When I talk with people about my life as a prison teacher, I like to start off with information that makes them doubt that their tax money has been well spent. For example, I usually lie and say that the most important characteristic of a prison teacher is the ability to drink large quantities of coffee. That really isn’t true. Coffee drinking is actually only the second most important ability. It is necessary, because it adds to a relaxed atmosphere, that is conducive to learning. More important is an ability to listen.

I try to keep up this deception, until my audience is totally dismayed. Then I typically end by saying that only about 20% of the inmates at our prison ever end up in prison again (recidivism). This contrasts with 52% in USA. The incarceration rate per 100 000 is 75 in Norway, 707 in USA. Of course, we pay more for each inmate. It Norway it is about USD 90 000 per inmate per year. In USA it is between USD 35 000 and 65 000 (depending on state) per inmate per year.

A typical inmate has experienced an abusive childhood. S/he (for we have all varieties of sexes at our prison) may also be abusive, at least outside of prison. So lots of time is spent on anger management. This costs money, as does education.

The reason I am bringing this up is to mention one specific inmate, and one of the small percent who had numerous stays in prisons. I can’t remember the precise details now, but he had attended something like fourteen different schools in a period of six years, before he somehow managed to escape the oversight of the educational authorities.

He was failed, not only by his parents, but by the entire social welfare system. It was my job to teach him math, science and related practical skills. It was with him that tobors were born. Tobors are very simple machines. They are so simple, that even people without an elementary school education, can make them. Making and operating a tobor involves six different jobs.

However, before one can actually make a tobor, one needs a client – somebody, anybody, who needs a tobor to do something. It was usually very convenient for me to take on that role myself.

To work with tobors, the students (yes, there was usually more than one, most frequently six) and I would leave the prison and head off to a place called a Newton Room, at the local science centre. Here we would work with Mindstorm kits, and lego blocks, for a day.

Job 1: Designer.

The first job of the tobor designer was to find out what the client needed. This can be provocative. Because, one is trying to look beyond what the client wants, or says he wants. This was usually done by having the designer ask questions and sketch solutions. So yes, drawing, was one of the practical skills that had to be learned. In fact, this job was so important, it was usually started a week or more before I even mentioned tobors.

Kurt Hanks and Larry Belliston have written Rapid Viz: A New Method for the Rapid Visualization of Ideas, Third Edition. It would be an exaggeration to say that I actually used the text-book in the classroom. As many people know, books can be daunting, if not frightening. So, while I might leave the book lying around in the off-chance that someone might actually pick it up, I almost always presented its content orally, along with a few strategically photocopied pages.

One characteristic of a tobor, is that it needs to sense its environment. So it usually is equipped with one or more sensors. Then, again, it has to actually do something when something is sensed, so it needs parts that could actually do things, like move. These parts are called actuators. Deciding which parts to include, and where they go, is all part of the designer’s job.

Job 2: Builder

The first tobors were made using lego blocks, and all sorts of other components found in Lego Mindstorm kits. Some of the components were sensors, others were actuators, but most were just mechanical/ structural components.

Usually there was some sort of deviation between what was drawn, and what was made. This is normal. In building a prototype, a drawing is just an approximation to a solution. It needs real world input to transform itself from a concept into a meaningful product. A prototype is just another waypoint, leading to a product that can be manufactured. Even then, that product will be continuously improved.

It is at this point that I try to expand the student’s vocabulary with the term iteration. One dictionary defines it as “a procedure in which repetition of a sequence of operations yields results successively closer to a desired result.” Unfortunately, the numerous big words used in dictionary definitions, quite often get in the way of someone actually understanding something.

Job 3: Electrician

Being a tobor electrician is very simple, especially if one is using a Mindstorm kit. There are a few wires that have to be put in place between a central control unit, and a sensor or actuator. These are idiot proof, in that it is impossible to put them in incorrectly.

Job 4: Programmer

Programming a mindstorm kit is easy. It is almost impossible to do something wrong, because one is following a template. Programming a tobor typically takes a few minutes.

Job 5: Tester

The last job of the day, before the real fun begins, is to test out the tobor, to make sure that it works as designed. Most often this involves making adjustments to the program. Sometimes, mechanical components may need to be assembled differently. The term iteration, is used more and more frequently, and the performance of the tobor becomes progressively better.

Job 6: Operator

This job involved using the tobor to actually do the job it was designed, and made for. Since it was tested before this, it usually works – except when it doesn’t.

With up to six inmates each working on their own tobor, there is a lot of opportunity for people to co-operate. One person might have a good idea, and within a few minutes that idea has diffused to the entire group. I am reminded of the Men’s Shed movement. Men are most comfortable talking not face to face, but shoulder to shoulder. See:

A tobor ready for action.


Abuse dulls, and a childhood filled with abuse dulls so intensely, that it makes living almost meaningless. What I always hope for, in the inmates I am working with, is that they will become passionate about something, anything. It might not be a tobor, or robot, as many people call them, but that is not important.

When someone becomes passionate, they can begin to dream. In a nutshell, that was my job. No, not teaching math or helping them build tobors, but helping people to become passionate dreamers!