents instead of cramming street names.

Hence, I carefully selected 7 topics that I perceive as both trilling and essential for my current development process, the life I want to have and the person I dream of becoming: 1) Finances 2) Photography 3) Education & teaching 4) Writing & communication 5) Feminist and sexuality studies 6) Brazilian history & current affairs 7) Surf.

 

I then drew a plan for each of them. First, I established course goals, reflecting upon and listing what I intended to achieve in that field within the next 3 months. Based on these goals and on research on my “playground” (Florianopolis), I build a syllabus with a step-by-step structure for each, in which I already included which resources I planned on using. These varied from online courses, websites, books and podcasts, to local classes, events, workshops and groups, projects, mentors and institutions I would reach out to. It also included guidelines for how I wanted to put into practice what I learned, such as self-proposed exercises, development of projects and entrepreneurship work within the field. Lastly, I created schedules to monitor my learning progress, while simultaneously trying to allow for flexibility in a dynamic environment with changing opportunities and a heart with transmuting desires and curiosities.

Well… how did the experience go? That will be part of my next post, in which I intent to clarify in depth via a concrete example how I executed these steps and analyse both advantages and disadvantages of this method, the things that worked and the ones that did not.

And yet as a little tease, I am happy to say already that I have never felt as motivated to learn and grow, as inspired to create, as balanced and above all as intensively alive as I feel today. I look forward to starting my new trimester and soon sharing with you all where it takes me. Thank you for reading!

 “But one does not liberate someone by alienating them. Authentic liberation--the process of humanisation--is not another deposit to be made in a person. Liberation is a praxis: action and reflection upon the world in order to transform it. Those truly committed to the cause of liberation can accept neither the mechanistic concept of consciousness as an empty vessel to be filled, nor the use of banking methods of domination in the name of liberation.” (Freire, 2000)

References

Freire, Paulo. “The “Banking” Concept of Education.” Ways of Reading. 8th ed. Bartholomae, David and Anthony Petrosky. Boston: Bedford- St. Martin’s, 2008. 242-254. Print.

Freire, Paulo, 1921-1997. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Marton, F. and Säaljö, R. (1976), On qualitative differences in learning— II Outcome as a function of the learner's conception of the task. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 46: 115–127. doi:10.1111/j.2044-8279.1976.tb02304.x

Micheletti, G. (2010). "Re-Envisioning Paulo Freire's 'Banking Concept of Education'." Inquiries Journal/Student Pulse, 2(02). Retrieved from http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/a?id=171

Keywords: alternative educationbackpackingdigital nomadeducationeducation projectexperiential learningnomadnomadicself-directed learningtraveltraveling