Challenging the conventional education system, we look at how WorldSchooling actually imparts more important life skills that are often overlooked amidst the hustle & bustle of life. Joined by TEDxEdu speaker and CoFounder of Project World School – Lainie Liberti, we discuss the importance of empathy and opening up to perspectives. Learning is a lifelong journey and the world might just be the best classroom.
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The following is an extremely summarized version extracted from the transcript of the full conversation. I strongly recommend listening to the podcast for all the valuable insights. You will also hear more detailed and contextualized stories from the guest(s), as well as pointers from me in a two-way conversation.
Tell us about yourself and your background story.
My story started in 2008, that’s when my son and I decided to leave the United States and travel. We lived in California, and I owned a business. I’d spent 18 years working in advertising, marketing, and design. For the last eight of those years, I owned an agency; it was a boutique branding agency that was doing quite well until 2008 when the California economy crashed. Being a single parent, I felt so much stress and overwhelmed. I was not managing, balancing my time between parenting and running my business. I always thought I’m doing this for my family, that there’s a reason why I’m doing it. But I honestly wasn’t great at managing and balancing my soul when the economy crashed. My son, who was nine at the time, said Mom, you’re always working, you never spend any time with me – heartbreaking.
I just said to him; You know what, let’s have an adventure. Let’s sell all our stuff and just put on some backpacks and have an adventure together. That was the beginning; it was the best thing that ever happened. That was 12 and a half years ago; we didn’t go back. We’re still on our one-year trip. You never know what can happen. Many changes happened on the road; he was nine, just turning 10 when we set out, and he’s going to be turning 22 in April. Time flies, and his entire childhood was nomadic. We stayed in different places, and we immersed ourselves in different cultures. We were present in our own lives and had so much to talk about.
How do you feel world schooling has benefited your son?
Before we left, I sat down and hammered out how we wanted to experience this adventure. Part of the things that we came up with was we wanted to be in partnership; it wasn’t my decision, and it wasn’t his decision. That was important for us. We applied that concept, and we were already pretty much practicing it. However, from a parenting perspective, I was still the authority, and we live within the conception of conventional life. But this was about a partnership; this was different. I would always be the adult, he’d always be the child, but the decision-making was ours to make. That meant that how we would spend our budget would be decided together. We also decided to develop important themes to us, and mostly really important to my son. Although we had a close friendship, he said that he was very customed, to me saying no to him due to lack of time. So, this was going to be a journey into saying yes. Be careful what you set into motion because you have to balance what was safe and what wasn’t aligned with our core values. These were conversations that we were having in our family structure all the time. But I hadn’t been able to say yes to adventure and opportunities and being spontaneous. We were stepping into this with the idea that, yes, would be a big part of our journey. About eight months into our journey, we had done a lot of traversing back and forth. We stayed in some places and did a lot of different things. My son said he wanted to keep doing it forever, and I agreed. That was when I had to shift gears and shift mindset, and figure out how to make this sustainable. That was when I had to address the educational portion of it. We are always learning. We have brains; that’s what we do. Suppose we shift our mindset to acknowledging that we are all life-learners. There are many ways to learn: experiential learning, social learning, and actual academic learning. It extends beyond what we call the education system, so I needed to look at the educational portion.
We had learned tonnes about the history and the places where we were. We learned about archaeology and anthropology. We learned about our relationship with the environment and the cultures. We looked at how cultures progressed; it was fascinating. Looking back on the first eight months, we were learning effortlessly because we were so engaged in the present. We empowered each other to follow what we were interested in seeing, doing, and learning. That was a powerful epiphany, the realization that learning was happening. Even though I took my son out of school, I knew that this was a better education than he would ever get in fifth grade. I just thought, let’s continue this path because I learned so much in those first eight months without even trying. I learned because we were present, and I was curious; that’s what my brain does. So ask questions, be present, take in new information, integrate it, give it meaning, and connect it to other things; that’s learning.
How has world schooling developed your understanding of worldviews and challenged the norm?
