Education Lessons from Alvin Toffler

Less than a year before I was born, Alvin Toffler who recently passed away, published a book that would later inspire me think more deeply about the impact of change in society. In this book, Toffler popularized the term “future shock”, the disorienting result of living in times of rapid and constant change. This first book extended to two more, The Third Wave, and Power Shift. Through these books and other efforts, Toffler established himself as one of the most known and influential futurists of the last fifty years. His ideas inspired a generation of futurists, not to mention a growing interest in trying to make informed predictions about the future impact of emerging cultural and technological trends in the world.

Among other things, Toffler popularized and introduced many to the concept of information overload, a theme that certainly gained traction even more as the Internet emerged. Amid that development, many people found it easier to understanding the implications of trends that Toffler spotted decades before the expansion of our contemporary digital world. In fact, people today will use the phrase without realizing Toffler’s role in shaping its usage.

Toffler saw and wrote about many future innovations. These ranged from cloning to cable television, the Internet to mobile devices and communication; as well and many sociological, psychological and economic implications of these and other developments. While he certainly did not invent such things, his writing sparked curiosities that influenced what came to be. After all, when you have as large of a forum as Toffler developed, your predictions quickly blend into a shaping of the future. In fact, he knew this well and stated as much when he wrote, “Our moral responsibility is not to stop the future, but to shape it…to channel our destiny in humane directions and to ease the trauma of transition.”

Toffler on Education

Already in Future Shock, Toffler developed a growing perspective on the future of education, partly represented in a widely used quote from the text, “Tomorrow’s illiterate will not be the man who can’t read; he will be the man who has not learned how to unlearn.” Yet, I sometimes lament that this quote is truncated from the surrounding sentences in the text which provide an even richer set of ideals and context.

By instructing students how to learn, unlearn and relearn, a powerful new dimension can be added to education. Psychologist Herbert Gerjuoy of the Human Resources Research Organization phrases it simply: ‘The new education must teach the individual how to classify and reclassify information, how to evaluate its veracity, how to change categories when necessary, how to move from the concrete to the abstract and back, how to look at problems from a new direction—how to teach himself. Tomorrow’s illiterate will not be the man who can’t read; he will be the man who has not learned how to learn.’

This grew out of his larger observations about the rate of of change. If the future will perpetually arrive prematurely, as Toffler noted, this has massive implications for life, work and education. The knowledge and skill necessary for a given job will change more rapidly resulting in the need to both learn and relearn. This also means more shifts from one job to another as certain jobs become obsolete or at least in lesser demand. In such a context, it is no longer about building a set of skills that will serve you well for a lifetime as much as developing the capacities to adapt, learn, unlearn, and be the the designers of your own learning goals and pathways.

The Affect and the Future

Yet, some might miss that Toffler also tempered this with the need for people who have more than head knowledge and skills. The world of the future, as Toffler saw it, needs compassionate people as well. “Society needs people who…know how to be compassionate and honest…Society needs all kinds of skills that are not just cognitive; they’re emotional, they’re affectional. You can’t run the society on data and computers alone.”

Shaping the Future as a Moral Responsibility

Toffler was far from a luddite. While he wrote about the dark side of the future, his writings indicated a conviction that we can help shape the future by our words and actions. He further challenged readers to neither put their heads in the sand nor to completely resist change. In fact, he saw change and the emerging future as an opportunity for us to bring about more favorable conditions in our communities and world. At the end of his book, The Third Wave, he said it this way on page 443: “The responsibility for change…lies within us. We must begin with ourselves, teaching ourselves not to close our minds prematurely to the novel, the surprising, the seemingly radical.” Similarly, he warned that our accomplishments of the past are no guarantee of similar outcomes in the future, represented in another widely shared quote, “The first rule of survival is clear: Nothing is more dangerous than yesterday’s success.”

Multiple Futures

I do not agree with many of Tofflers political and ideological positions, but his work unquestionably influenced my thinking and provided me with insight into the role of future studies in education. Yet, among all his ideas and words, there is a single quote that continues to inspire my work and writing. In fact, this quote is partly behind a core part of my vision for the future of education, namely the idea that there is not one future but many, that the most humane and compelling future of education is a vision of multiple futures. On p. 463 of Future Shock, he wrote: “We need a multiplicity of visions, dreams and prophecies – images of potential tomorrows.” In education, I expand this to say that we do not just need multiple visions and dreams. We need for multiple visions and dreams to become a reality.

