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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Reshaping Learning from the Ground Up

Alvin Toffler tells us what's wrong -- and right -- with public education.
By James Daly

Forty years after he and his wife, Heidi, set the world alight with Future Shock, Alvin Toffler remains a tough assessor of our nation's social and technological prospects. Though he's best known for his work discussing the myriad ramifications of the digital revolution, he also loves to speak about the education system that is shaping the hearts and minds of America's future. We met with him near his office in Los Angeles, where the celebrated septuagenarian remains a clear and radical thinker.

Credit: This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License.

You've been writing about our educational system for decades. What's the most pressing need in public education right now?

Alvin Toffler: Shut down the public education system.

That's pretty radical.

I'm roughly quoting Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, who said, "We don't need to reform the system; we need to replace the system."

Why not just readjust what we have in place now? Do we really need to start from the ground up?

We should be thinking from the ground up. That's different from changing everything. However, we first have to understand how we got the education system that we now have. Teachers are wonderful, and there are hundreds of thousands of them who are creative and terrific, but they are operating in a system that is completely out of time. It is a system designed to produce industrial workers.

Let's look back at the history of public education in the United States. You have to go back a little over a century. For many years, there was a debate about whether we should even have public education. Some parents wanted kids to go to school and get an education; others said, "We can't afford that. We need them to work. They have to work in the field, because otherwise we starve." There was a big debate.

Late in the 1800s, during the Industrial Revolution, business leaders began complaining about all these rural kids who were pouring into the cities and going to work in our factories. Business leaders said that these kids were no good, and that what they needed was an educational system that would produce "industrial discipline."

What is industrial discipline?

Well, first of all, you've got to show up on time. Out in the fields, on the farms, if you go out with your family to pick a crop, and you come ten minutes late, your uncle covers for you and it's no big deal. But if you're on an assembly line and you're late, you mess up the work of 10,000 people down the line. Very expensive. So punctuality suddenly becomes important.

You don't want to be tardy.

Yes. In school, bells ring and you mustn't be tardy. And you march from class to class when the bells ring again. And many people take a yellow bus to school. What is the yellow bus? A preparation for commuting. And you do rote and repetitive work as you would do on an assembly line.

Future Talk: Alvin Toffler appears on a television monitor as he testifies before a congressional committee in June on Capitol Hill. This is the first time interactive video and teleconferencing technology has been used during congressional hearings.

Credit: Getty Images

How does that system fit into a world where assembly lines have gone away?

It doesn't. The public school system is designed to produce a workforce for an economy that will not be there. And therefore, with all the best intentions in the world, we're stealing the kids' future.

Do I have all the answers for how to replace it? No. But it seems to me that before we can get serious about creating an appropriate education system for the world that's coming and that these kids will have to operate within, we have to ask some really fundamental questions.

And some of these questions are scary. For example: Should education be compulsory? And, if so, for who? Why does everybody have to start at age five? Maybe some kids should start at age eight and work fast. Or vice versa. Why is everything massified in the system, rather than individualized in the system? New technologies make possible customization in a way that the old system -- everybody reading the same textbook at the same time -- did not offer.

You're talking about customizing the educational experience.

Exactly. Any form of diversity that we can introduce into the schools is a plus. Today, we have a big controversy about all the charter schools that are springing up. The school system people hate them because they're taking money from them. I say we should radically multiply charter schools, because they begin to provide a degree of diversity in the system that has not been present. Diversify the system.

In our book Revolutionary Wealth, we play a game. We say, imagine that you're a policeman, and you've got a radar gun, and you're measuring the speed of cars going by. Each car represents an American institution. The first one car is going by at 100 miles per hour. It's called business. Businesses have to change at 100 miles per hour because if they don't, they die. Competition just puts them out of the game. So they're traveling very, very fast.