That became a theme within our travels over the last 12 years. We’ve given classes on this, and the exploration of worldviews is a powerful and necessary process, especially in a globalized world. We’re connected; this is a global way of connecting. One experience we had that drilled home how vital worldviews were was when we were in Ecuador, off the coast in this little fishing village. We had our perception of what the environment looked like, and we ran this through filters of our own experience. We were having a coastal chat with locals, and our worldviews were then imposed on them. We met teachers and schoolchildren within this village, and they were working to integrate the beaches and the surrounding jungles as part of their learning environment.
I would have never seen it that way; I just would have taken that for granted. We met the conservationists who looked at the ocean as a place to preserve. That was slightly different from the teachers’ and the villagers’ perception because now they’re concerned with the whales. The villagers and the children, we’re looking at some of the fables and myths around the immigrating whales. We met the fishermen, who went out on the boats every single day and came back to the beach and started gutting and cleaning and selling their fish leaving behind tons of fish waste on the shore. Their focus, their perception, was looking at this to provide for their families. They were all coming at it from different perspectives, and then our mindset was different because we were tourists. At that moment, we realized that there is no such thing as one global worldview. The more we recognize that there is space to have different worldviews live side by side and not be threatened by each other but coexist. That’s our work as travelers. That’s our work as world schoolers. That’s our work as humans, creating that space, finding the bridges of connection, instead of focusing on the differences.
How do you feel understanding perspectives is an important life skill?
I’m not a big fan of conventional schooling; the idea that you must pour these academics into kids’ heads is lame, especially when we’ve got phones where we can access any information at our fingertips. What I can say is more important is creating problem-solving skills. You do that by being in the real world and looking at real-world situations, research, learning how to be curious, and not be afraid of your curiosity. That leads to learning, resilience, collaboration, and cooperation; all these things happen while traveling. You call them soft skills; I call them life skills. Those are the most important things for us to practice, not only when our children are small but also for us adults to practice too because most of us didn’t have the opportunity to learn these things.
Do you feel travel and world schooling have helped develop you both as a person?
It did for us, and in terms of where I was before we started traveling, I did a lot of self-development work. I read so much about how to be president in your own life, but I never had the time to practice it. It helped me; personally, my self-development as the human I was supposed to be, was meant to be or wanted to be. Travel for me was that vehicle; I got to express myself as a person and be in touch with myself. I realized that travel for me and world schooling with my son was that gift. It wasn’t my intention, but I’m glad that it developed that way. I can’t even imagine who my son would be had we not left or who I would have become had we not left.
I love being in this world, and I love having this amazing classroom. I never knew that the world, both the inner and the outer worlds, were so rich. I was so focused on the outer world before, my position, status, and bank account, that I forgot about the inner worlds’ richness. I got to rebalance those scales quite a bit in terms of balancing. Part of my saying yes was because I saw how different life was. It didn’t have to stressful, and there was so much joy. The other thing that I realized was, I had almost missed out on the first ten years of my son’s childhood because of my addiction to being busy. I didn’t want that anymore. I was willing to cherish however much time I had left my son’s childhood because soon he’d be growing into an adult. He’d be off leading his own life. What an honor it is to be a parent; what a great joy. I wanted to have that experience. I did hear from some of my professional friends; you’re committing professional suicide, but I was finally able to balance what was important to me.
What challenges did you face in your world schooling journey?
Our biggest challenge as parents is de-schooling from this lifestyle to another. We are looking at these belief systems that are so ingrained in us that the voices of doubt come up; is my child learning, will he go to university, am I ruining his life, but those are not my voices. But they do play in our heads, and when these things play in our heads, we’ve got a couple of things that we can do. Number one, hear what is said, figure out where they come from, and then challenge and shift these beliefs. What would happen if you trusted the experience of learning naturally, without putting these arbitrary rules that come from somebody else into the relationship. Learn how to acknowledge those thoughts, learn how to listen to them, and choose to reprogram them. I decided not to put arbitrary rules and controls into my son or family relationship. Those things shifted how I lived. We decided early on to be in partnership. So if the concern is that I want you to understand math because I believe these things are essential, we can work together to do our budgeting. Let’s figure out how much money we need; let’s translate the money into a different currency; let’s figure out how long it takes to go from place to place on a train. It’s in context. It’s not this arbitrary thing. There are ways of creating these things in context without imposing a rule to learn them. Stepping back and being in a partnership, in dialogue, and processing what’s going on in those inner worlds. If it’s thundering and lightning and raining in the outer worlds and inside, you’re feeling joyous, then you look at that as a beautiful time to go out and dance barefoot in the rain. But how are we going to process that together?