Why Informal Learning is an Important Part of Future Success

Informal learning matters for students. This is my continued reflection on Will Richardson’s 9 Elephants in the Class(Room) That Should “Unsettle” Us. If you have not done so already, I encourage you to check out his original article. It is definitely worth the time and would make for a great discussion starter among educators.

And finally, we know that learning that sticks is usually learned informally, that explicit knowledge accounts for very little of our success in most professions.

In a world of democratized access to a broad range of knowledge, informal learning is taking on an even more important role. In fact, I’ve often described the capacity and extend of informal learning to be a significant part of the new digital divide. In the early days, the digital divide referred to those who did and did not have access to computers and the Internet. Then it was extended to include those who were restricted in their access and education with these items. Now we are at a point where we know that access is not equal. Those who just have access to digital technologies and the Internet in formal settings like school are lagging behind those who have access to these technologies during unstructured time.

Why is this the case? As best as we can tell, it is because this unstructured time is where young people get to direct their own learning. They hang out with others. They learn about networking. They learn how to set informal learning goals, establish a plan of action, and adjust that plan as they get feedback on how they are doing. Unstructured and informal learning is about growing as a learner, leveraging the power of passion-based learning, and learning for something other than a grade or because it was required or prescribed by some authority figure.

As such, this sort of informal learning is a place where people have the ability to develop the capacity for more self-directed approaches to lifelong learning. Those who do this and develop their skills in this area have an advantage over those who are persistently depending and submissive to authority figures who tell them what to learn, when to learn, and how to learn. While there are some jobs in the world where you are praised for just following the instructions of a micro-managing boss, the growing number of jobs are not that way. Those who gain opportunity for leadership positions show initiative. They identify problems and pursue solutions, often before a boss or another person even notices that it is a problem. They know how to play well with others and the importance of being a good follower at the right time, but they are also self-starters who are intrinsically motivated.

The greater the leadership position, the less orientation that you often get. This isn’t true across all industries but it is in many. In other words, the people who find the greatest success in terms of leadership and advancement know how to learn informally. They are not just good at doing what they are told. They can step into an ambiguous or complex and confusing context and find a way through it. They can bring order to chaos, direction to misguided efforts, energy and confidence to otherwise deflated contexts. These are the people who do more than take advantage of opportunities provided to them. They create opportunities.

All of this can be nurtured by informal learning. Yet, school is not a place that usually leaves much space for informal learning. Schools as learning communities are, by definition, frequently referred to as formal learning communities. Perhaps that is good and appropriate. Perhaps we could benefit from spending more time considering the implications of Sugata Mitra’s concepts around self-organized learning environments both in and outside of school.

Is School Preparing Kids for Life After Graduation?

Is school preparing kids for life after graduation? This is my continued reflection on Will Richardson’s 9 Elephants in the Class(Room) That Should “Unsettle” Us. If you have not done so already, I encourage you to check out his original article. It is definitely worth the time and would make for a great discussion starter among educators.

We know (I think) that the system of education as currently constructed is not adequately preparing kids for what follows if and when they graduate.”

People are Content

Richardson writes this statement as if it is undeniable, but I don’t think most people agree. There is not a strong sense of urgency about making large scale changes in education. Yes, we read and hear about concerns over student test scores declining and underwhelming performance by students in any number of ways. Yet, if we interview many parents, quite a few are content with school. Or, for those who are not content, the changes that they think are important are, in the big picture, minor. Most people are okay with the current form and structure of school. Parents are not demanding a major curricular overhaul, re-imagining how we go about school, or better preparation for life. Most people want to tweak the system or make it a safer system. They don’t want a new system.

In fact, parents and students are quite often focused more on grades. If they are getting adequate grades, all is well with the system. They are not asking whether earning a particular grade in a given class actually relates to some sort of larger skill acquisition in life. It is more about being good at the game of school and making it to the next level.

Tweaking the System or Changing It?

All of this suggests to me that most people do not agree with Richardson when he claims that our education system is not preparing kids for life after school. Yet, I sympathize with his argument. I don’t see a doomsday future if we continue down the same education pathway, but if that happens, I do expect a gradually increased lack of perceived relevance for school. Yet, plenty will graduate from the existing system and go on to live a good life. Others, however, will not.

Preparing for Life After School

The question that is important to me is this. How can we design an education system that best equips a diverse student population for each of their individual lives after college? What sort of curriculum, learning experience and approach to schooling will best facilitate that. How do we help students become their best selves? This is a far more important series of questions than those about how we can increase test scores or deal with what are ultimately just the trappings of an education.

