Hey kid — It’s Cool To Be Smart

Last month I was helping to facilitate a Betabox experience in upstate South Carolina. The day’s topic was self-driving cars, and I was responsible for managing the Networking and Computer Science station within the experience.

In this station, we challenge middle school students to enter a sequence of commands into command prompt to establish a local connection to a small robotic car.

About halfway through the day, the social interactions of one particular group of students stood out to me. The session began in typical fashion, with a group of about eight students walking to the Networking Station, who were then introduced to the challenge they would be working on for those 15 – 20 minutes.

Just a few moments after they arrived at the station, they were all ‘hands-on keyboard’ and entering in the first command in the sequence:

nmap -sP 192.168.1.*

While they are working, I ask if they know what an IP address is. Most of the group wasn’t sure. But one girl towards the back of the group clearly did. Her eyes brightened with the familiar glimmer of ‘I KNOW THIS!’

But then, as quickly as the expression appeared, it was washed away by something unwelcome. She’d caught the glare of one of her peers. Her shoulders dropped, and her eyes lowered. When I asked if she wanted to share her thinking, she pretended she didn’t know the answer. She pretended she didn’t even exist.

For the rest of the station, she was fairly quiet. But when it was her turn at the laptop, she savored every moment. Every command was executed correctly, she clearly had experience with programming. But she didn’t want to stay at the laptop for long, she didn’t want to show that she could get the car to connect to the server. She didn’t want her peers to find out how capable she was.

Clearly, it wasn’t cool to be smart.

The social psychology of playing dumb

As a Guide at Betabox, I often come into contact with smart kids filled with potential that are afraid to show what they are capable of in front of peers.

Why does this happen?

Well, the fear of social ostracism is a certainly a top contributor. From the perspective of a young person in a typical American town, it’s by no means self-evident that intelligence is a viable pathway to inclusion in a group.

In middle school, teenagers are at a stage of cognitive development that places a premium on social connectedness. It’s a time when one must find one’s tribe. In this environment, playing dumb is actually a functional social adaption.

In a typical public middle school there are two directions willpower can be invested. There is the ‘cool’ game, wherein one invests energy in optimizing one’s position in the social hierarchy. Then, there is the ‘smart’ game, where one discounts the value of being ‘cool’ in exchange for academic performance.

The reason that these games exist in tension in a public school, while perhaps not to the same degree in a private school, is because public schools are more representative of the population at large. Academic performance is generally a loose function of IQ and the personality trait conscientiousness. In general, social dominance is more a function of extraversion and confidence. It is rare for a middle schooler to have all of these traits. This means that some kids will be more able to successfully play the ‘cool’ game, and others the ‘smart’ game.

This can create a dilemma for kids that are playing the ‘smart’ game in middle school. For academically oriented kids that suddenly find themselves valuing being ‘cool’ more than being ‘smart,’ it can feel as if they’ve been playing the wrong game for all their whole life. Now, they must find scrappy strategies to quickly course correct so that they can find a slot in the new social hierarchy before the music stops and they are left without a chair to sit in.

This is where signaling becomes important. In order to become a part of an in-group, an outsider must signal to that in-group that they share common values. This is done by signaling to your peers that you also don’t value academic achievement as much as you value status in the social order.

This may lead to a student being newly vocal about their distain for homework and studying, as it cuts into social time. Or, by making it clear that (as in the case in the Networking station at Betabox), that the student doesn’t know the answers to any questions.

These strategies make it clear that the student’s values are aligned with the values of the in-group, and that they’re not a threat.

How to help kids value ‘smarts’

Some may feel the easy answer here is to just pull your kid from public school and put them in an environment that places a premium on academic performance. While this could be the right answer for your situation, it is not a viable pathway for all families. Furthermore, there may be a deeper lesson to be learned by the student who is able to maintain a focus on academic performance when the social structure doesn’t value it.

For parents of a kid that is struggling with this choice, know that there is a way to maximize the chances a young person will retain a focus on learning and academics while embedded in social environments that don’t value these things. A workable solution has two components:

  1. Cultivating a sub-community of friends
  2. Developing a child’s self-belief.

The first step is to make sure the student can find a small group of friends who are academically minded. By forming a sub-group around a set of shared values, the group should be able to reinforce each other’s beliefs in academic achievement. There is after all, strength in numbers.

However, there will always be situations wherein the subgroup won’t be present. Isolation from friends will increase the temptation to give in to the culture of cool. This may lead to missing out on valuable learning opportunities, such as the hands-on computer science activity that we were presenting in the Betabox that day.

Cultivating inner confidence can go a long way here. Self-confident young people can often discount being ‘cool’ and will focus on their strengths.

That day in Betabox, a young gentleman in the final group threaded this needle perfectly.

This minority student was short for his age, skinny, and wore glasses. He was wearing a massive backpack that looked like it was going to tip him clean over. While he was waiting for his turn to code, one of the popular girls standing next to him told him he had a five head. Then she slapped his forehead.

Before I even had time to intervene, this remarkable young boy solved his own problem. The boy looked over at the girl and said:

“Please don’t touch my forehead. I like that it’s big, more room for my big brain.”

His tone was calm, and direct. He then slightly turned his body towards the laptops, and when he had his shot, savored every moment and got his car up and running faster than anyone else. He even walked up to the Betabox facilitators and thanked them for the opportunity.

That is how you do it.