Then comes another car. And it's going 10 miles per hour. That's the public education system. Schools are supposed to be preparing kids for the business world of tomorrow, to take jobs, to make our economy functional. The schools are changing, if anything, at 10 miles per hour. So, how do you match an economy that requires 100 miles per hour with an institution like public education? A system that changes, if at all, at 10 miles per hour?

It's a tough juxtaposition. So, what to do? Suppose you were made head of the U.S. Department of Education. What would be the first items on your agenda?

The first thing I'd say: "I want to hear something I haven't heard before." I just hear the same ideas over and over and over again. I meet teachers who are good and well intentioned and smart, but they can't try new things, because there are too many rules. They tell me that "the bureaucratic rules make it impossible for me to do what you're suggesting." So, how do we bust up that? It is easy to develop the world's best technologies compared with how hard it is to bust up a big bureaucracy like the public education system with the enormous numbers of jobs dependent on it and industries that feed it.

Here's a complaint you often hear: We spend a lot of money on education, so why isn't all that money having a better result?

It's because we're doing the same thing over and over again. We're holding 40 or 50 million kids prisoner for x hours a week. And the teacher is given a set of rules as to what you're going to say to the students, how you're going to treat them, what you want the output to be, and let no child be left behind. But there's a very narrow set of outcomes. I think you have to open the system to new ideas.

When I was a student, I went through all the same rote repetitive stuff that kids go through today. And I did lousy in any number of things. The only thing I ever did any good in was English. It's what I love. You need to find out what each student loves. If you want kids to really learn, they've got to love something. For example, kids may love sports. If I were putting together a school, I might create a course, or a group of courses, on sports. But that would include the business of sports, the culture of sports, the history of sports -- and once you get into the history of sports, you then get into history more broadly.

Scene Setter: Portrait of the young man as an artist, circa 1970.

Credit: Getty Images

Integrate the curricula.

Yeah -- the culture, the technology, all these things.

Like real life.

Like real life, yes! And, like in real life, there is an enormous, enormous bank of knowledge in the community that we can tap into. So, why shouldn't a kid who's interested in mechanical things or engines or technology meet people from the community who do that kind of stuff, and who are excited about what they are doing and where it's going? But at the rate of change, the actual skills that we teach, or that they learn by themselves, about how to use this gizmo or that gizmo, that's going to be obsolete -- who knows? -- in five years or in five minutes.

So, that's another thing: Much of what we're transmitting is doomed to obsolescence at a far more rapid rate than ever before. And that knowledge becomes what we call obsoledge: obsolete knowledge. We have this enormous bank of obsolete knowledge in our heads, in our books, and in our culture. When change was slower, obsoledge didn't pile up as quickly. Now, because everything is in rapid change, the amount of obsolete knowledge that we have -- and that we teach -- is greater and greater and greater. We're drowning in obsolete information. We make big decisions -- personal decisions -- based on it, and public and political decisions based on it.

Is the idea of a textbook in the classroom obsolete?

I'm a wordsmith. I write books. I love books. So I don't want to be an accomplice to their death. But clearly, they're not enough. The textbooks are the same for every child; every child gets the same textbook. Why should that be? Why shouldn't some kids get a textbook -- and you can do this online a lot more easily than you can in print -- why shouldn't a kid who's interested in one particular thing, whether it's painting or drama, or this or that, get a different version of the textbook than the kid sitting in the next seat, who is interested in engineering?

Let's have a little exercise. Walk me through this school you'd create. What do the classrooms look like? What are the class sizes? What are the hours?

It's open 24 hours a day. Different kids arrive at different times. They don't all come at the same time, like an army. They don't just ring the bells at the same time. They're different kids. They have different potentials. Now, in practice, we're not going to be able to get down to the micro level with all of this, I grant you, but in fact, I would be running a twenty-four-hour school, I would have non-teachers working with teachers in that school, I would have the kids coming and going at different times that make sense for them.