Did you follow a curriculum during your world schooling journey?
We never used a curriculum; people who world school approach the education portion differently. There are many ways to worldschool; we took an unschooling approach, which means we didn’t separate life from learning. That invited me to actualize and step into my natural curiosity and engage in the world around me. I was always curious; I still am always curious. I’m always looking at something or reading or watching or listening to something. I’m always curious, why does that tree outside my window have those little spikes? What does it mean? And why are the seeds you turning into what looks like cotton? It’s just bizarre, and so that actual question led me into researching. I understood why that tree looks like that and why it turns into cotton. I don’t have to learn that in the class. When curiosity comes up, I’ve got this device to seek out those answers. Modeling this natural curiosity also invites my son to tap into his ability to ask and answer questions. So, did we follow a curriculum? Not at all, that wasn’t our choice? Some families do because that’s what’s important to them.
How did you manage the challenges of building relationships while traveling?
My son struggled with what he perceived as isolation and not having a social network, and that coincides with the time of the brain shifting social learning from the family unit to a friend unit. That’s what adolescence is about; that’s why friends are crucial during adolescence. We had a deep heart to heart at that time. Did he want to carry on with this lifestyle or stop? We decided to bring people to use. That was the birth of Project World School; I learned everything I could about adolescent development, hosting communities, learning communities, travel, how to structure retreats, planning everything. I didn’t know what I was doing; I learned. The first year, we got a couple of kids, and it was hard; we made some mistakes. We revised and improved upon that. Each year, we added more and more retreats. And this then developed into our primary income stream. Until 2020, we were doing four to six retreats a year, and that’s anywhere from two to four-week retreats. I loved it; I love working with teens; I loved helping and creating space for them to process the inner worlds.
We just spent all this time doing this, and now I wanted to facilitate this. I realized that it was such an incredible opportunity for teens to step into their power because I worked in partnership with my son; I extended that as the team retreats’ foundation. Together we came up with a structure and an ideology that worked for us. So that’s what we did. We brought teens from around the world, lived in community, we been to Ecuador, to Mexico, to Peru, to Japan, to South Africa, to Wales, to Thailand, all over we’ve made these incredible trips,and realized that this is the work that I loved doing. I loved working with teams. That was a big part of the business creation. Parents started saying they would want to do it too, so instead of hosting retreats, we began organizing conferences. They were hubs where all the world schoolers out there traveling could come together twice a year, in different places. The parents needed community, and so did the younger kids. We launched the project, World School Family Summits, and met in Mexico during Spring. In the fall, we would alternate between locations in Asia and Europe. Many families came to all of them; the whole community was coming together, learning, and sharing. It was such a powerful part of our lives.
Last year, I launched a company where I’ve been working with teens online. I’ve been teaching them during 12-week courses tools for self-improvement, processing their inner worlds, managing stress and anxiety. We unpacked some of those big feelings they’re having, and all in harmony with their brain development because I had eight previous years of working with teens; I knew what they were facing. That launched this year, and my son is co-teaching the younger group with me, so we’re still working together, but we’re doing it online with teens and tweens. Then I launched another project with another friend of mine, working with parents. I taught world schooling parents how to design a family culture that worked for them at all the summits and all the conferences I hosted. The feedback that I got from the families that were traveling was that we would have killed each other if we had not had these strategies and tools. Families that had never spent so much time together are now working from home. Their kids are doing school from home. The company that I recently launched with my friend Sarah is to teach these skills to any parent who’s interested in partnership and parenting in their homes. I’m taking what I’ve learned and adapting it for pandemic times.
How have you changed or adapted your business in response to the pandemic?
