How geeks can get respect

19th August 2005 at 01:00
Being clever need not mean being unpopular. Michael Shaw on how the brainy can win over their classmates.

Intelligent pupils can be popular and escape being branded nerds providing they avoid patronising their classmates.

This was a finding from a study co-ordinated by London university's institute of education which reviewed a range of international research on what 11 to 16-year-olds felt motivated them to learn.

The researchers found that "being perceived as clever appears to be socially acceptable and a source of respect among peers".

They noted that high-achieving pupils were more popular in schools in Russia than in the UK or America. This was partly because Russian children were more likely to see intelligent classmates as an asset. But the main reason was that high-achievers in British and American schools were judged by how well they fitted in with their peers.

In one study cited in the report, boys said they thought it was acceptable to be clever providing you did not act in an antisocial or elitist manner.

"In general, the boys admired cleverness," the report said. "The real "nerds", it is claimed, bring it upon themselves by being deliberately and often aggressively antisocial, sometimes to the point of being offensively elitist".

Professor Deborah Eyre, director of the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth, said respect in schools for bright pupils varied: "It can be difficult if you feel you are different - for some students on our summer courses it is the first time they have felt a sense of solidarity because everyone else is like them."

The review was carried out for the institute's Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Co-ordinating Centre (EPPI-Centre) by researchers at Glasgow university. They found that pupils' willingness to learn was influenced by the curriculum, the attitudes of their friends and the perceived usefulness of the subject matter. Lessons were most likely to interest pupils if they were:

* perceived as "fun";

* varied and involved particiption;

* involved group work and other collaborative approaches; and

* seen as useful and connected to the "real world".

The researchers stressed that factors outside the classroom, such as parents' attitudes towards a subject, had a strong impact on pupils'

motivation in lessons.

Such outside factors, they suggested suggested, meant that, while teachers could "make a difference, both positively and negatively", they might not be able to motivate disaffected and disengaged pupils by themselves.

Pupils' willingness to learn was also often hampered by a fear of looking stupid in front of their classmates. This syndrome was dubbed "foreign language anxiety", after the embarrassment pupils feel speaking in French and other modern languages.

However, pupils could also feel anxiety and embarrassment in maths lessons.

One paper cited in the report noted that a high proportion of girls expressed "fatalistic views on mathematical ability as innate", believing only very intelligent pupils could succeed.

For such pupils maths classes were "fraught with risk of exposing weaknesses in... intelligence".

* michael.shaw@tes.co.uk

A systematic review of what pupils, aged 11-16, believe impacts on their motivation to learn in the classroom is at http:eppi.ioe.ac.uk

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