PROCESS POST: What Guy Hoffman Could Teach Us About Our School Day!

There are so many reasons for educators to watch the TED talk below – “Guy Hoffman: Robots with Soul.” As for me, I am paradoxically inspired, mesmerized, puzzled and saddened by Hoffman’s talk.

When I watch and listen to Hoffman, I think of what he must have been like as a K-12 student. What amazing curiosity, drive, passion, and persistence this learner must have had – must continue to have. Through his work, I am inspired by what contributions robotics and roboticists will make in our lives.

And yet I am saddened by the conversations I can imagine that some (many?) schools would have regarding the content and context of such an idea-generating talk.

“What department would we place this course in? He wants to build robots as part of his learning, so it must be ‘Engineering Class,’ right?”

“We don’t have a course called ‘Engineering.’ Maybe we just put it in physics?”

“But how would we cover all the stuff we are already doing in physics? There’s no time or room to add robotics like this in my course.”

“Could it go in a math class? Hoffman mentions math in the talk, doesn’t he?”

“No, it should go in Drama class. Weren’t you listening? He said he took a drama course and method acting is what really helped him break through in the contrast between the computing mind and the adventurous mind.”

“But Drama is just a semester elective. Our kids could never get this work done in just a semester, given the basics of acting that we need to cover.”

“It should go in computer animation, when we get that class up and running.”

“What about psychology? He talks about emotions, and our ‘Human Psych’ course is the only course that has ’emotions’ in the learning outcomes.”

“Why not biology? After all, he is using human biology as a mechanism for understanding how to make the robots more ‘human.'”

“Are you kidding me? When would we have time to build robots in 10th grade biology? It’s AP, for goodness sake?”

“Look, if he wants this to be part of his schooling, he’s gonna need to find a faculty sponsor, and the faculty member will need to create a course proposal. It’s already December, so our deadline is passed. Any course proposal would need to be submitted by NEXT December, and then we might add the course the FOLLOWING year, if the academic committee approves the course. And forget about team teaching with a math, drama, physics, and biology teacher-team. That’s way too many resources to commit to an elective, non-essential course.”


OR — we could build in time during the school day for passion-driven, cross-curricular learning. So what if the 17-year-old version of Guy Hoffman’s idea doesn’t fit neatly into one of the silo-ed, department-organized, subject-area courses? Those course structures only represent part of our school day and school week. We don’t just organize by departmental subject area. We co-organize by student-interest and make space for just this kind of exploring, searching, questioning, experimenting, and integrating.

After all, we know that to nurture innovators, they must have time, room, and opportunity to practice observing, questioning, experimenting, networking, and associating.

Oh that we might make it so. If not us, then who? If not now, then when?


3 thoughts on “PROCESS POST: What Guy Hoffman Could Teach Us About Our School Day!

  1. What strikes me most about this talk is how fundamentally “un-silo-ed” Hoffman is. He followed paths that are beyond unconventional and connected concepts that few (if any) others have thought of.

    And it breaks my heart to think that that degree of creativity – that “remixing”, for lack of a better word – isn’t something we let our students experience on a daily basis. Or, heck, even let them know is possible.

  2. I admire your own drive and persistence, yet I cannot help but notice that your sadness is “imaginary” and contextual to your experience. The fact of the matter is that in the present Guy Hoffmann is doing what he loves and that he is currently inspiring a lot of people. I don’t argue with you that we need to be vigilant of our learners evolutionary needs, but I also think we need to be careful of undermining and devaluing what we consider the past or the road that has led each one of us to our current pursuits. Everyone does the best they can with the awareness and information they possess in the present moment they make a choice.
    The most revealing thing I have uncovered lately, is that the Latin root word of passion is “suffering”. Achieving our intended greatness will not be easy. We cannot assume and presuppose that we will remove all barriers and obstacles for all children to love their educational experience; it only means the pendulum will swing in the other direction.
    We can be observant and do our very best to improve their experience, but the recognition of one’s passion can only be ignited reflexively. That is, when the subject performs and receives the action. There is no exact formula, nor can we assume we can create perfect conditions for this. Everyone will experience it differently. That is the beautiful mystery of life. Having the ability to discern and interact with the signs around us is ultimately the key to growing into a purpose driven-life and conditions will not always be favorable. That is what makes it worthwhile.

    • Lisa, thank you so much for your reflection back on this post. Your expressions are both beautiful and insightful.

      While I think I understand your “warnings” to me, I also believe in looking at our current school models in K-12 education and innovating to more closely align with the myriad ways that people do pursue and build up their learnings.

      Of course, Guy Hoffman’s experiences in K-12 contributed to making him who he is and to what he does. As do all of our experiences for each of us reflexively. However, I cannot help but wonder about a wider spectrum of possible structuring in schools to more closely align with the wider spectrum of human learning possibilities. What if a different school structure could have propelled Guy even more deeply into his passion for the ways he is spending his life and contributing to the lives of others?

      And of course, I don’t worry so much about the “Guys” in the system. Nor the Jack Andraka types or Brittany Wengers. I think they are stories we share because they stand out among a system that is not as reflexively organized as it could be in some regards. For me, there are thousands and thousands of other learners in the system for whom “school” could be more adaptively organized so that they have more stories like Guy’s of their own.

      As another way of explaining what’s in my head – and borrowing from my education in economics – I wonder if our school system is organizationally underperforming relative to the “Production Possibilities Frontier” of what the resources are capable of producing and nurturing and helping to develop.

      Or we could just keep things as they are and trust that some/many will “suffer” their way to their passions and livelihoods. As for me, I want to explore the possibles.

      Thank you so much for your thoughts here this morning. I have genuinely missed your poetic and provocative spurs for my thinking in this space.

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