There is so much value in connecting in real life. We need to look at this past year as an extreme and glean everything we can from learning from that experience but recognizing that human connection is essential. When the pandemic first hit, I was in Mexico for our Project World School Family Summit. Everything just started getting shut down, and I immediately investigated how I could support my community. We would do women’s circles at the Summit, where it would be a very sacred space for the group’s moms to be seen, be heard and speak their truth and connect. I brought that online to the women in our world schooling community. Every week until December, I hosted a weekly women’s circle for free to ensure that they had that safe space.
My son and I also started hosting free teen meetups every week and then a second age group for the tweens. We would make sure that we had this safe space for teens and tweens to connect with their friends and meet new friends worldwide. We played games and had so much fun; we had a blast. My commitment to world schoolers has been about serving and providing value. I’m still doing the teen and tween meetups. Another couple of women took over the women’s circle because it’s really about the conversations we’re having among all these age groups. After all, I can’t wait to get back together and go on trips and hug people. I’m not losing hope. I’m balancing what is safe, when’s the right time to do it. I think we might be having a Project World School Family Summit here in Mexico in June. If it’s safe, we’re doing it.
How do human interactions impact your philosophy of service?
It’s part of my core values. I worked in advertising, and there wassomething soul-sucking about creating consumerism that got me so off-balance. I felt like I’m not going to look for purpose and meaning in my own life, through the outer worlds anymore. What lights me up, what really lights me up. I love that I’m on my path; I’m on purpose when I’m supporting other people. I had to make sure that giving of myself and feeding of myself were balanced, so in 2020,there was a whole lot of giving and making sure everybody was okay. But I realized that my business would not start again; in 2020, Project World School. We had canceled every trip that we had on the books; I needed to take a little step back and think about how I could be of service and fold this into my work. I could easily go back into consulting and branding and web design and advertising, but it doesn’t feel like I’m of service to the world. I’m not creating any shining lights for people; I’m not helping people. That is one of my core values.
What advice would you give to parents who are considering world schooling but concerns about generating enough income?
That’s a big one; I would find support around the location-independent business aspect; that’s not my expertise. I don’t talk about that because I only know my path. I have met some brilliant people who support others in creating location-independent businesses. I would say, really work on dedicating some time to defining what education means to you, what those expectations are, and determining how you wish to experience your family culture. How do you want to engage? How do you want to make decisions? What are the traditions and rituals you want to share? What things define and design your family culture, and then find some tools that you can use to help you process some of these limiting beliefs. Know your triggers, spend some time on those inner worlds as well. When you start getting those things in order, those will not interfere with the outer world, and the outer world is what we’re talking about with world schooling. I hope that was useful.
What are some of the more common challenges or problems you think most parents would face?
The biggest issue is expectations and agendas. We must watch it when we, as parents, believe we have the authority to set our families’ agendas. If the family members don’t align with the same goals, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. If you’re in reaction mode to these triggers, you’re not going to create a joyous experience. So, watch your judgments and agendas. Create the ability to be in dialogue with everybody in the family, and make sure everybody is heard, make sure they’re seen and understood. Make sure everybody is on board because if you’re dragging somebody along, that’s not going to work. I guarantee you, if you are forcing a child to do this, you’ll have a miserable time. If your child’s resonating in fear that they’re going to miss out, then start creating solutions as a family to hear those needs and meet them. If your child is worried about leaving his best friend, maybe you could have the best friend come with you for two weeks, every six months, how great would that be? You’ll have a balance where everybody’s needs are met; it doesn’t mean your child’s needs will be fulfilled all the time, but there’s got to be that safe space where everybody’s seen and heard. Or else why would you want to do it?
Do you feel that communication and issues are dealt with more effectively with world schooling families?
Absolutely, in terms of priorities and conventional families and lifestyles, it is low on the scale. All the other priorities are at the forefront, like work, family, school, schedules, obligations, bills and lights and food, cooking, and everything else. We don’t prioritize the family culture. When you’re traveling, that’s all you have; that is the security. Somebody asked my son if he had any security because I was dragging him worldwide. But his view was that he had more security than most families because he had me. Not everybody prioritizes their family; that’s okay. Those who want to world school to spend more time with their children and give their children the world need these tools to shift from a conventional way of living; to living outside the norm. We need tools to know how to deal with each other’s triggers and unpack these big topics, create safe spaces for all of us to be seen and heard, and honor one another as autonomous beings.