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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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Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that reform should probably be done from within. Unlike, I think, most people on this page, I am actually currently attending a public school,and although I really admire the support for school reform, I feel that completely uprooting the current system would prove more disruptive than the current system. I feel that many of these suggestions are not very well thought through.
I would love to see more learning and classes provided on the web, but I think teachers need to take into account the many distractions that are found online, and the multiple ways in which homework via internet makes it easier to cheat. Also, not everyone has easy internet access, and if special courses are provided only online, you exclude a large group of people from accessing these courses.
Something else that's important to consider is the cost that would be involved in redesigning the entire system, particularly with the idea of having teachers at the school at all hours. How much will you pay to have 24/7 schooling? Do you really think that teachers who come at 1 am are going to be at their best to teach a class? What makes more sense is to have a small 24/7 skeleton staff of counselors and teachers who can answer basic questions on a wide range of subjects. Use the internet system for kids who just can't come to school conveniently during the day, and have the skeleton staff available to answer any questions they might have on the online reading and to encourage them to follow a set plan. The night staff could also help any students who were up late doing homework. For schools with fewer resources, they could even share this group by employing the same people and giving the phone number to students from multiple schools. I think that this idea has the appeal of practicality, and so might actually be used in the next several generations. After all, I think we all know just how willing the current administration is to spend money on schools.
Another thing that was said that really needs to be reconsidered is the idea that students with specific interests would only study that one subject, ie. sports jocks would study only the history of sports and business of sports.
First of all, please consider which ages you're asking to make this decision. Are you considering Elementary? Middle schoolers? I'm a high schooler looking at college, and let me tell you, very few of my friends have a firm idea of what their interests are. If my sister and her friends were to pick their interest right now, each of them would be a future english voice actor for Japanese anime dubs. Should she then, as soon as she enters High School next year, start studying exclusively Japanese culture and the little math involved in making a cartoon? Maybe she'd love it to start with, but that's hardly going to help her in the real world, and she'd figure that out pretty quickly.
Even if, for some reason, my sister did fabulously well in all of her classes and became the leading voice actor in a successful English dub, she'd still be one of several million children who now knows almost nothing that is not directly applicable to their job. She won't have learned any of the world wars, won't be able to understand the Pythagorean Theorem, won't have read a single classic. Is that the kind of person that the education system is supposed to churn out? And what if, later on in life, she wanted to switch professions. She would have no clue about any other subject, no experience in anything but anime
There's a reason that there's a distinction between High School and College. It's colleges where students go to focus on a particular field, to prepare themselves in that field. It's high school where students go to ensure that the average US citizen can at least find Iraq on the map.
Don't get me wrong, so many of these ideas have merit. I would love to see more teachers, the ones who end up cynical and hating their job and us, take breaks from teaching and explore other fields. I would also love to see students more able to set their own schedules, I'd never wake up at 6:30 again. But reshaping the school system is going to take time, and tearing down the current system without having a practical, working system to replace it with is just asking for trouble.

Jennifer in Norman, OK's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with Mr. Toffler that a true revolution in education is needed. What he would think if education were funded ENTIRELY by a universal voucher system? Imagine the parents of every child deciding what/where/from whom their child learned to determine where to spend THEIR education dollars/vouchers? Seems a free market would allow different groups to offer different types of education. Businesses could offer seminars, individuals could offer apprenticeships, and universities could offer courses for all ages. Strict "age = grade" divisions, one-size-fits-all schedules, and compulsory attendance would disappear. True teachers would be those who have some skill/knowledge/experience to share in addition to being able to share it in a way that inspires passion to the learners. Wouldn't the liberation of current education dollars from the hands of the government lead to education being seen as valuable, an asset, a commodity, something the consumers (children's families) make decisions about based on value?

shaper of many's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am very glad for you and your family; home-schooling can work, but I know personally of other situations where it hasn't. You cannot tout home-schooling as the answer for everyone for quite a few reasons, but the two I find most pressing are: 1) most families have both parents working or are run by a single parent who cannot quit working in order to fully and properly educate their child, and 2) I've seen first hand what many, many children are "learning" at home, and I'm so grateful that they don't have to spend any more minutes in that environment than they already do.

If only there were this many experts on solving our healthcare crisis; rapid, unchecked environmental destruction; and oh, while we are at it, let's throw in world peace. Educating millions of infinitely different people with an infinite number of variables that sculpts who they may become before they ever walk through a school door is a problem for all of us on the same magnitude as the others I mentioned in jest, and how to educate effectively for so many in so many different circumstances has no single solution.

