Reforming Education through Geek Chic

Earlier this month, Wired published an article written by Daniel Roth, enticingly titled "Making Geeks Cool Could Reform Education." It serves as an interesting counterpoint to the commonly used argument that the best way to reform education is to better integrate it with the most current technology, so that going to school feels less like going to school and more like playing video games (family friendly ones, of course).

Sorry, Typing of the Dead, but you're a little too creepy.

The essay in Wired takes a slightly different approach - it profiles schools that have successfully channeled the inner geeks of their students, the argument being that the geek subculture rewards intelligence with popularity. To do this, schools must make learning seem cool. This is a feat which is easier said than done, because, as we all know, there's no better way to convince a teenager that something is uncool than to repeatedly say how cool it is.

One way in which the schools were able to motivate students to embrace their inner geek was to surround them with older people - teachers, parents, and working professionals. One school in particular forces students to present their work to groups of outsiders. The effect here is to downplay the importance of youth culture: if students can see what their education can do for them down the road, they're more willing to value it in the present.

Other schools have taken different measures, but the goal of curbing a focus on youth is the same. For example, at Roxbury Prep, Roth tells us that "Kids eat lunch in the classroom, they're not allowed to talk in the halls, and they're disciplined for using the word nerd." Certainly social time with peers is important, but this added emphasis on academic performance appears to be paying off, because students in these schools value learning for its own sake, and are rewarded for their efforts not just by their teachers, but by their peer group as well.

Applied to mathematics, this philosophy could have a significant impact. After all, many students will tell you they hate math because they don't see the value in it. But if students were able to interact with people who used mathematics in their everyday lives (aside from their classmates and their math teacher), one hopes they would be motivated to learn the material. Or, even better, even for students who don't plan to make a career out of mathematics, in a culture where learning is perceived as cool, one would hope that students would take advanced mathematics just to get a taste for what it's like.

If least a man can dream. Perhaps one day we really will see the triumph of Geek Chic at all levels of education. Certainly, this is a good sign (thanks Michelle). Once we see some modern pocket protectors, I think we'll have reached the tipping point.

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