Cool for crowds

4 August 2006

It's not often that I find myself agreeing with Jeff Jarvis, which had me worried for a while as to whether I was suffering from a bile overdose. But I still cannot believe the thinking behind a resolution passed by a UK teachers' union, reported by the BBC, the Guardian and PA among others. Curiously, not the Daily Mail as far as I can tell.

At the Professional Association of Teachers annual conference, Wesley Paxton and Simon Smith argued for a resolution that has the look of many minor resolutions that get passed at union meetings: "Conference regrets that it does not appear to be 'cool' to be clever".

It's pretty innocuous stuff, but the speeches that went along with it were a bit more worrying if they represent what practicing teachers actually believe.

In his prepared speech, Smith said:

With a few exceptions, including sport, academic prowess is in many eyes not ‘cool’.

I have talked to various pupils from years 8 ,9 , 10 on this subject in the run up to conference. I got the message that “yes” they would like to be clever but it was expressed in the same vain as “yes I would like to win the lottery”. Not as something they could or would change by being in education. It was something you were or you were not.

And in true pupil style, being clever meant that you were boring, lacked personality, were a teacher’s pet and other things not polite enough to mention in company such as this.

Well, not much has changed in the last 30 years by the sounds of it. Clever has never been popular at school and, let's face it, probably never will be. According to the news reports from the conference, the situation is so bad that pupils are scared of being rewarded for effort or achievement for fear of falling foul of their dumber but more aggressive peers:

Ann Nuckley, an administrator from Southwark, south London, said many pupils in her school refused to come up on stage to receive awards. "I am ending up sending book tokens through the post because children won't come up and get them, which I think is extremely sad."

Smith said he had the answer to the problem. Redefine it:

If we were to use the word successful rather than clever we could all achieve it at our own level and in our own way.

My belief is that we here as educators are responsible for the valves that children hold in this area, so we should do something about it.

I am sorry to say that at the moment a culture has developed that mocks being clever. We should fight against it. Change the language we use; change something.

So, basically, avoiding use of the word 'clever' and replacing it with 'successful' will fix the problem. Are teachers really that clueless about the mechanics of the schoolyard, a place where anything can be turned into an insult given enough thought and venom? It didn't take long for "special needs boy" to pop up as a retort, after all. Kids find reasons to be rude or violent to each other - it's that impulse that needs to be dealt with, not covering up differences between them.

It seems that now teachers have accepted the maxim of the decade - from blogs to Big Brother - that popularity is the most important thing someone can have. Don't rock the boat, don't stand out, don't be individual. Consensus is all that matters. It's like being taught by Homer Simpson.

1 Comment

What complete bollocks. You can hear comedy writes up and down the country sharpening their pencils. I was always the target of playground banter over my weight, but now realise I just had the opportunity to grow taller. The playground is where we learn the crucial interpersonal skills for later life. As you say, kids will just find other ways of taking the piss.