Monday, December 14, 2009

Fix Boring Schools, Not Kids Who Are Bored

When I came across The Best About Me Page You’ll Ever See on my Twitterfeed I expected to see some funky ideas I could use for my own rather dull “About Me” page. Especially since the “About Me” page belongs to Aaron Iba, the now former CEO of AppJet, the company who created EtherPad which I recently mentioned in 8 Free and Easy Ways to Begin Educating Innovatively. Followers of my blog, Twitter, and Facebook know Etherpad was just acquired by Google for a reported $10 million. Instead of that funky cool idea, I saw a picture of Iba as a child and a link to a clinical psychology report from a 7-year old Aaron that was very similar to my own clinical psychology report my mother shared when I first entered school.

Both reports are trying to diagnose and fix kids who score well academically but were brought in for diagnosis because they don't succeed in school because they are "bored," "hyperactive," and "don't focus or pay attention."

From the report: Aaron's playful attitude toward all school learning will make academic progress very difficult.

It breaks my heart to think about how many bored students are out there whose schools are trying to fix the playfulness, energy, passion, out of them, so they will do school well. Here are highlights from the clinical report for the brilliant, innovative, multimillionaire, Aaron Iba who was referred to a clinical psychologists office to “shed light on the underlying causes of his overly active and impulsive behavior which has begun to present a serious management problem in school.” In his evaluation the clinical psychologist reports:

Regarding school he complains that he feels ‘bored’ he ‘hardly enjoys anything much except lunch.’ He talked freely and showed exceptionally advanced expressive language skills. Often he was quite dramatic in describing his excitement when playing his many Nintendo computer games. Throughout testing he made constant reference to them, as if nothing else in his life mattered or could capture his attention.”

The report also notes that he performs poorly on certain parts of the test because of the inability to focus on a task he did not much care about and suggests that his inability to focus on tasks he does not care about mirrors his “difficulties in settling down in class.” It also indicates that he is oblivious to the reality demands made in a school setting.”

He is diagnosed with “being troubled by an attentional deficit disorder with hyperactivity.”

They find another problem to be that “he readily feels bored and can be expected to function best in a one-on-one situation in which the pace is geared to his needs. The final diagnosis is this:

Aaron and I had similar experiences. These experiences are what lead me to pursue a career that helps others educate innovatively. This is an excerpt from my mom describing my experience as a pre schooler.

Your nursery school called me in to speak to them because they thought you were slow or retarded. They said I should take you for a professional diagnosis because when observing you during classes they noticed you were not participating or doing your work, you were rarely paying attention, you often slept, and that you were not interacting with others the way you should. They were concerned on several levels. They said they thought perhaps you were mildly retarded, your hearing might be impaired, or you had ADD (though I don't think they called it that in those days).

I took you to our pediatrician who referred me to UCLA - Fernald Child Study Center where they talked to you and gave you tests for about 8 hours. 3 weeks later they called me up and asked me to come into the office for a consultation. I met with them and that's when the three doctors (child psychologists etc) told me that the tests all showed that you were not slow OR retarded only BORED. All the tests showed that you were performing well above grade level academically.

I took you and the report to the preschool. They advance placed you into Kindergarten based on UCLA'S REPORT and they wanted to advance you even further, but, I didn't feel that would benefit you socially so I said NO.

Aaron and I both had educational experiences where schools were trying to fix us because we were bored, not paying attention, disengaged etc. Not surprisingly, like Aaron I was also cured once you put a game in my hand, though at the time I enjoyed the pre-Nintendo games on systems like Atari and Intellivision as well as a variety of handheld games that captured my attention for hours. I’m not sure what Aaron endured to “fix” him. In my case they felt moving me to work with students who had a different date of manufacture might help. Fortunately in the 70s ADD/ADHD was not yet a widely available condition so I was not victim to the drug dependency doctors are now pushing to treat today's bored and disinterest kids. Unfortunately, like me Aaron likely spent the rest of his school days bored, sleeping, daydreaming and wondering why meaningless information was shoved down our throat. Like me I imagine Aaron was disappointed that not a single teacher cared about, asked, or helped students discover/uncover/explore passions or talents...and that our love of games and electronics was brushed aside as a nuisance, distraction...whose power was never tapped into and harnessed.

