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Learning How to Learn: Reflecting on the Work of Alvin Toffler

Alvin Toffler

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” – Alvin Toffler (From Rethinking the Future, by Rowan Gibson, Editor)

Alvin Toffler is famous for popularizing the field of futurism with his influential book Future Shock (1970). In this book, Toffler talks about the ever-increasing speed of technological and cultural change in our world. He says that many of us are addled, and in some cases overwhelmed, by the rapid pace at which we are bombarded with new information, new technological advances and new diversity. He likens this state of confusion to the culture shock that a person often feels when they visit a foreign land, and have to figure out the new norms and taboos of the culture they are visiting. Thus, the term future shock was meant to describe the sense of disorientation that we may feel as a result of the rapid change in our world today.

Toffler followed up by writing a second book called The Third Wave. In this book, he compares the changes over the course of humanity with waves crashing on a beach. The first wave was the Agricultural Age, when humans first began planting crops and therefore became place bound instead of surviving as nomadic hunter-gatherers. This period of human history lasted around 10,000 years. The pace of life during this time was seasonal, and most people lived and worked on farms, or in small villages. The second wave was the Industrial Age, which saw the advent of factories and mass manufacturing. During this age, people left the farm and congregated in urban areas so they could work in the factories. The pace of change during this period sped up, but was also very regularized and routinized. People lived by a clock and regular work schedules. The Industrial Age only lasted about 250 years. The final wave was the Information Age, sparked by the advent of computers and electronic communications. In this period, change is very fast paced, and keeping up is a challenge. The things you learned in elementary school have probably already been overturned and disproven. So what you thought you knew at one point of your life may be completely wrong at a later point in your life (sometimes only days or months later).

Toffler says there are places in the world where all three waves are crashing over cultures simultaneously. What used to be known as “undeveloped” countries are suddenly being thrust into the 21st century without much ceremony or preparation for the people impacted by that change. So, for example, in remote parts of Africa you may find a family living in a traditional tribal structure (like a grass or mud hut), but inside you may find cell phones. For those of us in the “developed” country, a fourth wave may already be crashing over us. This as yet unnamed age seems to be powered by instantaneous global communications and an economy that requires knowledge or information workers more than factory workers or farmers.

In The Third Wave, Toffler talks about how educational systems are coopted by the dominant needs of the current wave. So, for example, during the agricultural age, long summer breaks were necessary so that children could work on the farms. For the industrial age, punctuality, rule-following and the ability to read and follow instructions were needed to produce good factory workers. In the information age, skills in science, technology, math and computer languages were the priority, so those areas became emphasized. In the coming age, what David Houle (2012) has called the Shift Age, the ability to adapt rapidly to changing information, and to deal effectively with a diversity of languages, cultures and lifestyles will be needed for an instantaneously and electronically connected global village and economy. We already see school curricula beginning to focus more clearly in those areas today.

The College of Liberal Studies has always focused on trying to produce students who have “learned how to learn.” When Toffler says that the coming economies will require people who can learn, unlearn and relearn rapidly, he is actually describing the kind of curriculum the College of Liberal Studies hopes to provide for its students. By focusing on interdisciplinary perspectives, we try to avoid the narrow specialization that may have served students well in the industrial age, but which might be a handicap in the rapidly changing information or shift ages. By asking our students to consider and solve problems from multiple academic, cultural and generational perspectives, we are equipping them for the learning, unlearning and relearning that Toffler describes as necessary for the future. By “learning how to learn,” CLS graduates are uniquely equipped for whatever the future may bring.

Frank Rodriquez
Francisco (Frank) G. Rodriquez is Director of Operations and Student Support Services for the College of Liberal Studies. He has worked for 23 years at the College of Liberal Studies, and has almost 30 years of experience working in Oklahoma higher education.

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