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12 minutes reading time (2492 words)

Four Parables About Educational Reform

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Dave Moursund


The purpose of this IAE Blog entry is to entice you into reading four educational parables. Here are brief introductions to the parables.

The Saber Tooth Curriculum. Harold R.W. Benjamin

Quoting from the Wikipedia:

Harold R.W. Benjamin’s main purpose in his [life’s] work was to preserve the democratic processes in American schooling and for an awakening of instructional consciousness toward individual differences. This belief led him to writing another well known book, The Saber Tooth Curriculum. The Saber Tooth Curriculum was writtenby Benjamin in a pseudo name of J. Abner Peddiwell. Published in 1939, The Saber Tooth Curriculum is satirical commentary explaining how unexamined traditions of schooling can result in resisting needed changes (Guthrie 169). He believed education needs to be responsive to the emerging needs of the life experience and he felt education in his time was sticking to teachings of old rather than of present times.

Quoting the first part of  Benjamin’s story (Peddiwell, 1939):

New-Fist was a doer, in spite of the fact that there was little in his environment with which to do anything very complex. You have undoubtedly heard of the pear-shaped chipped-stone tool which archaeologists call the coup-de-poing [sic] or fist hammer. New-Fist gained his name and a considerable local prestige by producing one of these artifacts in a less rough and more useful form than any previously known to his tribe. His hunting clubs were generally superior weapons, moreover, and his fire-using techniques were patterns of simplicity and precision. He knew how to do things his community needed to have done, and he had the energy and will to go ahead and do them. By virtue of these characteristics he was an educated man.

New-Fist was also a thinker. Then, as now, there were few lengths to which men would not go to avoid the labor and pain of thought. More readily than his fellows, New-Fist pushed himself beyond these lengths to the point where cerebration was inevitable. The same quality of intelligence which led him into the socially approved activity of producing a superior artifact also led him to engage in the socially disapproved practice of thinking. When other men gorged themselves on the proceeds of a successful hunt and vegetated in dull stupor for many hours thereafter, New-Fist ate a little less than his comrades to sit [sic] by the fire and think. He would stare moodily at the flickering flames and wonder about various parts of his environment until he finally got to the point where he became strongly dissatisfied with the accustomed ways of his tribe. He began to catch glimpses of ways in which life might be made better for himself, his family, and his group. By virtue of this development, he became a dangerous man.


The Animan School: A Parable. George Reavis

This very short story was written when George Reavis was the Assistant Superintendent of the Cincinnati Public Schools back in the 1940s! The complete story is given below. This content is in the public domain and free to copy, duplicate, and distribute. If you would prefer a full-color, illustrated book, one is currently available from Crystal Springs Books at 1-800-321-0401 or 603-924-9621 (fax 603-924-6688). A fully illustrated short video of this parable is available at


Once upon a time the animals decided they must do something heroic to meet the problems of a “new world” so they organized a school. They had adopted an activity curriculum consisting of running, climbing, swimming and flying. To make it easier to administer the curriculum, all the animals took all the subjects.

The duck was excellent in swimming. In fact, better than his instructor. But he made only passing grades in flying and was very poor in running. Since he was slow in running, he had to stay after school and also drop swimming in order to practice running. This was kept up until his webbed feet were badly worn and he was only average in swimming. But average was acceptable in school so nobody worried about that, except the duck.

The rabbit started at the top of the class in running but had a nervous breakdown because of so much makeup work in swimming.

The squirrel was excellent in climbing until he developed frustration in the flying class where his teacher made him start from the ground up instead of the treetop down. He also developed a “charlie horse” from overexertion and then got a C in climbing and D in running.

The eagle was a problem child and was disciplined severely. In the climbing class, he beat all the others to the top of the tree but insisted on using his own way to get there.

At the end of the year, an abnormal eel that could swim exceeding well and also run, climb and fly a little had the highest average and was valedictorian.

The prairie dogs stayed out of school and fought the tax levy because the administration would not add digging and burrowing to the curriculum. They apprenticed their children to a badger and later joined the groundhogs and gophers to start a successful private school.

Does this fable have a moral?

Should the Computer Teach the Student, or Vice Versa? Arthur Luehrmann

Art Luehrmann is best known for the large number of computer in education books he wrote, and for a 1972 article in which he introduced and defined the term computing literacy.

