Living Education

Posted on November 25, 2012 by Jack Kelly
Tags: windeward_bound, miscellaneous

In a sail training voyage, trainees come to us with no experience of the sea and leave eight-to-ten days later as moderately competent hands: they can work aloft, handle rope, know basic knots, work on the deck and set and strike sail. Depending on how quickly the trainees can be motivated in the first days, there’s often time to go further: skills like chart work, navigation and watchkeeping are taught by the mates, who watch over the trainees as they work. Motivated crews, like those from Deakin University, can go much further than a school-age group, who necessarily must spend more time learning to cope with new hardships like seasickness, homesickness and close-quarters living.

Even so, the amount of progress the school-age groups make is impressive, and I think it is because they are living their education. During the day, they are surrounded by work; when their work is done, they sleep; when they wake up, their work is there for them. It is this total immersion into their work (and the isolation from everything else), I think, that encourages rapid learning: there is almost nothing else to do but learn the ways of the ship.

Now apply this model to the permanent crew. We live on board, and even on a day off we can be pulled into some multi-person job if extra hands are needed. From the moment we sign on, we’re expected to learn: both ship-specific procedures and general seamanship. She’s a training vessel, not just for the voyage crew but for the permanent crew as well, who clock up quality sea-time at an incredible rate during the voyage season. Some of the traditional techniques won’t apply, of course (who parcels and serves their standing rig these days?), but the navigation equipment is modern and every vessel will have some degree of ropework. Social skills, such as sharing small quarters, working in a watch system and getting along with everyone while run ragged, are also applicable anywhere.

It’s not all good news, though. During the voyage season, friends and family may as well be on Mars and the ship’s schedule makes committing to regular activities ashore extremely difficult. Even during the day-sail season, having a different “weekend” from everyone else makes organising anything extremely difficult.

Despite the social difficulties, there are a lot of benefits to this model of education, and I wonder where else it could be applied. University students living on-campus have a very similar educational structure: they live where they work, they take their work home and a lot of social contact is based around their work. But a university education is slow, with a bachelor’s degree taking at least three years. Can a university be turned into an environment where students live their education? Unfortunately, I don’t think so.

The biggest reason I believe living education works on board is because shipboard life is so relentlessly practical: everything is done by hand, and you can instantly see what is happening and who is causing it. Even when off watch, someone else is working and you can learn by observation. In a university, students are building mental structures instead of physical ones, and this makes it much harder to appreciate someone else’s work.

A ship on voyage runs to a strict schedule, and that means the crew can handle a strict schedule in port. At university, very few lectures are compulsory, tutorial participation is given a token mark to encourage attendance (at least in computer science, where I am from), and financial pressure forces many students to skip lectures in order to work (and later watch a recording or catch up via reading). This has created a chicken-and-egg situation: if the lectures or tutorials were made unskippable (in a positive sense, such as if they became lively, interactive demonstrations), then students who rely on their part-time (or even full-time) jobs to fund their studies risk being shut out of university altogether.

On board, we can carry up to thirty-four people at most. That includes the crew, officers, school teachers and cook, which means that there’s usually one watch leader teaching six-to-eight trainees. The number of students enrolled at university forces the bulk of the information to be transmitted via lecture, a notoriously ineffective method of teaching. Replacing lectures with something more effective but still cost-efficient is a difficult problem.

What can be done? It seems to me that two things need to happen at once: first, financial pressure on students needs to ease (for costs like accommodation and meals, since tuition is covered by HECS-HELP). At the same time, courses need to move beyond lectures to capture this additional free time, before it goes to waste. How can this happen? I have no idea.

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