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?


“So let us put it all back together, not forgetting ultimately what it is for.”

If our small minds, for some convenience, divide this glass of wine, this universe, into parts — physics, biology, geology, astronomy, psychology, and so on — remember that nature does not know it! So let us put it all back together, not forgetting ultimately what it is for.

Richard Feynman, as shared on Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings

What’s your school balance in terms of teaching subjects vs engaging purposes?

From “‘The Coolest Thing Ever’: How A Robotic Arm Changed 4 Lives,” Joe Palca, NPR, Morning Edition, November 28, 2013 [HT @tnsatlanta]

The three Rice students heard about Dee in an unusual freshman engineering class. Instead of learning engineering principles from a book, students form teams to come up with engineering solutions for real-world problems.

And remember what Sir Ken Robinson said in September 2013 at colab:

The basics are not subjects. The basics are purposes.

What’s your school balance in terms of teaching subjects vs engaging purposes?

= = = = = = = = = =

Previous Posts in this Balance Series:

Building a fragmented ‘non-system’ of well-meaning, specialized programs

Twenty-two years ago [now 25], while analyzing why so little of what is known to work gets applied in practice, Lisbeth Schorr wrote of “traditions which segregate bodies of information by professional, academic, political, and bureaucratic boundaries” and a world in which “complex intertwined problems are sliced into manageable but trivial parts.” Around the same time, Sid Gardner wrote that “we end up contributing our money, and more important, our political and spiritual energy, to building a fragmented ‘non-system’ of well-meaning, specialized programs.” Sadly, both observations are still true today.

From A KIDS COUNT Special Report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation – Early Warning! Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters. 2010.

PROCESS POST: Putting it all together OR Mood board for school=life

When I talk to people, it is highly likely that I will end up sharing something that I have been contemplating and studying for years. I just can’t help it. It usually emerges in, at least, one of two forms…

If school is supposed to prepare kids for real life, then why doesn’t it look more like real life?


School, in its current form, is a profound interruption from our natural ways of learning as humans.

Think of how children tend to learn before formalized schooling. Picture the events of childhood learning – to crawl, to walk, to talk, to play, etc. Now, picture “school.” In what ways do your two mental-imagery exercises match and differ?

Repeat for the learning that typically happens after formalized schooling, during our adult lives. How do your mental images compare?

I’ve shared here before that my own sons did not “disaggregate” their explorations and learnings about the world until they started formalized schooling. In other words, it wasn’t until school that PJ started to say things like, “Oh, that’s math.” Or, “that’s language arts – that’s not math.” Before school, all of the learning was more integrated and holistic. When he could start to put it in rooms, some doors closed.

Two posts caught my eye just moments ago – one on Twitter and one on Edutopia’s blog. I think they help illustrate the idea of re-blending ways of knowing and integrating various capabilities. I think they provide elements on a mood board for re-imagining school and how to blur the lines between school and real life.

Here’s the first – a tweet from SciencePorn:

Screen Shot 2013-04-23 at 11.15.54 AM





Here’s the second – a post from Shawn Cornally (@ThinkThankThunk) on Edutopia. To whet the appetite for a full click on that link, I offer a few quotes that resonated with me.

As the media coverage and administrative spotlight is turned on these new benchmarks, I’d like us all to keep the following in mind: Engagement trumps all.


we have millions of children in schools learning things on narrative arcs that they had no part in authoring.


As more and more references to STEAM (Science, Tech, Engineering, Arts and Math) flood my Twitter feed, I can’t help but wonder how long until we all realize that lessons go where they will, which results in unplannable but reflectable STEHALM (Science, Tech, Engineering, History, Arts, Language and Math) experiences.

Isn’t that great! STEHALM could be letter labels in that photo of the PDA + the video camera + the laptop + the watch + the beeper + the cell phone + the Polaroid + the Walkman. Just two representations of the same overarching idea(l).

When will we act to make “school” more like that iPhone, instead of carrying around the discreet elements as separate and disaggregated pieces? Even if we subdivided the day and did some of each – integrated project-based learning where challenges and issues drive the agenda, as well as some time for exercising the disciplinary lenses sparked by those authentic explorations – I believe we would be moving in a right direction to help make school more life like.

= = =

Thanks to those who inspired with those posts!