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.

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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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Caroline's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Isabel, My son unschooled his way through college and, although he doesn't have a degree, he has the knowledge. He also had no problem finding a job when he felt like he was done! He went to work at two colleges without actually going to the colleges. He took classes, most of them unofficially, that pertained to his work. They were often graduate level classes taught by his bosses that he was asked to sit in on.

His experience leads me to believe that the entire system is messed up. Work and learning should be integrated. Instead of college - we should develop a new system which combines the old "apprenticeship" system with more formal learning. The idea would be that you could work in your field of choice while also taking classes that pertain to the work you do. After you've achieved proficiency in that field (i.e. architecture, urban planning, computer science, etc.), then, instead of a four year degree you would have a certificate in your field.

While this is not the current system - you can still do it. If you know what you want to do, look for a company willing to either hire you or give you an internship. Look for classes that will help you in that field and take them. You could even audit the classes, which would be even cheaper. If you really want the degree, there's a good possibility you can take enough classes to get your four year degree and the right University might even give you credits for your work experience too.

Good luck, and I hope you find a way to hold onto your love of learning throughout your college experience. Even if you get stuck in the traditional mode - remember you have a lifetime of learning to do afterwards!

Liza Loop's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Beautiful article. Thanks for speaking up.

Liza Loop's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Check out what is left of the Friends World College. This program had its heyday in the '60s with a totally experiential curriculum. It may be that some of that spirit is still left in its current instantiation. Worth a look.

Liza Loop's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you, Mr. Toffler, for speaking up -- again.
Many of us (in the US and much of the developed world) can agree with your point of view. What surprises me is how few practical visions there are of what we might build, "from the ground up", in place of our current educational institutions.
I'm working on this problem from two perspectives under the title: Open Educative Systems.
The first perspective is to ask: If we didn't have any educational institutions and we were charged with building new ones, what could we do with today's technology?
The second perspective starts from existing school infrastructure and asks: What are the various functions that schools, colleges and non-formal educational organizations do? How can we revise our institutions to optimize each of these functions? How should the new institutions relate to each other to provide lifelong support to each individual learner?
I have a few ideas to share and I would like to invite all the Edutopia readers to join in both the envisioning and building process. You might want to post a brief response here, but if you really want to get into the deeper discussion, please go to
Since you've just read Alvin Toffler's comments about what we're not doing very well in education so far, let me whet your appetite with some functional suggestions.

1)Providing Custodial Care...Toffler notes that a lot of what schools do today is babysit while parents are working or otherwise engaged. What if we separated out that function from academic schooling and provided 24/7 public child care? While we're at institution building, let's include care for limited ability and aged folks as well -- anyone who can't be left on their own at home or in the community. The staff in care facilities would not be charged with "teaching", only providing the best possible social environment for their charges.
Yes, this would be expensive. But we're brainstorming first and becoming practical a little later. We may find that significant savings can be realized by removing students from the classroom who are not interested in the academic program offered during the traditional school day. Beside, this is not a compulsory program. Some parents will choose to care for their children at home or with relatives and friends. Those who can afford it can pay a fee.
The second responsibility of the care facility is to help their patrons keep appointments for on-campus classes or distance learning meetings. All care facilities would need to have enough connectivity and computer workstations so that they could meet the demand for on-line teaching -- whether programmed or teacher-coach-facilitator led.

2)Open Portal School-Classes-Courses...Computer-based educational resources are already growing rapidly but the "care problem" has been a stumbling block. Today, on-line offerings assume that the student is a)under parental supervision, b) on a school campus supervised by "teachers" or c) able to be unsupervised. Now that we have envisioned providing a place for learners who need supervision to be, whether or not they are engaged in some formal learning activity, we can really focus on what is appropriate to teach via a distance medium. More on this huge subject later.

3)Face-to-face Campuses...Although a lot of what we traditionally learn in school can be taught just as well online, some things just have to be done in person. Gardening, team sports or swimming, artistic performances, wood shop, chemistry lab -- these and a thousand other activities are better done in environments much like today's school campuses. Some students even learn quickly and thrive in traditional teacher-centered classrooms. For all these activities we need to keep our face-to-face campuses. Why not schedule them 24/7, run them efficiently and not have either children or adults on campus who don't choose to be there? No day care on the teaching campus. No "teachers" saddled with day care. Learners able to accesses their "lessons" from home, care, campus or other community center. This could be a recipe for solving a lot of discipline problems. Let's work on a much finer grained picture later.
4)Learning Experience Record-keeping...Now that we have learners in different places at different times of the day and night we have created a record-keeping nightmare -- or have we? This is the kind of thing that computers are really good at. All your online learning activity is easy to track and record. You could swipe your "learning smart card" whenever you went to an on campus activity or to a museum. You could even use the card if you went to a book lecture or took some on-the-job training. So record-keeping isn't such a big hurdle. It's just a matter of having the will to implement a centralized system. Privacy? Well, yes, that does have to be addressed.
5)Testing...By now you have probably caught on to the process I'm inviting you to participate in -- imagine, raise objections, imagine some more, ask how to and how much it costs, search for examples, implement bit by bit, integrate the parts. I have lots of ideas about testing but you'll have to go to to find them.
So far I've come up with 10 functions for the Open Educative System. Embryonic forms of separate institutions that fulfill most of these functions already exist. The challenge is to scale them, make them affordable (or public) and integrate them.

