We Need To Make Smart Cooler

A teacher of mine made the observation that learning in school hinges not so much on teachers and content, but on classmates. He’s right.

I had another teacher who didn’t do a very good job. The material wasn’t structured or presented well. She never forced people to think about questions. Class discussions hinged on how much people felt like talking on any given day.

We were assigned group projects to make a presentation about various companies. Not much was expected. Do some research about the company, stand up in front of the class, talk about it for five minutes. Piece of cake; a joke really.

I don’t know how or why, but the class took on a sudden, collective over-achiever attitude. Every group showed up with a PowerPoint presentation, some showed YouTube videos about the daily life of the organizations, one group even created their own commercial.

Why isn’t every assignment like this? As the (first) teacher points out, most students—and often society as a whole—don’t act like it’s cool to be smart.

Starting Young

I remember when I was a kid something called ‘BrainQuest.’ They are these little book/flash card things with questions on one side and answers on the back. They worked, but what elementary school kid wants to be a geek with flash cards?

On the back of one of the packs, it summed all this up. “It’s OK to be smart.”

It's OK to be smart?

The fact that had to be on there in the first place is proof of the problem. Kids are sent to school to learn, but from a very young age it isn’t a cool thing among peers to be a nerd. The thought of a bunch of second graders voluntarily giving each other random quizzes on multiplication tables is crazy.

It doesn’t change for a lot of people—ever. In college, you are cooler if you talk about how much you got hammered over the weekend than how much you studied (not that those of us who were studying care all that much).

In elementary school you’re jealous of that nerd when he gets every test back with a higher grade, but few will become his friend or put in the work to improve. As adults, people are jealous of Bill Gates when he gets his paycheck with a higher amount of money, but again few are willing to put in the work he did.

Of course, it isn’t all like that. There is a scene in The Social Network (not exactly a true story, I know) that is the pinnacle of smart and cool.

As we hear fictional Zuck explain: They have 10 minutes to get root access to a Python webserver, expose its SSL encryption and then intercept all traffic over its secure port.

Every tenth line of code written, they have to drink a shot. And hacking’s supposed to be stealth, so anytime the server detects an intrusion, the candidate responsible has to drink a shot. I also have a program running that has a pop-up window appear simultaneously on all five computers–the last candidate to hit the window has to drink a shot. Plus every three minutes they all have to drink a shot.

I don’t drink, but most college students probably do. So the incorporation of drinking into something that apparently takes some knowledge (I don’t have a clue what most of that means either) is definitely cool and smart. Watch the scene and most of them look like they’re having fun too, which is a whole new bonus.

Can We Smarten Up?

Where does it go wrong? It’s a combination of things. A boring school system that tells kids to study what it wants rather than encourage them to explore personal interests. The kids who (often unintentionally) make their smart friends feel like outsiders. Parents who don’t tell their kids that their friends are wrong, which is obviously difficult to do.

How do you fix it? The kids have a pass, at least the younger ones. They have been influenced by the schools and society to act the way they do. The college-age students who have been told about the situation or figured it out on their own and still discourage learning will get the mediocre job and life they deserve.

Schools should be reformed, which is obviously a difficult thing to do, but there are rays of hope. When the material is presented correctly and the students get it (no matter how long it takes) very rarely will they rebel. Follow @KhanAcademy and see the tweets from parents who have to pull their children away from the computer because they are enjoying learning so much. It’s not the kids that are broken.

Most importantly, parents need to get with it. They are the original role model of their children. Yes, it’s difficult to get your kid to believe something that their friends aren’t backing. Pull it off though, and you get a cool, confident, smart kid who one day will realize it was you that helped them get there.

Photo source: munchkinwrangler, flickr

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