Teachers have been urged to stop encouraging children to be "clever" and talk about "successful" pupils instead.
This would help overcome the prevailing attitude among pupils that it is "not cool to be clever", the Professional Association of Teachers' annual conference heard.
Simon Smith, a teacher from Sweyne Park School in Rayleigh, Essex, won widespread support for a motion lamenting the fact that most pupils do not aspire to academic excellence.
"I am sorry to say that at the moment a culture has developed that mocks being clever," he said.
"We should fight against it. Change the language we use - change something," he told delegates at the conference in Oxford.
"'Clever' suggests to me a pure academic ability, passing exams at A-grades. This is how pupils see things.
"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.
"With a few exceptions, including sport, academic prowess is in many eyes not 'cool'."
The union, which has 34,000 members, backed the motion which said: "Conference regrets that it does not appear to be cool to be clever."
Ann Nuckley, an administration manager from Bacon's College in Southwark, south London, said image-conscious pupils were refusing to attend awards ceremonies to collect their prizes.
"They don't turn up to receive their prizes because it's not cool.
"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."
Wesley Paxton, a delegate from Yorkshire who backed the motion, said too many children now had shallow celebrities and poorly-spoken TV presenters as role models.
"Is it therefore 'cool' to emulate such people?" he asked.
Mr Paxton lamented the fact that young people no longer looked up to the likes of pioneering engineers and inventors such as Brunel and the Wright brothers.
Alice Chatburn, a primary school teacher from Tower Hamlets, east London, said she had felt it was "not cool to be clever" when she was a pupil.
"People really don't want to be seen to be working hard at school," she said.
A spokesman for the Department for Education said: "This is not the brightest idea we have heard.
"The education system is about ensuring that every child is supported and also challenged to achieve the very best that they can. Semantic debates will not achieve this."