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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
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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.

Comments (77)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Connie Schnoebelen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Direction towards a science and technology of teaching

The last paragraph of my comment was incomplete and should read as follows:
Did not Anne Sullivan, through her pedagogical procedures with Helen Keller, demonstrate, if limited to cognition and perception, the proof of the "Linguis-
tic relativity hypothesis", the relationship between language and mind? Agnes Niyekawa Howard, emeritus professor of linguistics at the University of Hawaii
thought so when I posed my query. Why then, have researchers completely neglected
the replication of Sullivan's methods? Unknown to many, she thoroughly im-
mersed herself in language development and psychology before she weent to
teach Helen Keller. I am sure William James's Principles of Psychology guided
her, and needs to guide now as well, especially Talks to Teachers on Psychology.

In view of Anne Sullivan's successful precedent and historical pedagogical
breakthrough with Helen Keller, who was multi-sensorily disabled, we should
stop labeling children with normal vision, hearing, speech and sensori-motor
capacities, "learning disabled". Indeed, it is time to individualize and
personalize instruction and proceed from concrete to abstract as educational theory haslong exhorted teachers to do!! The tyranny of books must be dis-
rupted. Multisensory instruction and learning must become routine. Alvin
Toffler's call for learning how to learn, how to think/make decisions and how
to communicate as the "adaptive skills" to avoid "Future Shock" must be heeded.

Construction of models which predict success in those three crucial skills
must be done. Any willing to experiment? I have theory-based models to share.


We must win the race between education and catastrophe foretold by H. G. Wells in l920. To do so, our goal must be clear, that of developing the human mind and heart. The priority must be to widen the area of consensus
on the essential knowledge base and principles of instruction the effort to assist and to shape human development(re intelligence, creativity, morality(ethics, spirituality). If denocracy and human freedom is to be maintained, saved and widely shared and enriched by all nations who value them, education must make a quantum leap in progress
at the speed of the Manhattan Project(5 years) or the Genome project.

Education is in the midst of a scientific revolution. We have more than enough scholars and researchers in the key fields of linguistics devlopmental psychology,sociology(esp. sociolinguistics), psychiatry(John Dewey called for this and philosopy) as part of the knowledge base for a science of education. Einstein warned that we must never forget that we live with nuclear power, the bomb,so we must insure the development of independent
thinkers with sane and healthy minds.

Let's cooperatively work to create a humane science and technology of education that is based on a theory of instruction centered on language(expressive and receptive functional language use),that must be tied to a theory of ontogenetic development and a theory of knowledge(Jean Piaget's cognitive stages), or be doomed to triviality as the present standards movement surely dooms and straight- jackets U.S. public schools today.(see Jerome Bruner,Toward A Theory of Instruction).

Did not Anne Sullivan, through her pedagogical procedures with Helen Keller, demonstrate, if limited to cognition and perception, the proof of the "lingui

Marion Hubbard's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The problem is one of philosophy of education which is appropriate for fast changing global society and survival of all species on our threatened planet. We must educate for human intelligence on the highest level... moral or 'spiritual' as well as mechanical.

~Katherine's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Ideas can be dangerous or they can have a wide range of other effects, some beneficial some not. However failing to flex with change could spell our children being not just left behind but left in the dust.

My practical solution for what ideal schools should look like:

Big repositories for knowledge and as many styles of learning and idea making as possible. There's nothing wrong with having offices and school buildings. Home base for housing things and making plans is very useful, and already in place.

School in the best sense of the word should not be about schooling so much as providing information and opportunities for experience-- not in the artificial environment of school-- out in the real world.

There doesn't need to be an office for each interesting thing that's to be learned in the world. The place for each interesting thing in the world is already in a setting, already existing somewhere else on this globe. There's no need to recreate that in schools unless it is conducive to ongoing student projects. Things that don't yet exist can be studied in real world settings too.

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.

Schools could be vastly more useful primarily as libraries that encompass books, including access to e-books, media, online information.

The mausoleums that school auditoriums are could invite guests from the real world talking about real stuff they're actually doing. Schools have occasional guests for this very purpose but it could become a much more integrated approach for learning.

Schools can employee teachers not as dispensers of knowledge so much as facilitators for students exploring ideas or doing projects--- from gardening, making lego lands and sculptures, building robots or programs or systems, grasping concepts about how things work. These facilitators could provide access to places not usually open to students, who because they are minors aren't generally allowed direct use of things like transportation and business communication.

Facilitators could mediate a passage for students into worlds they need direct experience of. Otherwise what they get from school is head and book knowledge not actual understanding about how things work.

Teachers don't need to go off and do other things, then come back as teachers later or think of themselves as obsolete. They can experience and learn about the world right at the same time as students are. Many of our current teachers are just waiting for a chance to open up the current system and this would give them a chance to fill roles other than rote repetitive passes at the reality that the world already amply provides.

School funding could be aimed at making sure that students get access to what they need to gain and apply new knowledge. Tests are really not necessary. Instead funding could be aimed at holistically researching the effects of various methods used to provide knowledge in the education system.

As a parent, I don't want numbers. I want results that help my child actually function instead of being passed up by the few kids who had opportunities for real experience in the world.


~Katherine's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Wow ... school is fine the way it is and the US economy is thriving.

What about rampant outsourcing and downsizing in the US? How bout the shaky future of the US farmer and the factory worker? What about decreasing opportunities or fewer promotions that lead to better pay?

