Defend Truth


If we want to transform our caterpillars into butterflies, we must ditch the school curriculum


Michael Workman is a retired educator. He has an M.Ed (Curriculum Theory, Planning, Development and Contemporary Issues in Curriculum Evaluation) from the former University of Natal.

Schools all over the world are now teaching the new skills required for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. But before South Africa can look into the future, it still has to deal with the present. This is a reality. For transformation to materialise, many changes have to occur, starting with the curriculum.

There is a story about a prehistoric tribe in which three wise men developed a new curriculum. Children learnt the skills that were relevant for the times. The curriculum’s core components included catching fish with bare hands, ensuring that the tribe never went hungry, and scaring sabre-tooth tigers with fire, for tribe safety. This worked and the tribe slept peacefully at night knowing that the children were learning to look after the tribe.

For entertainment, the children clubbed little blue ponies on their heads, which gave them great pleasure. The wise men were proud of their curriculum. However, with time, subtle changes were occurring in the environment. The rivers were getting colder, making it difficult to catch fish with bare hands and the sabre-tooth tigers were getting braver. It soon became obvious that the curriculum was no longer relevant.

On many occasions, tribe representatives visited the wise men and pleaded with them to transform the curriculum. But the wise men felt that under no circumstances should they be questioned. After all, they were the ones who had created the curriculum.  

Rivers were freezing; the tigers were becoming more ambitious and enjoyed eating the odd tribe member. The blue ponies disappeared because of hoof rot and bad headaches. Still, nothing was going to change the wise men’s minds. They knew it all. No longer afraid of fire, the sabre-tooth tigers enjoyed its warmth and slowly devoured the prehistoric tribe.

As for the wise men, they still could not fathom what had happened and were adamant that their curriculum was perfect in every way until eventually they too, succumbed to the sabre-tooth tigers (adapted from Abner Peddiwell, aka Harold RW Benjamin).

Covid-19 has had a huge impact on everyone and everything, especially children in schools. I assumed that this would be the catalyst that would get our leading education experts to revisit the curriculum. Regrettably, this has not been the case.

Although schools reopened last Monday, I speculate after chatting to numerous teachers that the status quo will remain. I must admit that transformation into the 4IR is expecting too much from teachers who are just trying to keep their heads above water. Notwithstanding, I hope that when we are officially declared “bug free”, our education experts will roll their sleeves up and not continue as if nothing has happened, much like the three wise men, believing that their curriculum was infallible and in no need of improvement, in any way.

Improvement, however, is not what is required in South African schooling — it suggests only fine-tuning an already defunct product. Reform also is based on the same premise. What is the point of improving an already flawed educational system?   

Change is more than tuning or improving a curriculum and involves more structural modifications. Transformation, however, is something different. A good analogy of transformation would be the structural changes that take place from the egg to the larva (caterpillar) to the pupa (chrysalis), and finally, to adult butterfly. If these structural changes do not happen then there would be no butterflies, only pupae or caterpillars.

The whole process of metamorphosis can be likened to transformation. If the majority of schools in South Africa only remain at the larval stage, I cannot see any form of equity being achieved. Schools are sacrosanct. Until there is some form of understanding that trashing schools is assassinating the future of children, looting and violence will continue. What’s more, quality teachers will disappear as the violence escalates. Just as the little blue ponies did.

Schools all over the world are now teaching the new skills required for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Before South Africa can look into the future it still has to deal with the present. This is a reality. For transformation to materialise, many changes have to occur. The basics in numeracy and literacy require immediate attention and infrastructure needs to be sustained, which seems an impossible task — as quickly as schools are built they are destroyed, leaving behind a moribund educational system.

What is required is a massive injection of values into our communities. Continuously blaming atrocities of the past such as apartheid, Christian national education or outcomes-based education (OBE), which are all repulsive and should never be forgotten, is no excuse. Nor is to sit by and watch what is happening.

What is required are more butterflies and fewer caterpillars. To quote Nelson Mandela, “education is the most powerful weapon with which you can change the world”. So why all the violence when the most powerful weapon is still in the arsenal? DM


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  • Diane Black says:

    Well said! There is no return to normal as we knew it in daily life so now is the chance to change an outdated curriculum. Empower all children, not just those who have purpose built schools and fibre connections!

  • Marlina Elburg says:

    Literacy and numeracy are the first requirements. No progress is possible unless those basics are covered.

  • Sam van Coller says:

    The ‘excellent’ academic education I received 70 years ago did little to prepare me for adult life. I suspect little has changed since them

  • Susan Buekes says:

    Back to reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic. And anything to stimulate a brain to think.

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