No More Robots

Building Kids’ Character, Competence, and Sense of Place

by Bob Coulter (Author)
©2014 Monographs XXII, 113 Pages


This book was named a 2015 Choice magazine Outstanding Academic Title.
Place-based education offers a compelling opportunity to engage students in the life of their community. More than just taking a field trip, participants in a place-based project make sustained efforts to make a difference and learn basic skills along the way. Academic concepts come to life as real-world problems are investigated from a local angle. Even global issues can be connected to the community, such as the high school in Missouri that linked local land-use choices to the «dead zone» in the Gulf of Mexico. For teachers, place-based projects offer a chance for professional revitalization as they orchestrate complex and meaningful learning environments that go well beyond scripted curriculum mandates. Both teachers and students benefit from a new level of agency as they take ownership of their work. Drawing on his own experience as a teacher and more than a decade of work supporting teachers in crafting their own projects, the author outlines the many benefits of place-based education and describes the challenges that must be overcome if we are to realize its potential.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Preface. Restoring the Craft of Teaching and Learning
  • Overview of the Book
  • Chapter 1. Place-Based Education—Building on a Progressive Legacy
  • Exploring the Underpinnings of Experience
  • Progressive Educational Values Today
  • Chapter 2. Fledging Students to Be Active Agents in the World
  • Building Students’ Character— The Glue That Holds It All Together
  • Building Local to Foster a Sense of Place
  • Student Inquiry
  • Bringing It All Together: Working on the Work
  • What Do Teachers Need to Do?
  • Chapter 3. Place-Based Education—Teaching Beyond the Script
  • Decisions, Decisions: Making Educational Values Come to Life
  • Who Makes the Decisions, and How?
  • What Does Good Decision Making Look Like?— The Importance of Vision
  • Reliving the Past
  • Looking at the Broader Community of Practice
  • Chapter 4. Planning for Place-Based Learning
  • Thinking about Complex Thinking: Epistemology and Place-Based Education
  • Framing Teaching for Place-Based Education
  • Working toward ambitious goals
  • Using experiences to assemble evidence and build justification
  • Building shared ownership with students
  • Navigating community resources
  • Designing for Engagement
  • Chapter 5. Reframing Childhood, Reframing Teaching Practice
  • Framing Childhood
  • Can Kids Really Exercise Agency?
  • Can Kids Be Trusted?
  • And the Relevance Is . . . ?
  • Seeing Kids as Capable Thinkers and Doers: The Most Challenging Script of All?
  • References
  • Series index


This work builds on much of my career, first as an elementary grade teacher, and later as one who works to support teachers and kids as they build their own experiences. To that end, I owe a great deal to the late Kirsten Kaiser, a legendary teacher at the Common School in Amherst, MA, and to David Sobel, an equally prominent member of the faculty at Antioch University New England. Where I am as a teacher grows out of the seeds they helped to nurture. Also, many thanks are due to Alan Feldman, who helped me launch the second phase of my career, helping teachers to find the space where they can continue to grow past our time together. Throughout my career I’ve been privileged to work with many inspirational colleagues. Learning together with them has helped to shape the messages in this book.

On a more practical note, I would like to acknowledge the National Science Foundation and the Litzsinger Road Ecology Foundation. What is contained here may or may not reflect their official positions, but their support has enabled this work to unfold and mature over time. For that, I owe a debt of gratitude. Also, thanks to the Missouri Botanical Garden for providing the professional autonomy to explore these ideas.

Finally, and most importantly, I’d like to dedicate this work to the thousands of kids I’ve been entrusted with over the years. Many thanks for the insights and fun you offer, and for sharing your sense of wonder as life unfolds for you.


Restoring the Craft of Teaching and Learning

This book emerges from an enigma. For six years I served as the principal investigator and project director for two projects funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) investigating aspects of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) learning. Both projects had a roughly similar focus: In partnership with MIT, we hired teachers and other professionals from schools in the St. Louis and Boston areas to lead after-school and summer programs with kids ages 10 to 13. The two projects— Local Investigations of Natural Science (LIONS) and Community Science Investigators (CSI)—each had a focus on local, community-based investigations. We provided intensive professional development and ongoing support for the teachers that included help in locating resources, consultation on their project designs, and co-teaching as requested by the teachers. Rather than imposing one program on everyone, areas of focus were at the discretion of each teaching team. This choice was driven both by a desire to help teachers become the designers of students’ experiences and by a practical consideration of the school location. If the kids were to be involved in their local community, projects had to reflect what was available in the neighborhood. Project examples included monitoring water quality in local streams, investigating demographic change in a community over three generations, and assessing how easy it is for community members to have access to healthy food. In some cases, projects emerged spontaneously from local high-interest events, such as a study of tornado patterns undertaken by two schools in response to recent tornado strikes in their communities. The important point here is that there was no set curriculum for teachers to follow, which proved to be both a strength and a challenge in the program. Thus, an enigma was born.

