Monday, January 18, 2010

When "Free at Last," Means Escaping the Boring Prison of School

Editor's note: This post is my Martin Luther King Day tribute. You can read the story in Aaron Iba's own words at Low Tolerance for Boredom.

I recently spoke on the phone with Aaron Iba who, despite being labeled since 2nd grade as a “Multiple Problem Child” has achieved success at age 26 as cofounder of a product called Etherpad which was recently purchased by Google. I was intrigued when I first learned of Aaron through Ben Grey’s Tweet The Best About Me Page You’ll Ever See. Iba’s “About Me” page is a psychological report warning that his “playful attitude toward all school learning will make academic progress very difficult. He was referred for psychological testing because his overly active and impulsive behavior presented a serious “management problem in school.” Contributing to the problem, the report explains is that, “Regarding school, his complaint is that he feels ‘bored.’” However, he was “quite dramatic in describing his excitement when playing his Nintendo computer games. Throughout the testing he made constant reference to them as if nothing else in his life mattered or could hold his attention.” The report goes on to recommend that he be placed in psychotherapy to address his "development delays."

His story hit home with me as Iba and I share a similar school experience. A psychological report as an "About Me" page sends an important message to all those who knew, know, or are like Iba, who might take solace in the fact that not having what it takes to succeed in school does not equate with not having what it takes to succeed in life. His story inspired me to write this post Fix Boring Schools, Not Kids Who Are Bored.

While many students with similar reports are treated with medications to help those labeled as "multiple problem children," fortunately neither of our parents wanted to risk using meds as a treatment (studying the long-term neurological damage resulting from this is an area Iba is interested in exploring). Instead Iba continued through school, as he shared, "bored most of the time." As a result he readily found opportunities for mischief and was overlooked by his teachers. Iba shares he had one exception during his entire k - 12 experience. A 4th grade teacher who allowed him to sit in his own space in the classroom doing logo programming. Iba laments that he just isn't the type of person who could sit back passively listening to a teacher trying to impart knowledge. He liked interactivity and engagement which was why he drawn to technology. Immediate stimuli / response / gratification.

As Iba progressed onto middle school, despite an IQ in the superior range, he never cared much for, or performed well in school. True to his report, Iba was "oblivious to the reality demands made in a school setting." With perhaps only the exception of the grade 4 teacher who allowed Iba to disengage from the rest of the class, there were no teachers who took particular note of Iba in any positive way nor worked with him to ask about or even notice his talents or passions. They had a curriculum to teach. Learning about who their students were, how they learned best, and what they cared about just wasn't a part of it.

Right around 9th grade Iba's father shared a book that forever changed him. It was a book called Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. In the book Steven Levy describes the people, the machines, and the events that defined the Hacker Culture and the Hacker Ethic, from the early mainframe hackers at MIT, to the self-made hardware hackers and game hackers. Contrary to negative media sterotypes, Levy describes the hacker ethic as the idea that individuals are performing a duty for the common good, an analogy to a modern day 'Robin Hood'. The hacker communities as a result are prided on the fact that they are the rebellion against authority figures that restrict this level of computer freedom. Levy wanted to present a more accurate view of hackers than the one most people had. He found them to be adventurers, visionaries, risk-takers, and artists rather than nerdy social outcasts or unprofessional programmers who wrote dirty, nonstandard computer code (Wikipedia).

Iba for the first time was reading about an entire of culture of people that excited him. From then on he was on a singular mission to become a student at MIT...despite his boredom in school. He "played" school, doing what he needed to, to get good grades, still remaining unnoticed by any teacher in particular. Despite the fact that no one and no body in his high school experience took interest in him, he had a determination that could not be stopped...inspired by a book that exposed him to a future he wanted.

This "multiple problem child" suddenly ceased to be a problem when exposed to a passion which gave him a new found purpose and motivation to achieve it. Sadly, this all happened in spite of, not because of, his schooling. Once Iba reached his personal mecca there was no stopping him, but it was by chance outside of school, rather than by design inside a system that instead wanted to send this "multiple talented child" to psychotherapy to fix him so they could eliminate "his playful attitude toward school" and ensure he "was no longer oblivious to the reality demands made in a school setting." Iba could not sit still in class. His mind was made for more than sitting still. Schools felt it was necessary to fix this defect which they deemed would result in him facing significant psychological problems because of his inability to see and accept such boundaries.

It's time to remove such boundaries from our students. When set free Iba excelled at MIT, went on to a successful career at Google, co-founded his own start up company which was recently acquired for a reported 10 million dollars. Finally set free, this multi-millionaire, 26-year-old has been re-employed by Google enjoying a life without boundaries where he can truly soar and spread his wings.

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