My frustration about this all is what lead me to my career and this blog. I hope to help other innovative educators and parents do what they can to ensure we stop trying to fix the student to fit in the setting of the school and start fixing the schools to engage our children. We need to help students find their passions using tools they choose, use, and know will help them grow their wings and soar to the heights which most of their teachers and parents were never allowed to reach.


  1. I try everyday to motivate and create motivating lessons for my students that include gaming technology. My frustration is that I am ready to quit because my administration does not recognize the value in this.

  2. I just found this through my Twitter and I almost cried! I am so frustrated with my son's school! He scores 90th percentile in all academics, but does not turn in the work in class. He is socially awkward and would rather do his work in detention than go to recess because he says "its quiet in there." He can create power points and figure out our wireless home network, but gets frustrated with timed math tests, and gives up. Please help!

  3. I have a son who is very bright and has Asperger's. He constantly complains of being bored. He is taking AP Calc in 11th grade and counting down the days until he doesn't have any more HS math. He is taking Japanese 3 and Latin 2 for fun. The school didn't want to listen to us at IEP meetings until they received his SAT scores from the 10th grade. The school is one of the best in Northern VA. His AP History teacher last year sent an email that said she didn't have time for his needs. The sad thing is that I work as a special education teacher in the same county. His main problem is organization and some miscommunications (my word for his "condition").

  4. @Beth, @annalyons, @Gillian703, thank you so much for sharing a bit of your frustrations. I am sure many others have been touched by the frustration experienced by boring schools trying to fix bored kids. My first recommendation is to read Sir Ken Robinson's, "The Element" and watch his video where he makes a profoundly moving case for creating an education system that nurtures (rather than undermines) creativity. I’d also recommend reading Will Richardson’s fantastic post “Oh, and You Have a Degree, Too?”

    Next, get your kids (@annalyons, @Gillian703)/yourself (@beth) out of these schools, now! You do not need to stay in schools that are killing you or your child's passions. There are alternatives. Even free ones. Move them/yourself as soon as you can. Embrace change and just do it.

    Cities around the world have innovative schools like this one or these schools which I recently wrote about at Find schools like these and deliberately choose a place for where teachers and students can soar...then take them to a place where they are encouraged to reach new heights.

    I only wish I had an opportunity to attend a school like these. We never knew there was a choice. There is a choice and it is time to start pulling our kids out of the schools that don't appreciate the passions and talents of students and teachers and voting with our feet by going to places where each person is valued for their unique passions and talents. If you do, please comment here as your words of inspiration and courage will certainly benefit others who share your experience.

  5. I want to share another link ( from my twitterfeed shared by @jeremymcc. This is a wonderful collection of articles from Christine Duvivier who writes for Positive Psychology News Daily. Her research shows that all students will benefit from changing our approach to education and that poor-performing students thrive in life when they are allowed to develop their gifts.

  6. Hi Lisa, I just read your blog post and loved it!! Came here to write you a comment and saw your reference to me above-- thank you.

    I love your story and the story you shared about Aaron -- it's a great example and will be inspiring to many parents and teens. I will forward a link to your post to my email list.

    I look forward to reading all of your posts and learning more about what you are doing in schools-- very exciting!

    Best wishes,

  7. Here's a conversation people on a scrapbooking site are having about this post

  8. @Christine Duvivier thank you for the feedback. I hope to get more as you read through my blog. I've been reading and talking about your work now too. Definitely a lot of connections between the psychology and education of students. I'm surprised the two fields don't come together more often!

  9. I agree with you that we need to fix boring schools. But until someone waves a magic wand to fix every boring school in America, we need to help kids develop tools and techniques to navigate their way through boring schools, and win. That's what we do at the Boston Learning Center with a program we call BIFF (Building Inspiration to Fight Failure). One of the lessons in BIFF is called "Surviving a Boring Class" where we teach urban teens how turn a dull lesson into a game, using their own imagination. It works, and we have hundreds of success stories with kids going from failing grades to the honor roll.

