Denver Student’s Experiment: Is School The Most Efficient Way To Learn?

June 14, 2015
Photo: Nick Bain
Nick Bain, 16, is a student at Colorado Academy in Denver. He left the school during the last trimester of the year to teach himself. 

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

In his seven-hour school day, Bain said there were only "two-and-a-half to three hours that you actually really do need to be in class,” in order to get instructions from the teacher. The rest of the time was lunch, getting books from his locker, waiting for people, or things like reading that he could be doing on his own.

That’s when Bain started getting very interested in efficiency: How much can one learn? Is school the most efficient way to learn? What is the role of student agency in learning?

“It occurred to me that maybe the way school is now is not the perfect way,” he said. “I was thinking well, ‘why is that I always feel like I’m learning more during the summer [when] I’m always just doing assorted projects?' "

The 16-year-old loves his school — the private Colorado Academy in Denver. But for him, like most students, school sometimes feels like a chore.

It reminds him of the 1952 “I Love Lucy” episode where Lucy and Ethyl are on the assembly line at a candy factory, unsuccessfully trying to wrap chocolates. 

“Sometimes school feels a little like that," Bain said. "It just feels a little bit like you just have to keep doing one thing after another, but without a whole lot of thinking about an education in general.”

So Bain wanted to try to see how hard it really is to become educated.

Read an excerpt from Nick's journal:

Nick's Journal — March 6, 2015

Noticed that I'm actually under a lot of pressure. Thought flexibility would make things less of a strain, but actually causes more of a strain. Constantly thinking: Is what I'm doing right now the best possible use of my time, and that seems to make me highly inefficient, actually. So it's a lot harder than I thought, and less efficient than I thought. Realizing that I don't ever feel finished with something, that there is always something I can be doing.

Motivation is a powerful force

Bain is tall and slim, with a ready laugh. He exudes quiet humility and immense enthusiasm when it comes to his intellectual pursuits.

Bain had already been thinking about self-taught learning. He’d read “Creating Innovators” by Tony Wagner and Salman Khan’s “One World Schoolhouse” (The Khan Academy provides free online micro lectures on a range of topics in the form of YouTube videos.)

Bain had also seen a TED talk by education researcher Sugata Mitra about his famous Hole-in-the-Wall experiment. In 1999, Mitra cut a hole in the wall between his workplace in India and the slum next door. He put a computer there. He discovered that the children taught themselves how to use the computer and learned basic instructions in English. In subsequent experiments with computers in rural India, children were able to learn, on their own, about DNA replication’s role in disease. 

“It’s just incredible that that sort of intrinsic motivation exists,” Bain said. “It seems like a really, really powerful force that it would be well to harness.”

Bain had to pitch his idea to his parents and school administrators in the right way, so it didn’t sound like he was just dropping out of school.

Here was his idea: He would spend the final trimester of his junior year, 49 school days, learning on his own. He’d take the same tests and write the same essays as other students in his classes. They were the control group in the experiment. But he’d never attend class (only for the odd presentation.) He’d be graded on a pass-fail basis. It would be a self-taught, self-paced journey. Bain would take seven courses instead of the normal four, including calculus, AP physics and advanced French.

He would design some of his own courses, including works from Kant and Voltaire, and projects. One of those required working with scientists at the Institute on Renewable Energy to increase phytoplankton concentration in the upper ocean to address ocean acidification and climate change.

Another was to design a one-seat, FAA-compliant aircraft by testing a scale-model of the design to create a detailed plan for building a full-scale aircraft.Photo: Nick Bain's model aircraft

The airplane sits on his porch, a 6-foot wing-span, metal poles from an aluminum recovery supplier and a full water bottle scaled down to represent his body weight.

 “I’d just run down the street with this [with] my neighbor and sister and my dad on my bike, which has a speedometer, we could measure what lift it was getting at different speeds,” he said with a laugh.

Nick's Journal — March 18, 2015

I've been hesitating to note this (because of the possibility that it might not hold true), but I feel exactly as Nate Newman said he felt at Stanford: "This is the happiest I've ever been in my life."  It's always risky to say things like that because they may turn out differently with time.  But I have never been so enthralled by learning, ever.  I wish only that I could do it for years and years.

Thinking in French

Bain, as chronicled in his 80-page journal, 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, ‘what if he spent 10 hours a day on one subject?’

And eventually he found that being steeped in something, he found, led to more learning. One day he was sitting in the Denver Botanic Gardens reading Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days – in French.

“I’d been reading it and reading and I wasn’t really liking it because I was not understanding some things and then by the end of the day, I realized was reading the French as fast as the English,” he recalled. “And I was thinking, ‘wow this has never happened before, it was really strange. I remember walking back to my house and thinking, ‘wow, I’m thinking in French."

He eventually discovered his learning wasn’t more efficient. He was spending every waking hour learning. His mom, Lisa Bain, said this last trimester was the hardest she’s ever seen her son worked.

