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No More Robots

Building Kids’ Character, Competence, and Sense of Place


Bob Coulter

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.
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Chapter 2. Fledging Students to Be Active Agents in the World

← 21 | 22 → CHAPTER 2


In this chapter, we’ll take a look at how students experience programs that actively work to develop their character, competence, and sense of place. As we do this, we will see the progressive principles described in the last chapter at work in real settings, in school and out. Far from scripted compliance, the teachers and students we will meet are active agents, pursuing important goals. In addition to clarifying the contrast with traditional norms of schooling, this chapter lays the groundwork for the analysis of teachers’ design choices that will be taken up in Chapters 3 and 4. As we will see throughout the rest of the book, choices made by teachers in how to structure the classroom and how to use materials lead to different student experiences, even if the teachers are working from nominally the same curriculum materials. In turn, kids’ experiences of learning and of themselves become radically different.

Recall the discussion in the Preface about how underlying frameworks drive both our worldview and how we engage in experiences. This is no less true for kids than it is for teachers. If students come to see school as a passive activity to be engaged with simply to minimize friction within the school or at home, they will take on the “robot” role Mills (1959/2000) described, though the cheerfulness aspect may not be there. Where students find value in a passive environment, it tends to be placed on securing external, immediate gratification rewards such as the...

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