To Learn More, This High-Schooler Left The Classroom : NPR Ed Nick Bain, 17, was in class one day when he calculated that only "2 1/2 to three hours" was actually useful instruction. So he decided to go out on his own to learn.

To Learn More, This High-Schooler Left The Classroom

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Fifty million children across the country will be heading back to school after a break this summer, and we're going to meet a student now who decided not to take the summer off. The 17-year-old is finishing an unusual experiment in learning. He's been teaching himself for the last six months. Colorado Public Radio's Jenny Brundin has his story.

JENNY BRUNDIN, BYLINE: Nick Bain was in class one day last fall when he decided to write down what he was doing every 15 minutes.

NICK BAIN: And I found that, out of the seven-hour school day, there are usually about two-and-a-half to three hours that you actually really need to be in school.

BRUNDIN: To get instructions from the teacher. And the rest of the time was lunch, getting books from his locker, things like that. He loves his Denver school, the Colorado Academy, but just like it does for a lot of students, school seemed like a chore for Nick.

N. BAIN: It sort of reminds me of - there's an "I Love Lucy" episode, and she's trying to bag all the chocolates.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "I LOVE LUCY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) Now, the candy will pass by on this conveyor belt and continue into the next room where the girls will pack it.

N. BAIN: And sometimes school feels a little bit like that, like...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "I LOVE LUCY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) Let her roll.

N. BAIN: ...All the chocolates are coming down the assembly line and you just have to get each one as they come...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "I LOVE LUCY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) I think we're fighting a losing game.

N. BAIN: ...With not a whole lot of thinking about an education in general.

BRUNDIN: So Nick came up with this idea, and he got his parents and the school on board. He'd take the same tests and write the same essays as other students in his class, but he'd never attend class, be graded pass-fail and he would teach himself, pace himself. He'd take seven courses - not the normal four - calculus, AP physics, advanced French. He'd even design some of his own, like philosophy.

N. BAIN: This is "Candide." I really like this.

BRUNDIN: He'd also work on a project with scientists, increasing phytoplankton concentration in the upper ocean to address ocean acidification and climate change. And last, he's in the beginning stages of designing a one-seat model aircraft which sits on his front porch.

N. BAIN: So I'd just, like, run down the street with this.

BRUNDIN: Nick experimented with different ways to learn. First he tried to learn a bit of a subject every day. That didn't go so well. Then he asked himself, what if he spent 10 hours a day on one subject?

N. BAIN: Let's see, like, Wednesday I'll do calculus or Thursday I do French.

BRUNDIN: And eventually, he found that being steeped in something the whole day led him to learn more about it. So one day, he went to the Denver Botanic Gardens to read French literature all day.

N. BAIN: "Le Tour Du Monde En Quatre-Vingts Jours," which is...

BRUNDIN: Jules Verne's "Around The World In 80 Days."

N. BAIN: And I'd been reading it and reading it, and I wasn't really liking it because I was sort of not understanding some things. By the end of the day I realized, like, I was reading the French as fast as I was reading the English. I remember walking back to my house and thinking, wow, I'm, like, thinking in French.

BRUNDIN: Nick discovered his learning wasn't more efficient than in the classroom. He was spending every waking hour learning. His mom, Lisa Bain, says this is the hardest he's ever worked.

LISA BAIN: It's hard to get him to relax (laughter). So school sometimes allows you to have the downtime, but when you are self-directed, there is no time that's not something you could be doing.

BRUNDIN: Nick's genuine love for learning is extraordinary. But you see, at the beginning, Nick worried. Every time he wasn't studying, he was thinking, wow, I really need to get back to work. But he also noticed when he got stuck.

N. BAIN: There's literally going to be nobody to get me started again. So I think it creates a condition where you just have a superhuman amount of motivation.

BRUNDIN: He says his learning was more satisfying. Even if it wasn't more efficient, it had more purpose.

As days passed, Nick started to relax into the joy of learning. He could occasionally take breaks...

N. BAIN: (Playing piano).

BRUNDIN: ...Teaching himself to play piano.

N. BAIN: (Playing piano).

BRUNDIN: Because he was on a pass-fail system, Nick didn't worry about how to get a good grade. Instead, he worked hard at something because he wanted to. For his senior year this fall, he's going back to class. He sees learning with people matters a great deal.

I asked him about one of his original questions. The project was to gain insight into how the process of school might be improved.

N. BAIN: Gosh.

BRUNDIN: He'd like to see other students have the same opportunity he did to discover how they learn best, and this...

N. BAIN: I can be 45 or 27 or just any age or doing anything and become, like, an expert. Like, it makes me really excited for, like, the rest of my life, I guess, just that, like, I know that it doesn't have to stop when I stop school.

BRUNDIN: The experiment's done, but the learning's never over. For NPR News, I'm Jenny Brundin.

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