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Author's Name: Eleanor Edstrom
Date: Mon 06 Jul 2020

The Sailing Yacht: A Classroom Outside the Classroom

Laminate desks, textbooks, and a row of uniformed students whose expressions range from boredom to near-interested as they watch a teacher point at a whiteboard. These are common images that come to mind when we think of the words “classroom” or “education”. In fact, such ideas are so embedded in our culture that we rarely step back and question the meaning of a learning environment, nor the constraints of the conventional classroom.

So, what makes a classroom an effective educational space? What possibilities does the traditional classroom miss? What kind of students does it accommodate? More importantly, what kind of students does it fail to support? 

By asking these questions, we can come to understand that ‘the classroom’, as we traditionally perceive it, is far too narrow in scope. A classroom can be so much more than a room filled with desks and chairs, or a space in which teachers instruct students on how to achieve the highest exam marks. We should instead see a classroom to be any learning environment that challenges us to open our eyes to myriad possibilities and develop curiosity towards the world. What’s even more important to recognise is that what constitutes the most effective classroom varies significantly from student to student.  

The problem with traditional education is that it homogenizes learning when learning is not at all a universal experience. Everyone learns differently, and it is important to be receptive to that. At Making Waves, we work alongside schools and youth organisations to step outside the confines of the conventional classroom and onto a sailing boat, aiming to capture a larger learning spectrum. An example can be found in Winds of Change, a program that seeks to re-ignite young people’s engagement in learning and supports those whose needs may not be met by the traditional education system. By learning to sail a racing yacht on Sydney Harbour, students who have faced challenges at school or at home are given the opportunity to expand their horizons and develop valuable skills supported by alternative schools’ curriculum.

A yacht and a school classroom have more parallels than one might initially think. Just like a typical classroom, a sailing yacht houses a confined, highly structured environment. The clearly mapped out areas of a classroom find an echo in those of a yacht, with “no-go” zones and sections designated for specific activities. Sailing boats also mirror the authority structure of a classroom in which a teacher, or a skipper, gives direction to a group of students, or in this case, to a sailing crew. There are also clearly defined expectations and rules in both settings. While these expectations usually involve things like raising your hand before you speak in a classroom, the expectations on a yacht can range from safety regulations to following a variety of sailing procedures. Despite these similarities, there are key differences between school and on-water classrooms which allow sailing to provide a more pluralistic approach to learning. 

The partnership created between the traditional school classroom and the classroom on the water allows for the translation of abstract content into real-life contexts. Broadening the learning spectrum, sailing provides an opportunity for kinaesthetic-tactile learners to engage in activities that stimulate them in a manner that may not be accessible in a school environment. For students who more deeply comprehend and internalise theoretical concepts when they are able to put them into concrete practice, on-water classrooms facilitate such learning strategies as students are placed in a realistic circumstance and are given the responsibility of being in control of the boat. This fosters students’ decision-making and problem-solving skills. Instead of staring at a whiteboard for numerous hours, the crew members learn the ropes or how to trim the mainsail for themselves. Instead of finding the answer to a math problem, the crew must look for practical solutions on the boat. In this sense, the yacht is a classroom that mirrors a more natural way of learning. When we are children, we learn languages through speaking. When we learn to drive, we develop our skills through driving on the road. These processes, like many others in our day-to-day lives, reveal how humans learn through first-hand experience. It therefore makes sense that we should promote more practical, applied learning into young people’s education, especially for those who don’t respond well to conventional, theoretical methods of instruction. Sailing implements this hands-on learning approach, which is often the most effective model for enabling students to gain an understanding of their place in the world and of what they can achieve. 

Another reason why we can view the yacht as an extension of the classroom is due to its focus on teamwork and building trust with others on board. In a classroom setting, the gap between the ‘teacher’ and students is often accentuated. Students whose needs and desires aren’t satisfied by the traditional learning system can often feel at odds with or patronised by teachers or staff at their school. Sailing breaks down these barriers, helping young people to feel genuinely supported as skippers and crew members alike are always ‘on the same side’. In a video interview, Sharon Angel, a volunteer skipper for the Winds of Change program, points to the inclusive, team-oriented nature of sailing. “The students [...] practice respect and collaboration”, she says, “thereby teaching them the value of teamwork and their value as a team member”. A conventional classroom is limited in this regard, as students primarily work towards individual academic goals. Whilst crew members also have individual responsibilities to carry out, the goal of sailing is always a shared one. A successful sail can only be achieved through the collective effort of the entire crew. 

Traditional classrooms are designed to be safe places and insulate young people from the perils of adulthood. However, there are many advantages that can be gained from allowing students to explore the world beyond the sheltered walls of the classroom. If a student at school misbehaves or fails to follow the expectations outlined by the teacher, they rarely get in serious trouble. Of course, getting called out in front of the class, being sent to the principal's office or sitting through a detention is rarely enjoyable. However, these forms of punishment are usually embarrassing at worst, and don’t typically involve any real, life-threatening dangers. Moreover, sometimes students simply don’t care about these punishments, or become further alienated and disengaged as a result of them. By contrast, the consequences on a boat are far more immediate. If you want to return to land, it is necessary to successfully complete the sailing procedures and follow the skipper’s directions. Not understanding one’s roles and expectations as a sailor can risk things going south for the whole crew and can lead to serious safety hazards. The students on board are thus forced to ask questions or seek help from others when they are unsure what to do. This inquiry based model not only speeds up the learning process, but also enhances teamwork and communication skills in ways that are unmatched in the school classroom. 

In a single school year, a student who goes to school for five days a week spends around 900 hours seated in a classroom. This means that their learning experience is largely passive, leaving many students feeling disengaged, off-task or unable to concentrate. Recognising this, teachers have sought alternative learning environments like sailing. Sailing allows students to escape the monotony and repetitiveness of the formal classroom through encouraging students to move around physically whilst they complete active tasks. This provides students with a space in which to channel unbridled energy, whilst offering a greater sense of agency than most classrooms are able to. Instead of sitting at the same desk everyday for long stretches of time, young sailors are faced with exciting new experiences and sights each time that they step onto the boat. All of Making Wave’s programs operate within the most expansive and stimulating learning arena there is - the ocean! 

No one can deny the importance of education in the lives of young people. However, in order to inclusively accommodate for the needs of all students, we need to reconsider what our current learning models are missing and what other forms of classrooms are out there. Sailing is just one way to rethink education. By turning to alternate models of learning, we are reminded that the classrooms beyond the school grounds are often the ones that teach us the most valuable lessons. 

Learn more about our Winds of Change program by visiting our website

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