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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

Sebastian S's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a student from both the private and public institutions, I can say with confidence that our school systems are failing. In both schools, I see students not paying attention and simply acting like its a big joke. Frankly, it IS a big joke. Besides the numerous kids that are failing(and don't care), there are smart kids being underdeveloped. These kids are being forced to take classes that disinterest them to school in general.

So,before we redefine education and cause chaos, we should first take the students who WANT to learn and teach them. The students that do not care about school need to be taken in to see their state of mind.

The radical changes set forth by Mr. Toffler are necessary and need to be placed into affect with further study.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I first agree with you on the fact that the education system is indeed broken. students are flunking out location wise. this is an example of location effect on the education system. the education sytem has been reduced to a inter educatory war between schools who are fighting over money, what schools get beter student grades and what not. but the true individualized customizatory educatyion system is a university. the answer to the the question u raise is a universoty that accepts all ages and teaches all grades. this is the prime example of a education system utopia.

Karl's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with Mr. Toffler about his view of changing the public school system. I like what his idea of the utopia school would be. School would be open 24 hours a day and kids could come whenever they pleased. In this way, I could come to school whenever I felt ready to learn instead of going in early in the morning and not ready to learn. Kids begin their formal education at different ages. This is also good because some kids are ready to begin school at an earlier age then others. The students would have their own version of the textbook so that they could learn the material from the job perspective of what they want to do when they grow up.

However, as great as this idea sounds it would be extremely hard to do and very unlikely to happen. To have school open 24 hours a day would require having teachers there all day or if they had shifts, to constantly have teachers rotate in and out of the school. This would require a lot of people for just one school. Also, if students could come in whenever they wished, then they could come just for an hour or two and then leave and they would not learn everything they would need too, some kids would not even bother coming in at all. Besides all this, to do this, it would be very expensive. All in all, I like Mr. Toffler's idea about his version of school I just think that there is a very small chance of it happening because of all the time and money involved to do it.

Hannah's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I believe that this article is very controversial. Mr. Toffler definitely has a good suggestion however it poses certain issues like the fact that the entire school system would be changed! That would cost the government a lot of money. I agree however, we should forget about the old public school system and make better opportunities for less capable of learning. Public schools need to be changed and Mr. Toffler's way is certainly an option.

AnonymousJon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I somewhat disagree with Mr. Toffler. Although having a school with a greater variety of courses will give students more choice, some of the concepts he added seemed hard to balance. For example, he said that his school would allow students to arrive to class at any time of day. I believe this would cause too much chaos during the day and it would be hard to organize it. School is better when there is a set schedule that is enforced instead of giving students too much freedom.

Christopher's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Toffler's school of tomorrow is one of the most interesting I have read about American education. Several important issues are expressed but the suggestions in my opinion are too extreme. Changes should be subtly made, rather than eliminating everything and starting over. If we eliminate our old system of education completely there will be several new issues in addition to the ones he is stating. I do believe our education system should be changed but that there is a better way to do it. I admire the idea of a twenty-four hour day school. This helps because some students can only arrive or function best at certain times. The only issue however, is that it could clash with events. Most events occur later in the day into the night. If students are at school during this time, this could put quite a dent in their schedules. I do like your idea on starting at different times. Some children are very gifted at young ages and should be taught to utilize all of their abilities quickly. Also, fundamental lessons such as learning to read can be acquired at a later age. I would not recommend starting at seven or eight, however. I believe by five everyone should be in some sort of schooling. I also like the idea of changing the curriculum to a student's unique needs and interests. That is something we can change the fastest, in my opinion. If a student knows he wants to be an engineer, there is no reason to force him to take art classes. I am unsure of your policy regarding teachers however, as I am a student myself and do not yet understand the full extent of adult life and thinking. I do think nonteachers could work with teachers but they should make sure they are positive influences. I am not sure as to whether their alternating jobs would aid or hinder the system. I do not think local businesses should be in schools. Businesses are out to gain profit and this could distract students. I believe several of the ideas presented could work, but to implement them it should be more subtle. We must fix one issue before tackling another. If we do this, I believe our educational system will dramatically improve.

luke's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

its a good idea except theres a flaw with the scedual. in your edutopia students arrive for classes whenever they want all day long. i think this is not enough boundaries. if you give children the choice of when and if to go to school...they may never end up going. in my opinion your school needs more boundaries and rules to give it shape and keep it in order.

Kevin M's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I do not think that the school should be open 24/7. Individualizing time schedules is not practical. It would take immense amounts of time, and make it harder for students to make good friends. I spend 10 hours at school, Monday through Friday, and have a close relationship with all of my friends. This is because we are all here for at least 7 hours. The system forces us to get to know each other. That helps us form complex relationships that last a lifetime. I also disagree with the individualized textbooks in the schools. I could see this in college, when students are thinking more about what profession they wish to have, but in grade schools and high schools it is a horrid idea. Students will say they like something like playing video games, and that they want to rate video games when they grow up. Then the textbooks would include things based around video games. I think that these ideas are just idiotic.

Tye's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I disagree that school should be 24/7. A student will not go to school if they are to attend school if they have to be there from any time between 1 am and 6am in the morning every day because it is very annoying to wake up this early every morning. Also, there will not be many teachers willing to go to school at late at night or very early in the morning unless they are payed well. Students will not retain information if they are learning at a time where there tired or bored. Students have lives and should be allowed time to them selves in the afternoon. When deciding on a new scheduel for school, you need to take into consideration that students will not learn if they are being forced to go to school at a time that is incovient to them.

Jacob's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I like how this school would have the 24 hour a day routine where any student could come in at any time of the day. However, most of the things mentioned in the article are the same as what they are today like the yellow school bus. Also I enjoyed the part about integrating the school into the community; because it would make use of the communities strong points. I am not saying I am all for the article, but at the same time I am not against it!

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