The schools of today are essentially custodial: They're taking care of kids in work hours that are essentially nine to five -- when the whole society was assumed to work. Clearly, that's changing in our society. So should the timing. We're individualizing time; we're personalizing time. We're not having everyone arrive at the same time, leave at the same time. Why should kids arrive at the same time and leave at the same time?

And when do kids begin their formalized education?

Maybe some start at two or three, and some start at seven or eight -- I don't know. Every kid is different.

What else?

I think that schools have to be completely integrated into the community, to take advantage of the skills in the community. So, there ought to be business offices in the school, from various kinds of business in the community.

The name of your publication is Edutopia, and utopia is three-quarters of that title. I'm giving a utopian picture, perhaps. I don't know how to solve all those problems and how to make that happen. But what it all boils down to is, get the current system out of your head.

How does the role of the teacher change?

I think (and this is not going to sit very well with the union) that maybe teaching shouldn't be a lifetime career. Maybe it's important for teachers to quit for three or four years and go do something else and come back. They'll come back with better ideas. They'll come back with ideas about how the outside world works, in ways that would not have been available to them if they were in the classroom the whole time.

So, let's sit down as a culture, as a society, and say, "Teachers, parents, people outside, how do we completely rethink this? We're going to create a new system from ground zero, and what new ideas have you got?" And collect those new ideas. That would be a very healthy thing for the country to do.

You're advocating for fundamental radical changes. Are you an optimist when it comes to public education?

I just feel it's inevitable that there will have to be change. The only question is whether we're going to do it starting now, or whether we're going to wait for catastrophe.

James Daly is the former editorial director of Edutopia.

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Tom King's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

If only we could, Mr. Toffler! If only we could.

Let the children lead us forth. We've tried nearly everything else.

Focus on the learners. Watch the video on my homepage.

It's a great lesson, and where else can you find a quote at the end like that one?

Never give up!

Susanne Barrett's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a former university instructor with a Master's degree in English and I have been using a model quite similar to the one Toffler discusses for the past eleven years: home education. Yes, we're with a private school "umbrella" group that provides report cards, high school transcripts, co-op classes, annual standardized testing, etc. But I have that freedom to educate my four young people (currently in grades 3, 6, 8, and 11) individually and according to their strengths while bolstering their weaknesses.

We start school when we feel like it -- usually around 9-9:30 and take an hour break at 12:30. Although we use textbooks for mathematics, we cover most of our subjects with "living books" instead of readers or science and history texts. Our kids are taught to think, considering all sides of an issue. They write a great deal more than the public schools in our area require, but we start writing at a far later age: around 5th-6th grade when the students are actually ready to express themselves and their ideas well and without the pressure that schools out on kids to write early.

As a published writer, I volunteered for a couple of years in the second grade classroom of our local public school. The California standards apparently were for these students to be able to write a 2-3 paragraph essay. However, most of these students were still struggling to write their last names, and they simply were not developmentally ready to write a 2-3 paragraph essay, and the vast majority "hated" writing, a not-uncommon opinion of students all the way through high school. However, when writing is taught later and at a developmentally-appropriate age, writing often becomes a joy, a way of expressing individual opinions and thoughts, a way of "thinking outside the box." The "writing is hard" complaints are minimized, and students tend to enjoy the process much more when they are not forced into it too early. And in home education, we have that freedom to start the writing process later. I teach high school writing courses at our home school co-op, and all of my students who have taken the AP Writing test have scored the top grade of "5." I hear reports even from the students who struggled in my classes that they are receiving A's at the university level and that their college classes (even in the UC schools) are easier than what I taught them. By waiting to teach them until middle school and then giving them easily individualized assignments, even students who struggle with writing have been successful.

