Learning The World

 |  July 29, 2011

We normally associate education with classrooms, chalkboards, long lectures and free time with friends at lunch. Though we may be embarking upon a mental voyage through a vast realm of knowledge, we don’t usually think about school physically taking us anywhere, aside from the occasional field trip of course. Yet… imagine if travelling around the world was your education?

Think Global School is a school that does just that. Founded by Joann McPike, Think Global School (TGS) calls itself the world’s “first mobile, global school.” While searching for a boarding school for her son, McPike envisioned a school of students that could travel the world, share their journeys, and learn by engaging with the vibrant environment around them. Her idea led to the creation of TGS, a high school where students travel to three international cities each year. By the time they graduate, students will have studied in twelve different countries in twelve trimesters.

A native of Chiang Mai, Yada Pruksachatkun was only twelve when she was selected with a full scholarship to be part of the inaugural class of TGS. When she first heard of TGS through her counsellor at Chiang Mai International School, she wondered if it was a scam – a school that could offer a scholarship for students to study and travel the world seemed too good to be true. Yet when she did further research and talked to her counsellor, she knew she wanted to go.

The path to TGS was not one unmarred by difficulty, as Yada had to write her application, convince her parents (who also believed TGS to be a scam) about the school, and face her own insecurities about making such a life-changing decision. “I was really scared of change back then,” she said. “I really liked dance and I was afraid that I’d go to dance studios in Sweden and they’d just look at me and ask me what I was doing. Yet it was something I had to get over. To be wise, you need to confront these fears. You have to face them; you don’t have to shove them aside.”

Yada’s acceptance to TGS was not an easy feat. Admission is extremely selective – students are handpicked from all corners of the world, and over fifty percent of students receive some form of financial aid. Academic excellence, curiosity, and open-mindedness are key qualities for each student, and discussion and sharing of experiences is greatly encouraged. Using the Harkness method common to many American preparatory schools, students sit at round tables with their teachers, where everyone has equal opportunity to see each other and share their opinions. MacBook Pros, iPhones and iPads are supplied by the school, and with them, students record and share their experiences.

TGS advocates a model of learning where students truly learn to think for themselves; their motto declares, “Don’t teach me what to think, teach me how to think.” Their curriculum covers a number of core disciplines universal to any classroom, but also equally stresses travel, research and experiential learning. Students can study Chinese history while sitting on the Great Wall, or hear the tales of dream culture with the Aboriginals of Australia. Community leaders and intellectuals are also regularly invited to lecture for the students.

In her first school year, Yada travelled to Stockholm, Sydney and Beijing. She says that her experiences have helped her appreciate how wonderful life is, and that even though there are obstacles, overcoming them makes life much more fruitful. The teachers are friendly and open, and the students extremely intelligent – and just “a bit crazy.” “No one is the same but the one thing we have in common is that we’re all willing to learn, and try something even once,” she says.

Yada has a host of ambitions, from changing the world to merely being happy. For now, she wants to share her journeys by collecting all her articles and photos and putting them into a booklet. She hopes to give the booklet to people who don’t have the opportunity to travel, such as hill tribe people and younger hospital patients.

Yada appreciates what she’s learned from her teachers and friends in Chiang Mai, and looks forward to the journey ahead. Despite all her experiences, she maintains that she’s just like any regular teenager. “I think teenagers are an emotion-driven species… Sometimes they have an energy that’s been built up in them, and it comes out in bad ways. They’re just confused and trying to find themselves. In the end, teenagers just want to be heard.”

“I think I am a normal teenager because I’m human and I share these qualities. Sometimes I’m emotion-driven, but I try to channel my emotions and energy to something greater.”

Citylife will be following Yada’s journey with TGS by publishing one of her articles each year.

The sound of six people breathing pounds in your ears, joining the orchestra of other little noises floating all the way to break at the surface, which was where you wanted to be right now. You were surely going to drown! You signal to your buddy that there’s a problem, but to no avail. Just as you were going to make an emergency ascent, the instructor grabs you by the shoulders, signalling you to breathe slowly. He holds you until you stop shivering…I can still remember that scuba diving experience, eighteen metres down in Chowder Bay, Sydney.

That doesn’t seem like an experience a naive, timid girl would’ve had – not until fate forced her on a fork in her life. Imagine one highway paved and perfect, the horizon clear and promising, and the other, a dirt path littered with dust, garbage, and thorny branches. You know the latter is a gamble with life, for unimaginable opportunity. You also know that choosing the safe highway would lead to a small town life, which, while not unpleasant at all, wouldn’t let you be the best you could be. The flame inside you wants to be seen and spread, to be used to help and heal the world’s outsourced wounds. And yet, a series of events finds your prayers heard.

In November of 2009, I was ushered into my school counselor’s office. Sweat dripped off my face as my memory went into overload, picking out anything I might’ve done to have gotten into trouble. I was met with smiles from the school counsellor, who was ranting on about some travelling high school. Surely such a school didn’t exist! My mind muddled and my eyes seemingly unable to stop popping out of my head, I listened on. Twenty minutes later, I walked out, none the calmer.

Although I was touched by her confidence in me, in the back of my mind, I heard a voice whispering, “even if I do get in, I’ll never survive! I’m just a goldfish; I wasn’t meant to swim with the sharks!” But even with that seed of doubt, the school had stolen this girl’s attention, and would drive her to her decision. Risking my innocence, I started writing my application.

This school seemed like a school that encouraged stating your opinion and asking questions. This school was everything every ambitious kid clicks with! Staying true to yourself, seeing the world from all different ways… And I wasn’t going to let this opportunity pass…

In September of 2010, a plane landed in Stockholm, Sweden, and the same raven-eyed girl stepped off, expecting fun and games. It proved far from that, with problems surfacing from the very first day, the first being parental separation. They had taught me well, but was I ready for all this responsibility? I had to manage my own life, with a small hollow in my heart.

At this school, everything was encouraged, but for me, a person who has always prioritised other people’s wants over my own, it was a dilemma. Out of all my indecision over my desires, one thing was for sure; my soul wanted to learn and live.

As Jostein Gaarder’s book, Sophie’s World, beautifully explains, the world and everything about it is like a rabbit, being pulled out of life’s hat. While most people snuggle in the comfort of its fur, the thinkers of this world stand on the tip of its hair, wondering how the trick works…I want to be one of those thinkers, forever endowed with the great gifts of wonder and acceptance.

But to fully accept everything is to try everything, in which case being in Sydney gave me a chance to try out the resolution. Having never been labelled as ‘athletic’ or ‘swift’, I was yanked out of my comfort zone, forced to adapt and face my weaknesses, as well as try things I never knew I’d like, such as rock climbing.

And so now, I’m heading home on a Thailand-bound plane, having settled for the night upon this uncertain road. Trying my best not to snap under this pressure is proving a challenge, and fear of the dawn, the future, fills me. We’re all human after all.