September 2009 (17.09) issue
By Daniel Roth
Earlier this year in midtown Manhattan, a local venture capital firm staged a daylong conference on school reform. Authors, professors, financiers, and entrepreneurs took over the French Institute's skylighted penthouse and earnestly discussed how embracing "digital culture"—from deploying videogame-style rewards to encouraging kids to develop online reputations—could completely transform education. Outsiders were invited to participate via Twitter, and their ideas were projected on the wall. It was a high-minded, tech-centric affair—until Alex Grodd brought it back to earth.
Although Grodd now runs a site that lets educators share lesson plans, he started out teaching at inner-city middle schools in Atlanta and Boston. The businesspeople in the room represented a world in which innovation requires disruption. But Grodd knew their ideas would test poorly with real disrupters: kids in a classroom. "The driving force in the life of a child, starting much earlier than it used to be, is to be cool, to fit in," Grodd told the group. "And pretty universally, it's cool to rebel." In other words, prepare for you and your netbook to be jeered out of the room. "The best schools," Grodd told me later, "are able to make learning cool, so the cool kids are the ones who get As. That's an art."
It's an art that has, for the most part, been lost on educators. The notion itself seems incredibly daunting—until you look at one maligned subculture in which the smartest members are also the most popular: the geeks. If you want to reform schools, you've got to make them geekier.