The reasons I chose to educate our students at home were these: 1) The learning materials were far more varied, current, and capable of individualization than public school texts; 2) We desired our children to be able to learn at their own pace, not according to seemingly arbitrary "grade levels"; 3) We wanted our children to learn some of the traditional subjects not always taught in schools at the desired depth, such as history, grammar, etc.; 4) We wanted our kids to have time to be "kids" and to have time to develop their imaginations and enjoy the natural world, both of which are difficult if kids are in a classroom 6-7 hours per day. 5) We wanted our children to be able to relate comfortably with children and adults of all ages rather than spending their days in a classroom of children exactly their own age which is not a real-life model. And so on....

The freedom of home education can be abused -- I think we've all seen instances of that happening -- but the few families who abuse the privilege should not be held up as the model of those of us who take our home education most seriously, who educate ourselves as to each of our children's learning styles and then customize their education to reflect their interests and strengths while still addressing their weaknesses. Home education is not for everyone, but for those of us willing to set aside our careers in order to insure our children the best education we can possibly give them, it truly works. And I think that some of the methods of home education can possibly be translated into the public school paradigm if we are willing to totally rebuild public education from the inside outward. If we are able to set aside our own prejudices regarding modes of education and truly listen to each other, I think that the public school system could indeed be made far more individual and along a similar mode that home educating families currently use.

I could write more, but my kids are waiting to start our school day, so I'd best stop now....

frasi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Open the school doors. Rather than thinking of kids as miniature adults in incubatory spaces called desks, think of them as people with a great need to experience the world the way it exists as well as the way the world will someday be.

Henz's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'd like to address the following point you made: Fourth, you can't teach a child who is of advanced ability in the same atmosphere and classroom, using the same teaching strategies, and using the same subjects as a child with learning difficulties and expect each child to succeed according to his own merits. Both children suffer in this environment, which is why you can't have mass, uniform education.

It is very possible to teach students of different levels and abilities in the same environment. When Education 3.0 rolls along (if it does as it is defined) I would hope to see this phenomenon continue. Society is comprised of people of different skills and abilities. An essential part of survival in this society is to know how to get along and communicate, and to work together. Children can learn in the same environment, the problem is making sure that they do. Separating students also results in the loss of a vital resource--students learning from each other and learning to support each other. Separating students promotes segregation in later stages of life. In Finland, for example, the public education system is based on equity. There are only a few private schools, which do not fare well on "rankings" at a national level and are not popular at all. Also, one does not have a choice what school your kids go to (up till 9th grade, high school different), but you go to the one nearest to you. There is no separation into remedial classes, etc. And Finland's education level of 14-15 years olds, and the system itself, are supposedly the world's best according to PISA survey, for many years running now.

I think the problem for you was not the public school experience as such, but the sorry state of public education in your country. I think it's important you point that out.

Danny McCraine's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Here's an idea for teachers taking a sabbatical. Essentially, that's what Mr. Toffler is getting at when he suggests teachers leave teaching for a while. I taught intrumental music for 9 years before entering the private sector for a large financial services company. My new role is in Training. As a trainer, I have learned so much more about the process of teaching what NEEDS to be known, and eliminating anything that's not relevant. My trainees don't need to know the complete history of computers to be able to use one on their job. I would be a MUCH more effective teacher if I went back to the school system because of what I've learned working for a corporation.

Let's reverse the educational sabbatical. I understand that this idea I'm about to propose would take a huge commitment (and lots of feet-dragging!) from the business world. Since the current school system was set up to benefit our economy, why shouldn't our businesses provide some occasional "flex-time" to workers to be part-time teachers? My impression of many teachers is that they have no clue how the "real" world works! They've never left the system! But what if business leaders stepped into the classroom for a couple of hours a day? Maybe the business provides some pay for that, maybe the government subsidizes their time in the classroom, I don't know the best way to cover that issue. A large enough pool of these worker/teachers could cover a lot of instructional time.

Regardless of the answers, it seems to me that that public school system could benefit from applying some business practices to itself. What if a Six Sigma approach was applied to schools? Could we say there's a high defect rate in the school system's products? What do you think, Black Belts? Shouldn't schools be meeting with business leaders in their community to ask what the most important characteristics are in future workers? What about an ROI (Return on Investment) approach to passing off graduates into the workforce? It sure seems the "Ivory Tower" has more interest in self-preservation than the better good of it's constituents!