Too bad we don't have as many people actually working towards betterment as we have willing to verbally tear apart those in there for the long-haul and the good fight. This is bigger than just you and your kids; this is about all of our children and YOUR future.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Change is both exciting and scary for all involved. It is great to see new ideas being discussed. I can't help but think though that many people making generalizations about public education haven't spent time in schools a very long time. I teach first graders. If I did not address the individual needs of my students everyday there would be no success. If you have 20 students, you have 20 distinct, individual sets of needs. I rarely teach a lesson that is not individualized for students in some way. Last year 54% of my first grade class was involved in special education. Not rather easy to manage learning disabilities where some simple modifications and accommodations would ensure success, but much more challenging situations. One student had Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, one had Autism, one had Oppositional Defiance Disorder with a severe speech problem, one came into first grade knowing 2 letters, 3 were on medication for ADHD. All of these students needed me to individualize their learning process. Many times the need of one student superceded those of others: no learning was going to take place in that room unless the immediate needs of that one child were met. Teachers do not only meet academic needs. All of the goals for which teachers are held accountable are academic, but much of what we do has nothing to do with academics and everything to do with nurturing a whole and healthy child. Academic successes for the child help greatly toward this goal too, but the most basic of needs must be met before learning can take place: food, sleep, health, and feeling safe and loved.
Now, none of this is complaining. It was the most challenging and rewarding year of teaching in my career. It is simply an illustration of what is going on right now. I am proud of the work I do in public education. I work hard and often children accidentally call me "Mommy". I take that as the best compliment ever. I teach students to read with a balanced literacy program that includes phonics and individualized texts for each child on their instructional level. We write about what interests each individual and discuss their growth individually. Students are taught how to converse with each other and learn with a partner. I integrate as much as I can into our curriculum: I bring music, art, cooking, technology and my hobbies into the class. Every year I invite parents in to talk about their hobbies or jobs, very few share. My point is that I am doing everything I can to make my students' education powerful. Now, if we can come up with changes to make this easier for students, teachers and parents, I am all for that! I welcome it! Please don't ask me to consider things that intuitively do not make sense to me. I can see with the 24/7 idea teachers having to plan for 24 hours a day. I would quit teaching tomorrow. Teaching already consumes most of my day. Please don't ask me to put the welfare of my students into the hands of people who are not qualified teachers (Do you mean by non-teachers, people like assistants who are paid less but who would have all the responsibilities of working with the students, but the teacher develops the plans?) I've mentored 5 student teachers, its something you have to work hard at to become proficient: not everyone can do it.
Also, I don't want to work in the business world. I AM A TEACHER. I want to wake up every day and work with children. That is what I do. Let's make an analogy here. Does that mean only someone who has actually conceived a baby, carried it in her womb and delivered it really qualified to be an obstetrician because she understands first hand what is involved in the process? So, in other words, I can only effectively teach first graders to learn to read if I spend time working in a bank so that I really understand what type of reading and so forth they will be expected to do there? Education had nothing to do with TRAINING. I am not in the business of TRAINING children. Education does not equal job training. Someone who has been trained to use power-point isn't educated. Education is about being exposed to ideas, analyzing, critically thinking and creating.
Integrating the curriculum has suffered with the enactment of NCLB. The goal of passing the mandated testing to fulfill NCLB requirements has caused the narrow focus of only tested "skills". It has put pressure on teachers, children and parents to reach an unobtainable, undesirable goal: to make everyone average by 2014. Have you ever read Harrison Bergeron? NCLB. It was given a name so insulting to education that I can't even fathom it. The very name suggests that educators have been doing nothing but shrugging their shoulders and leaving students behind. When I want to help a child grow, I look carefully at what that child is doing that is successful and working for that child. I make the good stronger. Make the good stronger and the unsuccessful ideas will atrophy.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Who is interested in starting a school along the lines of what Mr. Toffler (and many others) propose? I live in Canada . . . I want to start a school *within* the public education system, accessible to all, in other words, which is experimental and provocative, with good teachers, high standards, and a commitment to trying new ideas and showing the general public that these ideas can work.

Send me an e-mail.

Cindy

Carolyn Foote's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

A lot of blogs have been discussing this issue as well. Recently I reviewed Sir Ken Robinson's book, and he also was asking that we rethink the system which is based on a factory model. (http://futura.edublogs.org/2008/01/04/getting-off-of-the-roundabout/)

I think there is much value in public education but our system isn't nimble enough, isn't cross-disciplinary, and is still mired in 19th century factory models. We have many wonderful wonderful teachers, as he so rightly mentions.

But the system of too many students per teacher, the focus on testing above all else, and the inability of the system to respond quickly to change make it very challenging.

True education is about the connection between people and ideas--when students are units quickly passing through our rooms in 45 minute intervals, it is challenging to make those connections, and for many, it never happens. No amount of focus on testing will change that.

I think there is a lot of rethinking that needs to happen, and all of us who are educators should be participating in those conversations!

Check out some recent blog topics on this including Will Richardson's www.weblogg-ed.com and Clay Burell's www.beyondschool.org.

Thanks for the excellent interview. It's good to push the envelope but also hear someone recognizing the complexity of the situation and that this isn't a quick fix.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I appluad you for being so young and taking a stand on this. You have some great ideas! The only thing I want to say, being an adult in Corporate America, I NEVER use any of the things I learned about in school about wars and stories that we read (unless I am in a contest that asks me those questions). I think we all need to be exposed to history and classics but I also feel that we have to make the curriculum more relevant to the "real" world. Times have changed and unfortunately, we are WAY behind other countries.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I AM A TEENAGER FROM INDIA. I RECENTLY READ FUTURE SHOCK...QUITE IMPRESSED WITH HIS DEEP THOUGHTS ABOUT FUTURE...I DONT KNOW MUCH ABOUT HIM...BUT I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW HIS COMMENTS ON CURRENT AS WELL AS FUTURE INDIA ???

Scott's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I almost completely disagree with the author of this article in many ways. For one, I do not believe that schools need to be completely reformed, because they work fine just the way they are presently. Schools have taught children to bring us to where we are today. Although schools do not need to be completely redesigned, their are some improvements that they could use. I also disagree with the author when he says that public schools are not needed, because those who can not afford private school need somewhere to go to get educated. I also do not agree with the statement saying that schools are used to create a workforce for an economy that is not their, because schools job is just to educate, and secondly, the United States has one of the strongest economies in the world. For these reasons, I do not agree with this article.

Brian's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with Mr. Toffler in the fundamentals of change needed in schools. I think that students have to want to learn to be prepared for the real world and their potential jobs. As a result, the schooling system has to be customized. It is obvious that different students work best differently, so we can maximize their productivity, happiness, and all around life by customizing the education of each student. All of these ideas sound great, but applying them to a real school will be very problematic.

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