Mr. Toffler, please cast your critical eye on our progress and maybe we'll succeed in Reshaping Learning from the Ground Up.

Tim's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

why not have smaller satellite type schools rather than the huge institutional type schools that I was educated in. Smaller schools,closer to home with more flexible schedule and custom learning.
I would also like to see the internet used more in the education system.

Alistair Owens's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The world has accelerated. Global markets, instant communication, phones with internet access etc. have revolutionised the skills we need for the future. Yet our educational system is based on the games politicians play with the teaching resources and curriculum. In the UK the average tenure of the Educational Minister is 18 months. This means a child will endure 10 Ministers during their 15 years schooling journey.

Each level of the schooling process is critical of the one below. Secondary schools blame inadequate primary schooling and employers blame secondary schools for children ill prepared to enter employment.

We have watched the evolutionary approach to education which is now floundering. We would benefit from the revolutionary approach with the curriculum and examination being set by the receiving body. Secondary schools would set the primary, employers or universities would set the secondary. This way the end result would be relevant and make better use of hard working and skilled teachers.

Diane Darrow's picture
Diane Darrow
Artist and Educator

What I love about what Mr.Toffler does with his comments is completely open up the box and turn our perspective of education inside out. It will take this type of perspective to lead education to the change it needs.
Will this change happen? I am becoming doubtful.

Bob Calder's picture
Bob Calder
Internet and Society

The idea that Bill Gates has anything to offer education research beside money has yet to be proved. Certainly his view is more an echo of William Bennett who famously stated that public schools should not have internet service. Of course, quoting Gates is safer than quoting the erstwhile king of home-school curriculum services and CNN talking head.

The balance of the "education history" makes a broad assumption that is U.S.-centric and assumes moguls are particularly important in shaping the dialog with a brief nod toward philosophy. We seem to be obsessed with the industrial model of education but surprisingly unimpressed with the industrial model of management which is actually what is up for destruction!

The dialog is askew and cannot move forward.

I suggest a more global view that includes the Confucian model of public schooling which is more philosophically satisfying and practical in terms of global citizenship.

Because the management of schools is taught in the university system, I would expect some dialog about reforming the curriculum and practices. I don't see it. Neither do I see useful analysis of top performing school systems, both foreign (TIMS study and private U.S. schools (college admissions as proof of success.)

What I do see is a call for more charter schools. Unfortunately there is little evidence that charter schools hold out hope for improvement. In fact there is solid evidence that charter school results are shaped by admission practices, not management. I take the recent discussions about Columbia High School's huge population of special needs students as reasonable evidence of normal district level management practices across the U.S.

Stacie's picture
6-8 Language Arts

The problem does not lie within the actual educational system, but with the educational system taking on the responsibility of the parent and community, along with the unachievable demands of the federal government. Even if the system were to be completely rebuilt from the ground up it would not succeed; the culture of child-centered parenting, alone in itself, is a destructive force upon any desire to learn. Children do not understand the value of education because they do not understand the value of work because they do not understand the reward of either; everything is given, nothing is earned. There are too many forces at work against public education to identify the problem or provide a clear solution. We can only stumble forward in the hopes that we will stumble upon a working solution. But nevertheless, we are silly to remain stagnant and resist change. For we are certain of one thing in this calamity, that our current educational system is ineffective. What to do?

Jim Knight's picture
Jim Knight
Middle School Special Ed Teacher

Dear Mr. Toffler,

I couldn't agree with your more. One good way to begin to transform education for todays's Digital Students is train teachers online how to become 21st Century Teachers and deliver education using IPads and Tables. One of our eCourse that does this is below for your review. We have more like this with many more coming very soon.: Using iPad Apps and an iPad to teach to the K12 Common Core:

Some more of our on-line eCourses:


Jim Knight
VP of Education
Cell: 707-334-1955

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