If we are going to get serious about preparing students for life after graduation, then that makes that we need to dig much deeper into what life after college might look like for students individually and collectively. It means being willing to set aside our conventional educational ideals long enough to consider the broader range of possibilities, taking the time to grapple with multiple and conflicting answers about life.

It also calls for recognizing that life after graduation will not be the same for every student. So, this likely means getting much more serious about personalized learning. This is not just to cater to the preferences of individual students. It is because they are each different people preparing for distinct lives. How do we start to imagine an education system that embraces such a perspective and is willing to reconsider conventions for the sake of such a noble goal…equipping each person for his/her unique future of graduation?

Forget About IQ to Make Schools Better

Schools will be much better if we can get everyone to forget about IQ. The more that I read and learn about the fascinating research on how people develop expertise (ala people like Anders Ericsson), the more I believe that the concept of IQ is an enemy of schools striving to be better and serve students more effectively.

There are many sources, but I quickly summarized one that gives us a glimpse into the origin of IQ. The concept of IQ goes back to the 1900s, developing alongside the institution of mandatory education in France. The government charged Alfred Binet with devising a means to determine which students were likely to struggle in school so that those students could get additional assistance. He created a test that focused upon skills like memory, attention and problem-solving. Yet, Binet emphasized that the test failed to measure the full breadth of a person’s intelligence, and that this is something that can change over time and be influenced by many other factors.

Origin of IQ

We can trace the idea of IQ from that original start through a series of additional tests and purposes over time. Somewhere along the line, people began to think of IQ as a way to separate those born with high intelligence from those who were not. Howard Gardner’s work around multiple intelligences sought to broaden our understanding, but even to this day, you will find plenty of people who put a great deal of emphasis upon the idea of IQ, raw intelligence, or in-born intellectual aptitude.

I don’t deny the reality that we are born with different genes, and that these genetic differences have an impact upon us. Yet, there is much that we can learn and do to impact our thinking, behaviors, attitudes, skill, and expertise. As Ericsson notes in his 2016 book on peak performance, world class chess players might have slightly higher IQs, but IQ is not the key factor in becoming one of the best.

That comes from hours and hours of practice, not only that, but learning to practice the right way. Some forms of practice are superior to others. This is true when it comes to getting good at math, accounting, various sports, playing musical instruments, dance, leading people, building a business, communicating effectively and much more. We can also get really good in any of these domains granted that we put in the time and learn the best ways to practice.

Going Astray

Note that the first IQ test by Binet did not get created to label kids and dismiss them as incapable of achieving greatness. Instead, they wanted to find out students who might struggle so teachers could help them get better. Yet, even if we interview P12 teachers and University professors today, many are quite  influenced by thinking that certain students are just naturally better than others. Quite often teachers do not actually become experts at helping people become experts in a given domain. So, when they attempt certain teaching strategies and some learn well while others struggle, they assume the difference is the student’s natural ability or something else with the student.

Getting Bettter

I’m suggesting that we are much better off if we assume something else. Anyone can make impressive improvements at pretty much anything (given some obvious physical limitations) with enough time, practice, the right kind of practice (which is not always apparent), and the right type of feedback. I don’t care how old you are when you are reading this. You can learn to play amazing songs on the piano over the next 5-10 years if you put in the time, effort, and learn the tried and tested methods to learn how to play the piano. You can do the same thing with countless skills, habits and behaviors.


There are critics of this idea. Some continue to argue that, when meta-analyses (studies of studies) show that deliberate practice as I am describing is valuable. Yet, it is only one of several factors, including genes. From what I’ve read, proponents of deliberate practice do not disregard the influence of other factors, but argue for deliberate practice as a way to help dispel myths about being good or bad at something. Nonetheless, some argue that certain people over-emphasize deliberate practice, not giving enough attention to other important factors. Recognizing this caution, I continue to see the perspective offered by the deliberate practice research to be an incredibly valuable addition to what and how we think about learning.

Let’s Fix This

This is a far more fruitful mindset in our schools. Imagine what might happen if every teacher, every parent, and every student believed and accepted this perspective. How could it change what we do an how we do it in school? How could it change the outcomes for students? If we want to help as many students as possible to reach the highest levels of achievement possible, this is how we do it. We start with changing what we believe and think about learning. We emphasize the fact that everyone can and will get better, even really good granted adequate time, practice, and the right methods.

At a minimum, I would love for every student to know and believe this. From there each student can begin to develop the skill of learning how to learn, learn how to break down a desired skill into steps, figure out the best methods to learn something, find the right resources (human and otherwise), and then get to work at becoming world-class on one or more areas.