Isabel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Amanda, I am an 18 year old student who has done independent learning/home schooling off and on, gone to various private schools, and am now in the process of completing two years of undergraduate education at a community college (I started at 16, so I am almost finished). It is now time for me to choose a 4 year college to go to, and my local state schools are the most affordable for me. However, since the two years I have been in community college I feel like the passion I had for learning, the genuine interest, the fearlessness to try new things and experiment in an intellectual setting have really decreased, and also my time to spend on things I love decreased, so I am feeling lost and confused about the next step, what major i would want to do etc. Do you recommend going to a UC school even though it is more traditional/brainwashing approach? Do you feel it is useful to "unlearn" even for college? Are there any colleges that you know of anywhere in the country that are affordable which take a more open/"Edutopia" approach to college education? Any thoughts on this would be helpful. I am an artistic, creative person who loves to learn in a natural way, but pressure, grades and all that really take it out of me even though i usually get the As, they do nothing for me. I feel like my "inner homeschooler" so to speak is suffering in this environment, ha. Thank you.
-IS

Isabel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Amanda, I am an 18 year old student who has done independent learning/home schooling off and on, gone to various private schools, and am now in the process of completing two years of undergraduate education at a community college (I started at 16, so I am almost finished). It is now time for me to choose a 4 year college to go to, and my local state schools are the most affordable for me. However, since the two years I have been in community college I feel like the passion I had for learning, the genuine interest, the fearlessness to try new things and experiment in an intellectual setting have really decreased, and also my time to spend on things I love decreased, so I am feeling lost and confused about the next step, what major i would want to do etc. Do you recommend going to a UC school even though it is more traditional/brainwashing approach? Do you feel it is useful to "unlearn" even for college? Are there any colleges that you know of anywhere in the country that are affordable which take a more open/"Edutopia" approach to college education? Any thoughts on this would be helpful. I am an artistic, creative person who loves to learn in a natural way, but pressure, grades and all that really take it out of me even though i usually get the As, they do nothing for me. I feel like my "inner homeschooler" so to speak is suffering in this environment, ha. Thank you.
-IS

Isabel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi to readers of this great article,

-What do you feel about "unlearning" when it comes to college?

-Are there colleges anywhere in the country that are more of an "Edutopia" style of education?

I am an 18 year old student who has done independent learning/ home schooling on and off, attended various private schools and now am completing two years of undergraduate education at a community college (I started at 16 so I am almost finished). Now I have to choose what 4 year university I would like to transfer to, but am feeling doubtful about continuing this form of education. Since I started community college, I feel that my inner home schooler so to speak, has suffered greatly. The genuine interest and love of learning that I felt was precious to me while doing independent study has decreased, and so has the time I have had to focus on things I love to do. Unfortunately my local state universities are really the only colleges I can afford. How can one cultivate a more enriching experience in college where you are not on the same, assembly line kind of education? I don't want to be occupied with grades and test anxiety and feel like I have no purpose in college. Please give advice if you can, thanks so much.

-IS

Virginia 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm 40, and I've studied at three different universities, and taught at three, in three different countries, and three different U. S. states. (And I've only just noticed all of those threes!)
Some were world-class, and some rural and very local.
In every situation, I have found something to believe in, and I think that is the nature of education. Just go where you can, and look for the value in it. If you have the desire to learn, you will get the lesson out of every situation.
And make friends with your classmates. That is the biggest advantage of attending traditional classes, so don't waste it.

A. Javene's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA. is a school that might work for you. I don't know what state you are in, but there is always the option of moving to WA to establish residency working in fields that interest you as a sort of internship in the meantime. Once a resident the tuition as a state school is very reasonable. They also have reciprocity with some states - worth looking into.

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