08/22/2016 11:40 EDT | Updated 08/22/2016 11:59 EDT

'World Schooling' Turns Travel Into An Educational Experience

Little boy outdoors in the woods throwing a globe up in the air
Sally Anscombe via Getty Images
Little boy outdoors in the woods throwing a globe up in the air

Ed Gillis wanted to teach his sons about how glaciers are formed, so he took them to the top of New Zealand's Fox Glacier and let them fire questions at a pair of geologists.

For eight-year-old Heron Gillis and his brother Sitka, six, the world is their classroom.

In February, Ed (our friend and a former team member), his wife Jocelyn and their two sons began a six-month bicycle trip across Australia, New Zealand and French Polynesia. The family is part of a growing global trend: parents "world schooling" their kids while exploring the globe. It offers fascinating opportunities for connecting education to the real world.

Before leaving British Columbia, the Gillis' got assistance from teachers to prepare a basic curriculum for their boys. At their evening stops, the Gillis' work through prepared lessons. The scenery and experiences hammered the lessons home, creating a real-world connection to core subjects such as math and history that no classroom could ever offer.

Visits to volcanoes provided a lesson in geography. Reading signs and speaking with locals in French Polynesia has put the boys years ahead of their peers in bilingualism. "A lot of their math is going into grocery stores, looking at prices, and helping us plan our daily budget," says Gillis.

While standing on a glacier, or snorkelling at a coral reef, Heron and Sitka have seen first-hand the impacts of climate change.

"Instead of sitting at a desk and reading about coral reefs, I got to actually snorkel in one," Heron told us in a Skype conversation.

World schooling can take experiential service learning to the next level. Surveys conducted by research firm Mission Measurement have shown that incorporating issues of social justice and environmentalism into classroom lessons results in youth who are more active and engaged citizens.

While standing on a glacier, or snorkelling at a coral reef, Heron and Sitka have seen first-hand the impacts of climate change. Meeting Maori and talking about their culture and place in New Zealand society opened a discussion on aboriginal rights and history in Canada.

In a recent TedX talk, American world-schooling advocate Lainie Liberti and her teen son Miro talked about visiting communities in Columbia impacted by illegal gold mining. "To me, this is more real because it's someplace I've experienced," Miro observed.

World schooling is not without its challenges, notably cost.

With a daily budget of $100, the Gillis' estimate their trip is costing them around $15,000. They saved for four years, seizing every opportunity to collect air miles.

On the upside, technology means parents don't necessarily have to take an unpaid leave from work to do a world-schooling trip. They can continue working remotely. Renee Martyna, founder of the Canadian world schooling Facebook page Knowmads, helped establish a co-working hub in Bali where world schoolers and other travellers can connect and get some work done in a social environment.

A study by market research firm, The Wagner Group, found that teens who take educational trips get better grades in school and, when they grow up, earn an average of US$5,000 more income than peers who haven't travelled.

Any trip can become an educational experience. One of our team members fondly recalls a three-week family summer vacation when he was 11, driving from Ontario to B.C. with a camper trailer. He says he learned more about Canadian history stopping at Northwest Rebellion battlefields in Saskatchewan, and B.C. gold rush towns, than he did in eight years of elementary school.

Although they've only just returned from their big adventure, the Gillis' are already planning another world-schooling trip to Europe in five years.

There are online resources to help aspiring world schoolers like Martyna's Facebook group and Shift Ed. The National Geographic Society web site also has curriculum materials to help turn any trip into an educational experience.

Whether your next trip is in Canada or another country, consider how you can make it a world-schooling adventure.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are the co-founders of the WE movement, which includes WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE Day.

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