Here is a tidbit about Luehrmann’s early work in the field of computers in education. He was at Dartmouth shortly after the programming language BASIC was developed. Quoting from Encyclopedia of library and information science:

The earliest known use of graphics from BASIC dates from the late 1960s when Professor Arthur Luehrmann at Dartmouth College devised a way to attach plotters to teletype printers. He designed a collection of subprograms which let students plot, instead of print, their output. These subprograms worked with any kind of plotter; the students needed to change only one line in their program, identifying the plotter name, to have the same program work on different kinds of plotters.

Quoting the first part of  Arthur Luehrmann’s parable (Luehrmann, 1972):

Once upon a time in the ancient past there was a nation in which writing and reading had not yet been invented. Society was as advanced as possible, considering that it had no mechanism for recording the letter of the law or of writing agreements, contracts, or debts. Nor was there a way of recording the heritage of information and knowledge that had to be passed on from generation to generation.

As a result, a great fraction of the total effort of the society was spent in oral transmission of information. Master teachers, who themselves had been taught by older master teachers, lectured before children and young people of the society. Training a master teacher was a long and expensive process, and so the society could not afford many. For reasons of economy the curriculum was quite rigid and lectures were on a fixed schedule. Teaching, obviously, was a labor-intensive industry based on skilled, expensive talent. Education, per force, was a luxury that could be afforded by the elite classes only.

Then, one day, writing and reading were invented. Not surprisingly, the first application of this new technology was to business and government. Money was printed; laws were encoded; treaties were signed. In response to these needs, a reading and writing industry grew up. Within a few years it was able to offer a broad range of reading and writing services to its customers. The customers found this to be a convenient arrangement, since hiring readers and writers from service vendors eliminated the need for each customer to invest in an expensive R & D effort of its own. The customers remained illiterate. [Bold added for emphasis.]

Chesslandia: A Parable. David Moursund

I (Dave Moursund) had read The Saber-Tooth Curriculum many years before I wrote the Chesslandia article. However, at the time I wrote Chesslandia, I didn't consciously remember having read The Saber-Tooth Curriculum story.

I find it interesting to be living through the struggles our educational system is having in dealing with Information and Communication Technology (ICT) changes in the world. The current pace of change in ICT is much faster than our educational system can adapt to. Thus, there is a growing gap between students' everyday uses of ICT and their uses of ICT in schools. There also is a growing gap between the capabilities of ICT and ways that students are learning to use ICT in school.

Quoting the first part of Chesslandia: A Parable (Moursund, March 1987):

Chesslandia was aptly named. In Chesslandia, almost everybody played chess. A child's earliest toys were chess pieces, chessboards, and figurines of famous chess masters. Children's bedtime tales focused on historical chess games and on great chess-playing folk heroes. Many of the children's television adventure programs were woven around a theme of chess strategy. Most adults watched chess matches on evening and weekend television.

Language was rich in chess vocabulary and metaphors. "I felt powerless—like a pawn facing a queen." "I sent her flowers as an opening gambit." "His methodical, breadth-first approach to problem solving does not suit him to be a player in our company." "I lacked mobility—I had no choice."

The reason was simple. Citizens of Chesslandia had to cope with the deadly CHESS MONSTER! The CHESS MONSTER, usually just called the CM, was large, strong, and fast. It had a voracious appetite for citizens of Chesslandia, although it could survive on a mixed diet of vegetation and small animals.

The CM was a wild animal in every respect but one. It was born with an ability to play chess and an innate desire to play the game. A CM's highest form of pleasure was to defeat a citizen of Chesslandia at a game of chess, and then to eat the defeated victim. Sometimes a CM would spare a defeated victim if the game was well played, perhaps savoring a future match.

In Chesslandia, young children were always accompanied by adults when they went outside. One could never tell when a CM might appear. The adult carried several portable chess boards. (While CMs usually traveled alone, sometimes a group traveled together. Citizens who were adept at playing several simultaneous chess games had a better chance of survival.)

Formal education for adulthood survival in Chesslandia began in the first grade. Indeed, in kindergarten children learned to draw pictures of chess boards and chess pieces. Many children learned how each piece moves even before entering kindergarten. Nursery rhyme songs and children's games helped this memorization process.

