The Water Buffalo and Sewing Curriculum

The time has come to weave together a few of the strands that we’ve been covering in these 3D Eye posts. We need to look at

  • The new national curriculum for English schools, which is about to be unveiled
  • The impact on learning and teaching of the revolution in information technology that’s becoming ubiquitous in homes and schools, and indeed in school bags and coat pockets
  • The whole notion of ‘Cultural Literacy’ and the malign influence of Ed Hirsch and his admirers, including Mr Gove
  • The imposition of the so-called English Baccalaureate
  • The battles in the USA over the imposition of the Common Core – effectively a national curriculum which each of the states of the union will be required to adopt in 2014
  • The notion that every one of us needs to discover what Sir Ken Robinson calls our “Element”, and his statement that “finding your passion changes everything”.

But first – an anecdote.

This week we came across a superb article written by Dr Yong Zhao who is an associate dean for global education and a professor of education at the University of Oregon.

In it he argues that the imposition of a fixed curriculum is elitist, arrogant, authoritarian and counter-productive. To make his point he very succinctly offers this gem from his own educational history:

An anecdote: For hundreds of years it was possible for the adults in my little village in China to figure out what all children should know and be able to do: handling the water buffalo was one for the boys and sewing for the girls. My village was small and isolated, with around 200 people. But that predication became invalid when China opened up to the outside world in the 1980s. The common standards in my village proved to be wrong later in at least two cases. First it did not work for me. I was pretty bad at what my village’s Common Core prescribed (handling the water buffalo) so I had to do something else (coming to America to debate with Marc Tucker, for example). Second, it did not work for the rest of the children in the village either, because working as a migrant worker in the city is different from handling a water buffalo.

water buffalo 1

In other words, within a single lifetime, in fact within a couple of decades, it’s been possible and necessary for millions of people to transform their lives, take on unimagined careers and forms of work, and through lifelong learning continuously change their ways of life, their earning capacities and their career trajectories.

It’s all very well for the likes of Mr Gove and Ed Hirsch to declare that an educated person should know and should be able to recite the poems of Dryden, for example – but where’s the relevance, let alone the interest or the motivation, for millions of children and young people who are keen to learn and indeed thirsty for knowledge – but not necessarily the knowledge that politicians and others insist on prescribing for them and insist on testing them on. Information technology gives them instant access to vast amounts of knowledge – so why shouldn’t learning be individualised, personalised, and carried on at a pace that enthusiastic students want to go at? Just consider how you’d feel about having to learn how to handle a water buffalo for days and weeks on end, and then apply that thought to poetry, history, physics, maths and all the rest.

water buffalo 2

We’re not arguing here that children don’t need to be literate and numerate – of course they do. Study skills are worth more than practically anything else you can think of – along with personal intelligence, social intelligence, spiritual intelligence and emotional literacy. (Etc.) But the real key to educational achievement & attainment is a true love of learning for its own sake – and the best way to foster a love of learning and a thirst for learning is to make learning personalised, relevant, interesting and wherever possible enjoyable. On that foundation you can build further layers that might require considerable brainache and memorisation – but students will willingly undertake that further construction of knowledge if they can see that it’s meaningful, worthwhile and necessary.

We would also argue that children have a right to be co-constructors of their own education – a right which we see as being enshrined in the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Children.

water buffalo 3

Here are a few more thoughts of Professor Zhao:

Let me restate my main point: it is impossible, unnecessary, and harmful for a small group of individuals to predetermine and impose upon all students the same set of knowledge and skills and expect all students progress at the same pace (if the students don’t, it is the teachers’ and schools’ fault). I am not against standards per se for good standards can serve as a useful guide. What I am against is Common and Core, that is, the same standards for all students and a few subjects (currently math and English language arts) as the core of all children’s education diet. I might even love the Common Core if they were not common or core.

There has never been a lack of attempts to figure out what all young people should know and be able to do, consequently there is no shortage of standards around. The fact that there have been so many attempts suggests the difficulty of the task. People simply cannot seem to agree what all children should know and learn in general. People cannot even agree what to teach in math, the supposedly the most straightforward, and have fought many math wars over the last century.

water buffalo 4

Truly creative people know a lot and they have worked hard at learning it, but do they know a lot about what they are passionate about, or what the government wants them to know? Do they work hard at learning something that is personally meaningful, or do they work hard at learning something prescribed by others?

Almost all totalitarian governments and dictators claim that they have the responsibility to engineer a society so their people can live happily and that their people are not capable of knowing what is good for them and top-level design is necessary. For example, they claim that their people cannot defend themselves against bad information, thus the leaders have to impose censorship. The leaders should decide what their people should view, listen to, and read. This self-assigned responsibility comes from the assumption that the authority knows best. By the way, we adults (parents and teachers) often commit the same error of arrogance: we automatically assume we know better than our children.

When standards are enforced with high stakes testing, when teachers and principals are evaluated based on students’ test scores, when students’ fates are decided by test scores, the teaching and learning must become standardized and constrained. Just take a look at what happened under NCLB. It did not ask schools to narrow the curriculum, to reduce time for music and the arts, for social studies and science, or for lunch and recess, but it all happened.

It is simply not true that the Common Core will prepare our children for the future. To conclude, I quote a comment left on my Facebook page by one of my personal heros, former president of America Educational Research Association (AERA) and widely respected educational researcher Gene Glass: “Common Core Standards are idiots’ solution to a misunderstood problem. The problem is an archaic, useless curriculum that will prepare no child for life in 2040 and beyond.”

water buffalo 6


So whose side are you on?

We suggest taking a look (again?) at this piece we published in October last year, after we’d come across a Guardian article on the ideas of Ed Hirsch, their influence on our current government, and the whole idea of being or becoming “culturally literate”:

‘Cultural Literacy’, ‘Key Facts’ and Hard Times

And please recall our set of key questions for those whose thinking about education remains stuck in the 19th Century:

Should all children be forced to learn whatever Key Facts certain politically-motivated adults say they should learn?

Should those facts be changed and be determined by whichever politicians currently form the government?

Should all teachers be forced to teach the same curriculum regardless of the enthusiasms and preferences of their pupils?

Should children be passive or active learners?

Should children (and by implication teachers) be tested to ensure they have ‘remembered’ the ‘key facts’ and can therefore be considered “culturally literate”?

Other related articles:

Simon Jenkins on Education in England – A Devastating Critique (

Key Concepts for the Learning Revolution

The Culture of Education

Ed Miliband and Improving Education

Yong Zhao

ox and Lao Tzu


About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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