Tinkering Toward Edutopia

by Robert Pondiscio
May 13th, 2010

Your humble blogger has a piece in the upcoming issue of Education Next looking at Edutopia, the George Lucas Educational Foundation’s effort to “spread the word about ideal, interactive learning environments and enable others to adapt these successes locally.”  The piece is on EdNext’s website, along with a blog post about it.

Edutopia confidently bills itself as “What Works in Public Education” but substantiating that claim, not surprisingly, is a tall order.  The Edutopian ideal owes a lot to Dewey, and the degree to which you’re a fan of  the “21st century skills” movement is the degree to which you’ll feel comfortable with the Edutopian vision, which tilts heavily toward project-based learning and technology.

One big question that remains unanswered in my mind after working on the piece is the degree to which Edutopia and its six “core principles” are the brainchild of George Lucas himself, and how he got interested in education in the first place. By most accounts, Lucas was an indifferent daydreamer of a student, and an unlikely education philanthropist.  If he was ill-served by his own public school education, it doesn’t seem to have hurt his prospects very much.  Still, once GLEF started raising its profile, I wondered if Lucas was bidding to counterbalance the muscular accountability-and-structures ideas backed by his fellow billionaires Bill Gates and Eli Broad with the ultra-progressive, teacher-friendly Edutopia.  The short answer is no, Edutopia has a very different mission.  Unlike Gates and Broad, Lucas and Edutopia are not policy-driven, and they don’t give out grants to spread (or enforce) their agenda.   It’s essentially a nonprofit media company that covers education.  “Working for a filmmaker, we make films,” says executive director Milton Chen. “And we surround those films with other kinds of information that can support learning about how these innovative classrooms came to be.”


  1. That’s quite the handsome picture they printed next to your by-line as well.

    Comment by KDeRosa — May 13, 2010 @ 8:47 am

  2. Just made my first visit to Edutopia. Video posted on the front page about a SC school could easily deceive a layperson into thinking something meaningful is going on there. But it’s the same BS that happens in our district: collaborative teams, differentiation, staff development, integrating new forms of technology, etc. It all LOOKS so good, but what it amounts to is lots of meetings, lots of process, lots of good PR –and shallow, dull, content-less teaching that robs our kids of the robust liberal arts education they need. A vast fraud is being perpetuated in this country, and Edutopia is not smart enough to see through it.

    Comment by Ben F — May 13, 2010 @ 2:43 pm

  3. Congratulations, Robert, on an article that is both fair and spicy. The phrase “forward-looking to a fault” is exquisite. I would not have been so gentle on Edutopia, but I admire your even-handedness and curiosity. This article can reach Edutopia fans, foes, and agnostics at once.

    I have watched a number of Edutopia videos. Some look quite interesting. (I watched a lovely video of someone I knew in college, who seems to be doing wonderful work.) Others, as Ben points out, reflect the same nonsense that we see at PDs and such. But what strikes me about the videos I have watched, at Edutopia and elsewhere, is the way they downplay the substance of learning. You rarely see the teachers or students go into the subject; it’s all about the “engagement,” the atmosphere of activity and excitement, “high expectations,” or whatever it might be. I would rather watch something a little less dazzling and a little more interesting.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — May 13, 2010 @ 7:18 pm

  4. Reading Diane Ravitch’s book Left Back (think this is right — written in 2000). This sounds like the 7 items the progressive movement wanted in education in the early 1900s…

    So sad…

    Diana — If you haven’t done so already read Left Back by Ravitch. I am a third of the way through…it is scary…

    Comment by tim-10-ber — May 13, 2010 @ 9:20 pm

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