In the first grade, students were expected to master the rudiments of chess. They learned to set up the board, name the pieces, make each of the legal moves, and tell when a game had ended. Students learned chess notation so they could record their moves and begin to read chess books. Reading was taught from the "Dick and Jane Chess Series." Even first graders played important roles in the school play, presented at the end of each year. The play was about a famous chess master and contained the immortal lines: "To castle or not to castle—that is the question."

Our Educational System Resists Change

To a large extent, teachers teach the way that they were taught, and parents expect their children to be taught the way that they were taught. This, combined with local control of education, fostered a type of local stability quite resistant to change.

That is not a serious problem when the pace of change in the world or in the country is quite slow. But, it becomes a problem when the pace of change speeds up—as has been happening in our world and country. If you have not already done so, I strongly recommend that you read my IAE-pedia document on Brain Science. It is an understatement to say that our knowledge about and understanding of brain science is “growing in leaps and bounds.” A similar statement holds with the accumulated human knowledge in genetics and genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and computer technology.

From the point of view of people who are knowledgeable in these disciplines, our educational system is falling seriously behind where it could and should be. The parables mentioned above are attempts to help educate people to the need for ongoing changes in our educational system to help students learn to be effective citizens in our changing world.

What You Can Do

Think about the world of today’s children versus what life was like when you were a child, and what life was like when your parents were children, and so on. The pace of change in the world has been steadily accelerating.

Ask yourself: What am I doing to keep up, and what am I doing to help my students, my peers, and still older people keep up with this rapid change of pace? Search for specific examples of what you are doing, and what you could be doing if you assigned a higher priority to these tasks. Then, to quote a Star Trek Captain, “Make it so.”


George Reavis (1940). The animal story: A fable. Retrieved 8/13/2014 from

Luehrmann, A. (Spring, 1972). Should the computer teach the student, or vice versa? Spring Joint Computer Conference Proceedings. Proceedings of the May 16-18, 1972, spring joint computer conference. Vol. 40, AFIPS, Montvale, NJ. Retrieved 8/8/2014 from

Moursund, D. (March, 1987). Chesslandia: A Parable. The Computing Teacher. Eugene, OR: ISTE. Retrieved 8/9/2014 from

Peddiwell, J.A. (1939). The saber-tooth curriculum. New York: McGraw Hill. Retrieved 8/8/2014 from and also from

Some Additional Educational Parables

My 8/13/2014 Google search of the term education parable produced moe than 7 million hits. Here are a few examples. 

Curwin, R.L. (2010).  A Teacher's Parable. retrieved 8/13/2014 from

Goodier, S. (2002). The parable of a child. Rerieved 8/13/2014 from

, B. (2/21/2012).  Mexican fisherman parable and some reflections on Anyon. Retrieved 8/13/2014 from 


Suggested Readings from IAE

IAE Newsletter. (Series beginning February, 2014). Education for student’s futures. IAE Newsletter. Retrieved 8/9/2014 from

Moursund, D. (2014). Brain science. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 8/9/2014 from

Moursund, D. (7/22/2014). Using grand challenges in project-based learning. IAE Blog. Retrieved 8/9/2014 from

Moursund, D. (12/21/2013). Education for the future. IAE Blog. Retrieved 8/9/2014 from

Moursund, D. (July, 2012). Educational game changers. IAE Newsletter. Retrieved 8/9/2014 from

Sylwester, R., & Moursund, D., eds. (March, 2014). Understanding and mastering complexity. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Download the PDF file from Download the Microsoft Word file from

Being Curious About Curiosity
Making School More Relevant to Students


David Moursund (website) on Sunday, 17 August 2014 18:13
Two Pairs of Bulls

Here is an attempt at mathematical humor. The word parable sort of sounds like "pair of bull." So, two parables is like four bulls.

What is the square root of two parables? Well, the square root of four is two, and two bulls is a parable. Thus we have a mathematical proof that the square root of two (parables) is one parable. Hmm. I doubt if this argument will convince a mathematician that the square root of 2 is 1. 8-)

Here is an attempt at mathematical humor. The word parable sort of sounds like "pair of bull." So, two parables is like four bulls. What is the square root of two parables? Well, the square root of four is two, and two bulls is a parable. Thus we have a mathematical proof that the square root of two (parables) is one parable. Hmm. I doubt if this argument will convince a mathematician that the square root of 2 is 1. 8-)
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