Blended learning mixes digital learning with traditional “brick-and-mortar” classroom studies. What if your classroom is actually sailing its way across the Pacific Ocean? What if the only classroom you ever saw is your own home?
Two Finnish families have chosen to homeschool their children with the aid of online learning. This means that not only the children but also the adults will have to be learners, as the parents step into the shoes of the educator.
The Meretniemi family of five are weighing the anchor on their landbound life in Kirkkonummi, in Southern Finland. In June 2016 Tuomo and Riikka Meretniemi and their children Aarre (6), Kerttu (3) and Martta (1) will set sail for a six-year sailing trip around the world. The parents plan to make their boat a moving learning lab for experimental homeschooling.
The four-member Wendorf family have lived in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina since 2003. During most of this time daughters Heidi (15) and Linda (11) have been educated by their mother Helena.
“Learning must be fun and connected to the real world around us”
Astonishment, followed by admiration and encouragement. This is the typical reaction of friends and acquaintances when Tuomo and Riikka Meretniemi reveal their plans to take the whole family to sea for a whole of six years. The Meretniemis are no strangers to seafaring. Mother Riikka has sailed the Baltic for 20 years and father Tuomo has a background in competitive sailing and sailing instruction. Also the children have already spent many summers on deck.
– A round-the world trip has been a common dream of ours for a long time, Tuomo Meretniemi admits.
In April 2014 father Tuomo resigned his job as CEO of Finland’s biggest travel agency. That summer the long-brewing dream started to take concrete shape, and the departure date was set at June 2016. Currently the family is building a partner network of edutech companies and education professionals to support schooling during the trip and to act as an experimental learning lab.
Testing learning accessibility
The main job for the parents during the voyage will be to educate their children. The family will utilize printed learning materials – following the Finnish curriculum for elementary school- provided by traditional Finnish and international school content providers and are planning to produce some of the content themselves.
In harbors the children will connect with their own designated professional teachers over Skype or even attend local schools. For example, history and Finnish language tuition will be provided by Kulkuri, A Finnish virtual school for expatriate children.
– We’ll also be a test lab for our future partners, testing different individual and social learning platforms and tons of learning apps. We want to increase understanding of how distance learning works in really remote areas, Tuomo Meretniemi describes.
Learning philosophy: Hands-on
The Meretniemis are articulate about their learning philosophy. All learning should connect with the real world around the learner and be self-motivated and fun. They believe that when children can choose what they want to learn and do it in the way they want, they will also be more responsive to the subjects that are not their favorite ones.
– Learning in our boat environment will be more hands-on than theory. We’ll visit 75 countries in as many months, and much of the teaching will be based on the people, cultures and nature we see on the way.
The Meretniemis acknowledge that their offspring will have a less than ordinary schooling experience.
– They will not be with the same twenty classmates in a big school every day, so if you like, this is what they will be missing. They will, however, see the world from many alternative perspectives, meet kids from over 70 countries and naturally learn languages on the way.
A typical school lesson aboard for the children might be something along these lines: the children swim in the reefs of the South Pacific and observe marine life and corals. Together the family would try to understand why and how there are so many different species there. What effect do ocean currents,, water temperature, prevailing winds, volcanic activity fishing and littering have on marine life.
– We could then interview local people, take pictures, make videos and maybe contact a university professor in Finland over live internet connection to have more in-depth answers. Students anywhere in the world could follow these studies over the internet and participate by asking questions., Tuomo Meretniemi describes.
The Meretniemis are not professional pedagogues themselves:teaching their own children will be a learning journey for them as well.
– Responsiveness and obedience might me more challenging than in a normal teacher-student relationship.
The parents think that preparation, planning and gathering of learning material will play a major role in providing good education in a liveaboard environment.
– We both feel that teaching natural- and social sciences will take a very natural course as they will strongly be connected to places where we are cruising. Most challenging will be math in the later grades. Outside help is welcome!
“You learn for yourself and your future, not for the school”
The Wendorf family of four relocated from Helsinki, Finland to Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2003 because of father Heikki’s job. At the time, firstborn Heidi was three years old, and the family was expecting younger sister Linda.
At first Heidi attended the local Kindergarten and later the local comprehensive school. However, the quality of teaching at the local school disappointed the Wendorfs.
– We decided the children should rather be schooled at home, supported by the virtual school Kulkuri, mother Helena Wendorf explains.
Kulkuri is a virtual school for Finnish expatriate children, following the Finnish curriculum. The delivery of classes is a mixture of live virtual classes and online written assignments, depending on the individual requirements of the students. Usually expat students use Kulkuri as an accompaniment to the local school they attend to study specific subjects like Finnish language and culture. The Wendorfs are an exception as Heidi and Linda study at home using normal school books and Kulkuri’s printed materials.
Hard workers at the dining room table
Mother Helena is a devoted tutor and has made sure that the home environment is also a learning space.
The family dining room doubles as the class room in the daytime: a white board stands in the middle, and in the corner stands a school cupboard with school material in it. Children arrive with their school bags in the classroom in the morning.
Heidi is in her final year in comprehensive school and works hard. School day starts at eight in the morning and ends at five or later. Younger sister Linda is equally busy but her priorities are different.
– Linda attends ballet school for the fifth year five hours a day including trips, five days a week. This means Linda studies for school early in the morning and in the evenings, Helena Wendorf explains.
Home schooling: Flexibility and independence
The Wendorfs relish the flexibility that home school offers. The students can concentrate more on the subjects that need extra attention. They can also take a break from school when needed.
– Needless to say, five hours for ballet per day might be a problem in a normal school.
The Wendorf girls have also developed into self-reliant students. Heidi has studied independently for a couple of years now, and mother Helena does not participate much in her studies, unless help is needed.
Both girls also work independently in Kulkuri’s web classes, although most of their education takes place at home using traditional printed materials. For some subjects the girls work on online assignments, which a remote teacher later checks. Heidi has studied music and religious education this way, and Linda started this year with maths and religious education.
– Online learning has its limitations. Subjects such as history and religion are the kinds of topics a pupil might want to ponder and discuss with a teacher right away. Online assignments do not offer this possibility. Instead this is where my role as tutor and discussion companion becomes especially important.
Teacher at heart
Heidi and Linda are growing up without school mates –ones from outside their own family at least. According to their mother, friends from hobby circles make up for this lost social capital.
– Our children have also been spared from bullying, which seems to be a constant problem in schools, she adds.
Helena Wendorf considers it a privilege to teach her children. Her own career background is in social security law, having worked as a lawyer for almost 20 years before moving to the Balkans. An essential part of her job was to give lectures on social security laws in work places, trade unions and universities as well as to teach colleagues and staff in legal matters on a daily basis.
– Now looking back, it seems my whole career was just a path leading to this most important teaching job of all, teaching my children. Both children are straight A-students and they still enjoy going to school, so I must have done something right!