This week I read an NPR piece about 17-year-old Nick Bain’s experiment in self-directed learning. Once he realized that learning only constituted a few hours of his entire school day, he decided to quit for the last trimester of his junior year.
While the results of his personal study don’t prove anything, his anecdotal experience was highly meaningful for him and is fascinating to read about.
I’ve known several teenagers who’ve left school to homeschool, but that’s not how Bain defined what he did. He took no time for what’s known as deschooling, a period for resting, regrouping, and self-exploration. His intention was to cover the same academic ground he would have covered in school. In fact, he went beyond that, taking a total of seven courses (instead of four) including calculus, AP physics, and advanced French.
Even with that heavy load of coursework, he was able to find time for self-designed study, working with local scientists on a climate change project and building a model aircraft.
At first, Bain undertook a school-like schedule, approaching his subjects in designated blocks of time. Eventually, he figured out that devoting long periods of time to one thing was more conducive to learning than chopping up his day for the sake of covering several subjects.
Although Bain spent enough time outside of school to figure out that its design isn’t the most learner-friendly, for a period of time he felt more stress, not less. As he wrote in his journal, “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…Realizing that I don’t ever feel finished with something, that there is always something I can be doing.”
Eventually he relaxed, felt less anxious, and reclaimed his intrinsic motivation for learning. During his experiment, he was able to cover the academic ground he would have covered in school, as well as pursue topics he cared about that he probably wouldn’t have been able to study in school.
Still, he decided to return. Why? Social reasons, it seems. He refers to the “…huge benefits to learning with people…”, but any homeschooler knows that learning outside of school doesn’t have to be solitary. Bain either didn’t figure that out, or he just wanted to be with his peers all day, which is, in my experience, the number one reason homeschooled teens decide to return to school. It has nothing to do with education. Even Bain, in his short experiment, realized learning has a greater chance of flourishing outside school walls.
Bain also acknowledged the role teachers play as “curators of the best material.” He may be lucky enough to attend a school where this is the case, but for many students, that simply isn’t reality. Teachers aren’t the only potential educational curators, of course. Homeschooling parents have been curating their kids’ educations for years, but it’s also true that homeschoolers, having been spared a lifetime of experts defining their abilities and telling them what to learn and when to learn it, can feel more confident and comfortable about deciding for themselves what’s best for them.
I’m glad that Bain had the vision and courage to pursue his experiment. Perhaps it will spur him to learn more about alternative education, including homeschooling, which was not even mentioned in the NPR piece. Still, it is exactly what Bain was doing for the period he left school, and it was life-changing. He wrote in his journal, “...I have never been so enthralled by learning, ever. I wish only that I could do it for years and years.”
Homeschoolers know, of course, that it can be done for years and years–a lifetime, in fact. It’s powerful to realize, though, what a profound effect just a few months out of the system can have.