Do You Have A Saber-Toothed Curriculum?

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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Is your curriculum long in the tooth?

We know that curriculum is a hugely important factor in influencing outcomes. Ofsted are giving it a lot of attention and everyone is ‘treating it seriously’ and debating what should go in it. Some talk about plaiting the curriculum, some say it needs to be ‘brave’ and others are even asking how we can make the curriculum irresistible.

We also know that schools can be spectacularly good at churning out students with bits of paper in things they don’t need. Many aren’t future-ready because the curriculum hasn’t prepared them to flourish.

Imagine having surgeons that can’t stitch you up because they have no tactile general knowledge and manual dexterity skills. Oops, that’s already the case as shown in the Edge Foundation report Towards a Twenty-First Century Education System.

Our world has been described as volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) so can we realistically prepare a curriculum for the real-life VUCA world of today and tomorrow? Should creativity be at the heart of all learning?

The Prehistoric Curriculum

This reminds me of Harold R. W. Benjamin’s classic work The Saber-Toothed Curriculum which he penned using the pseudonym J. Abner Peddiwell. His book, published in 1939, presents a series of lectures by Professor Peddiwell on the topic of stone-age education. What he has to stay is still relevant today.

One of the chapters centres on the Paleolithic curriculum. It describes a cave-dwelling society that refuses to alter its subject content despite an impending ice age which completely redefines the skills required in the workplace.

This is a society where children were taught how to grab fish, club woolly horses and scare saber-toothed tigers with fire. They needed these skills to sustain themselves, to get food and protect themselves from danger. This was all fine until the climate changed and a great glacier came down the valley where the tribe lived.

What happened next? The tigers disappeared and bears came in their place and they weren’t afraid of fires and couldn’t be scared away. The waters became so muddy that the fish could no longer be seen and caught with bare hands. The tribe adapted to these new circumstances by digging pits to trap bears and caught fish using nets. But schools still continued to teach the arts of tiger-scaring and fish-grabbing.

Through the parable of the Saber-Toothed Curriculum, Benjamin showed that schools can be completely out of touch and those that weren’t bold, courageous and flexible weren’t responding to the emerging needs of the life experience. Why do schools teach an outdated set of skills to students when some students can’t find meaningful work?

Curriculum Content

Is your curriculum living in the past? If it isn’t relevant to the times then its guaranteed students are being set up for failure and schools are doing them a massive disservice. Can we equate reading, writing and arithmetic to fish-grabbing, horse-clubbing, and tiger-scaring?

These are important skills but they are not enough to be functional members of society. Teaching ‘knowledge’ is great for spitting out facts and figures on game shows and University Challenge. However, does it get you where you need to go? We are told that being attentive listeners, effective questioners, dynamic evaluators of fake news and bias, savvy internet users and canny coders are what students need. That’s what they need now but how do we prepare students for ‘nonexistent/not yet existing professions‘?

Some argue otherwise and say that knowledge is everything. Dylan Wiliam speaking at the Sutton Trust Best in Class Summit said, “We have to put knowledge back in the curriculum. The skills-based curriculum that a lot of countries have adopted, is actually lowering student achievement.”

Wiliam tells us that a good curriculum is:

  • Balanced
  • Rigorous
  • Coherent
  • Vertically integrated
  • Appropriate
  • Focused/parsimonious
  • Relevant

To that, we can add three more: courage, heart and brain.

Benjamin was a teacher, scholar and soldier who had courage, heart and a brain. We all need to revisit his provocative and entertaining work and remind ourselves that sticking to the teachings of old rather than of present times is dangerous.

Curriculum Upgrade

So, where else do we look for inspiration and guidance? Are there beacons of hope? Well Jon Brunskill has ideas about building the best curriculum in the world. His shootin’ from the hip ‘Beyond Knowledge Organisers‘ blog post is getting plenty of rock star celeb edu-Twitters pouring praise on his vision. Is this what a curriculum should look like?

Perhaps, but then whatever we learn now will likely be obsolete within 10-20 years. You can roll-out a curriculum or introduce it as a big bang, but there is no such thing as a curriculum for life. A curriculum dates rapidly even if we try to predict future skills. So what do we do?

As the late great Hans Rosling says in ‘Factfulness‘, just as we get a letter from car manufacturers recalling our vehicles because they have found something faulty,

When the facts about the world that you were taught in school and universities become out of date, you should get a letter too: “Sorry, what we taught you is no longer true. Please return your brain for a free upgrade.”

The curriculum is not content. It’s an unhappy cocktail of ideas and models that are playing catch-up. Some will have you in stitches and some will leave you without any.


Helen Jones (Warrington North) (Lab) makes the same point about the saber-toothed curriculum in relation to GCSE English Literature Exams.

6 thoughts on “Do You Have A Saber-Toothed Curriculum?

  1. How can students be “effective questioners, dynamic evaluators of fake news and bias, savvy internet users” without prerequisite knowledge? You’re over-generalizing by claiming whatever knowledge students learn now will be outdated in 10-20 years. Knowledge on the periphery of a domain changes slowly but the core knowledge rarely shifts. There’s plenty still relevant in the curriculum today that was also relevant 10 years ago. When you ask “Can we equate reading, writing and arithmetic to fish-grabbing, horse-clubbing, and tiger-scaring?” are you being deliberately provocative, or do you genuinely believe teaching the ‘three Rs’ is outdated?

  2. Core to the domain the ‘knowledge’ is a part of. Are you claiming there is no propositional knowledge that forms the core of physics, mathematics, writing, chemistry, biology? Why is it an outdated idea and what are you proposing should replace this knowledge in a modern curriculum? Are you going to answer the other questions in my previous post?

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