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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

Ber's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The system is already being fixed and implemented by the parents themselves. It is called Home Schooling!! We go 24 hours a day, start different children at different ages, work across the spectrum of curriculum, let the child learn in the style that suits thier personalities, integrate with the community, use all ages as aids, teachers and students, often we run cottage business. This is just what homeschoolers do.

My daughter thought she wanted to be a vet so she went and viewed surgeries and office visits with our vet. She then became intrigued by the study of Anthropology and now is working on a degree in Cultural Anthropology. Another of our children enjoys writing, one is designing a space ship and the other wants to be a pilot and then there is one who just wants to be a good mom.

Now colleges and universities are soliciting the homeschoolers. The system works. The cultural, social, and academic excellence of this life style of learning is paying off. We have taught our children now for 14 years. Teach a child love of learning and he will never grow old or bored.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In my heart I do agree with what Mr. Toffler is discussing but where is this world that adults do not have to come into work from 9 to 5 or similar to that. Yes there is more jobs that might have more flexibility but working in 2nd and 3rd world countries the old universe is still very alive. The universe that Mr. Toffler is discussing is seen in Western countries but even the 800 phone numbers being answered by many people all over the world still have to work for specific hours. This is the direction we are heading in but it is hard to vision a universe that is not working during daylight hours and providing serviced during daylight hours. The methods, yes, should be changed on how we are teaching students but to tell a student to come when you are ready to learn... I would like to tell a teacher to come to work when you are ready to facilitate the learning... sounds nice but...

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hear me out before I am pounced on and attacked. I thoroughly agree that our present system was adopted, in part, to fuel industrialization and replaced our agronomy based economy. But at present, other then globalization and the emergence of high tech and service economy jobs, there is no clear cut picture of what is going on job-wise. Don't forget, schools were also designed to transmit culture and national values. As our society is split, so too is our school system. We have - no doubt about it - dumbed down our schools and our teaching. Phonics are not taught, kids can't make change, no one MEMORIZES the times tables, division tables, etc. No one knows History or great literature. Or very few do. So one problem I have with the 'new education' is the seeming loss of cultural transmission and a basic education. Another consideration is, who is going to pay for all this? Who is going to license the teachers and make sure they aren't child-molesters or crooks? True, we get our share now but we have a system in place that governs this. Finally, we need to work with parents and families. There is no discipline or respect for anything anymore. To me, an open system of self-actualization as is being described would be a disaster at this juncture as our children are, in many instances but not all, lazy, unmotivated, and willing to settle for less as long as they have music, video games, and hip-hop. Go ahead and talk to some kids. Some, especially lower socio-economic ones, think they'd be happy at $10 an hour jobs. THAT'S the problem. And if the system is that broken, why are Asians and other immigrants coming here in droves and prospering both in our schools and in our supposedly broken economy as well? Food for thought!

Lauxa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

So much of what is learned in school is just trivia, be it the parts of an atom or the names and dates of historical events or world geography. And trivia is good, to an extent, because it provides the facts for analytical thinking. Obviously kids also need to learn reading and basic math, but that is usually acquired by age 10 and is only a small portion of the elementary school curriculum.

I think I can do trivia better than the schools through web-based flashcards. Imagine thousands or hundreds of thousands of picture-based flashcards where kids can view the ones which look most interesting to them at any given time. Imagine these flashcards having different levels, starting from basic object recognition and then going more in-depth as the child progresses. Imagine kids self-testing their retention through fun online games or multiplayer "Trivial Pursuit" style games.

With the trivia part of education solved, kids can then focus on acquiring real-world skills. I agree with the first poster that home schooling is a great way to do this, and I really wish that everyone could afford to home school. But maybe if the apprenticeship or internship model could be revived, it would be almost as good. At age 7 or 8, kids could apply to businesses or doctors' offices or mechanic shops to help out and get a feel for the business. Teenagers could be learning to rebuild engines or file medical papers instead of going to school and working at McDonald's. The current system just seems like such a waste...