Have you noticed anything about the trouble that teens run into? Weapons, gangs and drugs in the school environment. High dropout and pregnancy rates. Among young children, the epidemic of ADD/ADHD and dependency-inducing prescription drugs for the purpose of enabling students to sit for hours everyday at a desk or table. In all age groups, aggression and antisocial dilemmas as well as difficulties dealing with school-related anxiety and stress.

Schools and after-school care programs have charge of children for something like up to 10 hours per day.

I don't think schools are the problem but what changes are they making to mitigate any problems? Funding to schools with higher test scores don't cut it for me.


Jinan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I had always felt that what is happening is that from 'HUMAN BEINGS' we are becoming 'HUMAN KNOWINGS'
We KNOW but cant BE.
That is our tragedy.
This is a cognitive crisis. How do we BE in the world.
There is a conflict between the fake and the original , between the conditioned and the authetic.
In my work with rural people and children i have seen a distinct ability which educated people have lost which is what I call as spontaneous reasoning or spontaneous analysis. This is a holistic process.
We are left with two skills- Memory and analysis.
Infact these two skills along with other damages schooling have done prevent us from engaging with the unknown.
My suggestion is that can we explore what has gone wrong with the 'educated' mind. what are its damages. what kind of 'knowledge' it can handle?
Why is that it can only deal with dry logic.
How does it prevent true knowing?

But what i have problem is that the damages inflicted on us by the mediator- the teacher or any 'authority' that mediates this other than the first hand act of knowing.

Knowing per se is wordless act.
Then how can schooling which nothing but words initiates this.
We are describing knowledge.
How can knowledge precede knowing?
This is what we do in school.
We need to relook at this all over again.

Bryant Kittle's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

im a student at upper adams school district in PA. im in 11th grade and our teacher gave us an assingment and it has to deal with what you are talking about in this speach and i was wondering if you could possibly send me an email on some of the stuff that you think the new school would have as class rooms look and text book wise because our school just spent alot of money on these laptops that every student has in high school and thats what made her wanna do the project so i would really appreacate it if you helped me and my group out and send me some ideas of what you think the future school will look like and the kinda classes there will be and when i say future i mean like only 15 to 20 years into the future.

thank you,
Bryant Strong Kittle

kamekish's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I personally feel that Unlearning is must to accomodate future in our present life. However, it is not happening because of this people are dying of blood pressure, diabetes and depression. Young children are in suicidal mode. We need to change the education system.

Unlearning has to be insurted in educational system to give due emphasis to future prospects and opportunities. The policy makers are required to understand these changes. Otherwise you are correct that children are wasting their time and not able to enjoy life.

You have very rightly came out with the word 'obsoledge' It is great. Unless we take of accumulation of obsolete knowledge we are bound to fail.

Success lies in unlearning not keep learning.


kamekish's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I shall be glad if you spare your time and read my book titled "Unlearn Before U learn' by Kamekish published by Bibliophile Southasia, New Delhi. I am sure that you will enjoy it.

I admire your courage. and I hope you will like to share your great views.


Amanda's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The problem with the education system is deep and spans across all topics. First of all, the public school system is arguably unconstitutional because the public school system is forcing kids how to think in a specific manner. The state does not have the jurisdiction over the mind, and has no authority to tell people what to think, why to think, how to think, or even that they must think.

Second, the money thrown at the public schools cannot be used effectively when the administrators of the schools are burdened by regulations. The freedom to teach will improve students and the learning process.

Third, the schools are burdened by the Establishment Clause. If you get down the heart of every issue, religion and philosophy play a part. All truth and what we believe about truth depends on our religious beliefs. That means, that when the state determines it is going to teach a subject, it is teaching a particular religious viewpoint, even when we're talking about subjects that could be considered purely "secular." E.g. we teach math as a scientific truth. 3 = 3 just as 2-1 = 1. Numbers have absolute meaning. But if we subscribe to a philosophy that there is no absolute truth, then learning math is meaningless, because 3 would not equal 3 in that world. Additionally, under the Judeo-Christian worldview, God is the ultimate source of truth, so teaching something that is contrary to Biblical teachings is essentially the teaching of falsehoods. Other religions hold similar viewpoints. Essentially, because what we are learning in public school that "complies" with the establishment clause of the 1st Amendment to the US Constitution, we are not learning actual truth, and the information we gain is meaningless.

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.

Fifth, because the state is essentially telling us what to think, we are being indoctrinated, as opposed to learning how to think critically. We must have the ability to think critically in order to have our democratic government survive. We don't find instruction in critical thinking skills in our public school system. I am a product of the public school system and I have spent the last 6 years of my life washing my brain of all the garbage and all the rote, memorized facts, and replaced them with the ability to critically think. Now, I can use my mind to both learn facts and interpret those facts in order to discern the message I need to learn. I don't simply listen to what my professors tell me anymore. I have to think for myself.

Anyway, those are some thoughts. I am a product of the public school system, but now that I am removed far from the system, engaged in private college education and graduate school, I can see that I didn't take much from my public school experience.

Carole Pearce's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Lets not forget about the teachers who would be teaching in these future schools. They want to retire with a pension correct. Why should a teacher teach for three to four years, leave, then come back and start at the beginning AGAIN, and AGAIN? haha. Perhaps this should work like the government, if I work 10 years, no matter which years those are, I could still receive my pension, otherwise why should I become a teacher. I think I'll rethink my future and opt out of teaching for public education, it doesn't sound to steady to me. We're going to lose teachers if we don't first fix this issue.

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