In the NSF proposals, we articulated our optimistic belief that the open-ended scope of the projects would enable teachers to teach from their passions, which would in turn ignite strong youth interest in STEM investigations. In all too many schools in the United States, teachers are held to a script, with their pedagogic decisions determined by a pacing chart for which ← ix | x → they have had little—if any—involvement in its development. With their curriculum scripted in this manner, teachers don’t have the flexibility to bring in their own personal interests, or to modify the curriculum in response to students’ interests. Instead, teachers are expected to “stay on script” and cover the prescribed topics in a specific number of days, regardless of students’ learning. The process is a sprint for coverage, memorably captured by the lament I heard from one teacher that she had a week to cover the oceans in her science class. The ideal teacher is increasingly what sociologist C. Wright Mills (1959/2000) described as a “cheerful and willing robot,” (p. 171) complying with the norms provided by state and district administrators. In turn, students are expected to engage in similarly robotic compliance, faithfully following their teachers’ lead toward a very narrow definition of success—ever higher test scores.

To counter this mechanistic approach to teaching, we built LIONS and CSI on the premise of giving teachers the freedom to bring their own interests into the curriculum and to build projects that are responsive to students’ interests. We assumed that providing a project space that was free from accountability and testing constraints would open the doors to rich, personally meaningful STEM investigations. In practice, this happened in some instances but not others. Some teachers created dynamic investigations such as a study of local bird species and which habitats they were most commonly found in, while others remained in the traditional teacher-centered, lesson-based approach to teaching. This latter group of teachers was generally respected by their peers as capable practitioners within the traditional norms of school, but they were persistently unable to conceptualize and structure community-engaged learning opportunities. Instead, they relied on project staff to provide packaged activities to fill each meeting of their group, demonstrating something of a “deer in the headlights, don’t know which way to go” approach to planning once they were freed from pre-scripted curriculum. These were teachers from the same district, and in some cases from the same school as teachers who were better able to work “off script” in creating learning opportunities within the community. Demographically the teachers were similar in age and teaching experience, and they were provided with the same levels and types of professional development and follow-up support. Still, there was a persistent gap in how they approached their work.

Since I had many opportunities to be out in the schools with the teachers, I intuitively captured this split as I went from school to school. My hunch was subsequently confirmed in the data that were being collected by our external evaluators. Focus groups, surveys, and interviews all pointed toward differences in practice for the teachers that, in turn, had impacts on levels of student engagement and enthusiasm. The evaluators and I started developing tentative hypotheses about what might be driving this difference in how teachers worked, with a goal of seeing if it was an idiosyncratic quirk in that pool of ← x | xi → teachers or if there are in fact significant differences in how teachers approach their work. Fast-forward a year: I received a call from a subcontractor the evaluation team used to collect data for the second year of the project. The gist of the call was, “Hey Bob, we have this odd pattern in the data . . . . Am I missing something?” Again, we saw the difference in how teachers approach their work appearing with a new group of teachers, identified by an evaluator who was not privy to our preliminary framing of the gap.

At this point we gained confidence that we were on to something worthy of further exploration. Despite demographically similar teacher characteristics and similar student populations, some teachers were able to create dynamic, locally engaged learning environments that held students’ interest and built a sustaining energy while others created a more passive environment based on a programmed “teach by numbers” approach. More specifically, the dynamic teachers integrated resources from the professional development workshops with their own materials and what they could find in the community, while the others brought virtually nothing of their own interests or community resources, and struggled to implement even comparatively scripted environmental education projects such as tracking signs of seasonal change with Journey North or collecting data on schoolyard bird populations using the FeederWatch projects from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.


XXII, 113
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2013 (September)
global issues benefits challenges opportunity community ownership potential professional revitalization
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 113 pp.

Biographical notes

Bob Coulter (Author)

Bob Coulter, Ed.D., is currently the director of the Litzsinger Road Ecology Center, a field site managed by the Missouri Botanical Garden. Previously, he was an award-winning elementary grade teacher.


Title: No More Robots
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
138 pages