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I went to a charter school. They suck. Also, he's just another neo-conservative who wants to banish all things public from the hands of the (he's hoping) less-educated children.

PS. So he wants something new and varied, yet he proposes charter schools?
You are aware that children in charter schools, despite more funding per child, generally perform worse on tests, generally do not make any more money in the work force, and once again arrive at the same time every day, wait for a bell and ride a bus home. Come on people, look through the phony interest and realize that public education is one of the best institutions we have and reform from within, not without.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Simple solution: Use the defense industry's method of COST-PLUS funding. Spend whatever it takes to educate each child, and then give a big, fat bonus to the staffmembers. If it's good enough for Halliburton, it will be good enough for our schools.

Chuck's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

To All:

Mr. Toffler is correct. Shed the conventional wisdom of schools since it is out of date and wrong for the majority of children who are born with an innate ability to learn.

The understanding of intelligence and learning supports everything Mr. Toffler recommends.

Two points for consideration, the world is on a 24/7 schedule and the internet has created the opportunity for our children to educate themselves at their own pace once they are released from "prison" each day.

If public schools and their constituents wish to survive they best lift their heads and pay attention.

Gyaneshwaran's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I fully agree with whatever Mr.Toffler has suggested in the interview.
My education experience in India has been no different and has convinced me that it is no good to deal with the real world. "Education is the ability to meet life's situations." Our current education system is completely outdated and inadequate in this regard.
Here are my suggestions for improvement, in addition to what Mr. Toffler has given:
1. Include 'People Handling and Public speaking skills' on the lines of the courses prepared by Dale Carnegie.
2. Include 'Financial Intelligence' courses on the lines of 'Rich Dad Poor Dad' by Robert Kiyosaki.
3. The Education should begin with courses on HOW TO THINK (Edward de Bono) and HOW TO USE YOUR HEAD (Tony Buzan)and HOW TO LEARN (Tony Buzan). The student can then choose and learn whatever interests him/her at whatever pace suits him/her.
4. The Teachers should actually be Professionals - like entrepreneurs, CXOs, Surgeons, Pilots, Scientists, etc who can give the flavour of the actual life in the real world. Learning should be an apprenticeship under various professionals, since the best way to learn is by doing.


Pat's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

First of all, he did not propose charter schools exclusively, he proposed them as one part of a plan of change.
Secondly,I teach in the public schools and they are not one of the best institutions we have. They are a wasteland of economic inefficiency, and petty rule enforcement designed to create cubical filler for the corporate machine. Any learning that does occur occurs in spite of, not because of, that institution.

Compulsory education has failed. No child left behind is a joke. And because of these two concepts our schools double as juvenile detention centers as dangerous as prisons.
Were the schools to shut down tomorrow, I would walk away jobless but inspired with hope for the future.

pawnhandler's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I hate to say it, but most of the current educational nightmare is in response to your first book. That's what led to the No Child Left Untested nonsense. Teachers were working hard at differentiating curriculum, helping students self-actualize, etc., but instead we're now required to have each child pass standardized tests that are specifically written so 50% fail. My students who don't hear a word of English outside of school are expected to score the same as rich English-speaking kids with internet access, cable TVs, and library cards.

At another school I had a student who said he didn't need to learn anything because he was going to work in his father's restaurant when he grew up. Should he be exempt from schooling in the hopes that his father remains alive and nothing bad happens to the restaurant? Or should he be expected to get a minimal standard of education because he is lucky enough to live in a first world nation and not in a refugee camp or war-torn area?

Some schools stink -- public, private, parochial, charter -- some of each stink. Some homeschooling households stink -- and the children are homed but not schooled. There is no perfect system. But if you eliminate the stupid testing morass then good teachers will stay in the profession, they can use their brains and creativity and education, and we can stop being a grading factory.

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