  10. @Ayele, I understand and respect what you are doing, but it saddens me at the same time to know that we have to develop a system to teach students how to deal with a dull lesson rather than focusing on teaching educators how to teach an exciting lesson.

  11. Hi Lisa. Not sure if I have commented on one of your pages yet, as I visit many websites and blogs searching out similar innovative educators as yourself. I am working with disengaged youth and have found an approach to be extremely successful. Not sure if you are aware of it - The work involves students finding their interests/passion and working with mentors in the community while maintaining academic blog -

  12. Indulging the kid's toy habit isn't going to make them better learners. Are you kidding? This isn't innovation, it's simply following pop culture driven trends that are absent of reason and common sense. You're witnessing the legacy of the generation raised without restraints and your whole remedy t to put even less restraints in place by giving into their whims. This is dangerous parenting as well as dangerous teaching.

  13. Not your main point, but I loved Intellivision!!!

  14. Maksrightbrain's comment illustrates what is wrong with our education. Our schools are full of "barbarians" who oppress and bully children into believing that narrow minded clerks actually know whats best for the future generations. School is a farce, more and more removed from the reality which is evident with our graduates not being able to find jobs. Many great teachers who enter profession leave because they don't want to participate in activities that actually HARM students' understanding of the real world and set them up to fail. Students know what's wrong with education and they know exactly how to fix it. Their voices were brutally silenced in the past and now they are less and less so. Deal with it or perish! If you think following pop culture is bad, try following culture of oppression, disrespect, punishment, disengagement, rebellion, ignorance and anti-intellectualism that permeate many schools. Pablo Freire, John Dewey, Alfie Kohn and Albert Einstein have bee warning us about this for many year but since our "educators" don't read books, how would they know?
    BTW, it is incorrect that we are dealing with "generation raised without restraints". These restraints are Anti-ADHD medications, suspension centers and handcuffs. Check out this link

  15. Thank you so much for this, this is MY son! He's in kindergarten rigt now, his grades are amazing, his reading level is very high... but his teachers are constantly putting his behavior down. They say he doesn't follow directions, he's hyper, too talkative, can't focus, and because of his behavior he's going to have trouble in 1st grade. It is so frustrating because he is the sweetest, most imaginative, curious, happy little boy at home. He excels at video games, computers, and reading. He loves science! I've felt so lost about what to do, I just could not understand what was going on at school and I feel like it's affecting his self-esteem. They recommended that I take him to a doctor, but I know there is nothing wrong with him, he's just bored. After reading this, I am a very upset and am going to explore my options because I cannot take their criticism of my child anymore. Thank you so much!

  16. I am sure they never asked you once...."Lisa,what do you want to learn about today?" of "Lisa what are you interested in today?" or "Lisa, what should we talk about today?" Simple questions that would fix everything!

  17. My son has been on several types of adhd medication (concerta, adderoll, ritalin, vyvanse) and even different combinations of the meds with other meds (intuniv)...I feel like it has taken away his personality, creativity and most of all his spirit. Trying to 'cure' his adhd has created more problems than the one we started with, an inability to focus in class. He currently weighs 46 pounds at 8 1/2 years old, has developed nervous behaviors, lacks confidence that he once possessed, has new fears that he had never feared before and no longer seems to be thriving in the school system. My once bright, talented and gifted son has been told that he is falling behind, mainly due to his lack of 'being present' in the classroom. He is in second grade and each school year since Pre-K, tests out of the grade level he is in by Christmas (reading levels and math expectations). I have decided to take him off of all meds. I am his mother, his advocate and biggest supporter....there is nothing wrong with my son, only the environment he is in eight hours a day, five days a week. He does not take meds on weekends, vacations or during the summer. I will be working with the school to have him a significant amount of his school work on an Ipad, provided by the school, and do whatever needs done to help him succeed. We will be playing it by ear, but I am thankful that the school is willing to help. Thank you for the information you have posted, this has reinforced my decision to take him off of his medications