“It was hard to get him to relax,” she said. “It’s important to have downtime and school sometimes allows you to have the downtime. Because there are just things you are required to do and you do those things, and the rest of the time is your own. But when you are self-directed, there is no time that’s not something you could be doing.”

At the beginning of the experiment, Bain worried a lot. Every time he wasn’t studying – he was thinking he really needed to get back to work. But he also noticed when he got stuck, “if I give up, there’s literally going to be nobody to get me started again and so I think it creates a condition where you have a super-human amount of motivation. If I don’t do this, there’s going to be nobody."

Nick's Journal — March 24, 2015

I'm again feeling that I'm not efficient enough, but maybe efficiency isn't the most important thing.  I definitely feel like I'm learning.  But there isn't that sense of constant urgency that causes one to save time in all sorts of ways when one is under the gun.  But what that also means is that I can walk through the park, for example, to the gardens without feeling constant anxiousness about things.

Learning more deeply

School is efficient because when you get stuck, you can ask the teacher or a classmate for help. But at the same time, Bain said his learning outside of school was more satisfying. It had more purpose and he was learning more deeply.

“One morning I was learning l’hopital’s rules for calculus and it was incredibly difficult," Bain said. "I was doing Khan Academy and I got something like 41 questions wrong in a row."

But by the end of the day, “I was getting them right, and I thought, ‘wow, I really know l’hopitals rule, and I felt really good about it.” 

Bain was actually, rarely at home. He’d ride his bike between the Botanic Gardens — great for heavy reading and intense writing, “nobody’s there on the weekdays except for some gardeners so you can get a ton finished” — the downtown library — better for historical research, on the fifth floor with the “professorial-looking people” – and a start-up incubator downtown, where he’s an “entrepreneur in residence.” Bain has designed a dry erase light switch cover that he launched on Kickstarter. He said demand is strong but “things are constrained on the production side” — he has to get to work making them.

Bain has learned to be humble about learning; going down one path may land you somewhere else. That some things are just hard and “not much fun,” like Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, which he said “is not a page turner.” But as the days passed, Bain started to relax into the joy of learning. He realized he wasn’t feeling that anxiousness he felt in school with the conveyor belt assignments coming at him and he could occasionally take breaks, like playing the piano. He also firmly believes that even students who hate school can learn to love learning “under the right conditions.”

Because Bain was on a pass/fail system, he didn’t worry about the best way to get a good grade. Instead, he realized he was working hard at something because he wanted to. He said he learned a lot: that someone like Voltaire can be as much of a teacher as those in his classes. That teachers pushing kids to succeed sometimes makes students lose motivation. He’s learned how exciting it is to read straight from the journals of someone like explorer Ferdinand Magellan in the library instead of the repackaged version in a text book.

Nick's Journal — April 17, 2015

So I think that's where this feeling of vigor and liveliness is coming from - it's not that things are easier (they're harder), it's that there's a feeling of wanting to bring it on, to see how much you can take.  So it really is sort of an alchemy. The hardest things just become the best places to see the extent of your ability. That may be selfish, but it's pretty fun. That transformation that happens seems like a pretty important part of self-directed learning.

The value of school

In terms of the experiment and keeping up with his classmates, Bain passed with flying colors. But one of the unexpected results of the experiment is Nick now sees school in a different light. He appreciates the role teachers play as curators of the best learning material. But the biggest value of school, he said, is not the building or even how good the teachers are — it's the people with whom you learn.

“They’re some huge benefits to learning with people that I really missed and I’m going to be glad to go back to,” he said. 

For his senior year, he's going back to class. Asked if he gained insight into how the process of school might be improved, one of his original research questions, Bain reflected for a moment before answering.

He doesn’t envision radical changes, but said he’d suggest giving students more latitude in what they learn and allowing small groups of students to discover how they learn best.

“The greatest thing is really this,” he said of his experience, “I can be 45 years old or 27 any age or doing anything and become an expert on anything. I can just go to the library and just become an expert. It makes me really excited for the rest of my life, I guess, because I know that it doesn’t have to stop when I stop school."

The experiment is done, but the learning is never over.

Nick's Journal — June 2, 2015

Today was the last day of school.  It did not feel like the last day of school.  It was very strange.  I rode my bicycle home, ate some fruit (it was a half-day), and wrote a 3 page essay on Kant and Voltaire.  I think I would have laughed at myself pretty hard at doing something like this last year at this time.

I think today is probably an appropriate time to end this log.  Maybe I'll sporadically note developments and general time usage over the next few weeks - at least some data would probably be helpful, I think.  Otherwise, I don't think I should even try to describe in a few broad statements the effect of these past months.  Neatly summing it up here would not capture the magnitude of its value.  It should suffice to say that this is an area where it may be really good to spend a little more time.