The Story of the Christmas Ham

Challenging Assumptions About Schooling that are based on technological limitations of the past.


The story is told of a woman who brought home a leg of ham and was preparing it for Christmas Dinner. She proceded to cut it in half, before placing it in the oven to cook it. Her husband, watching on, asked “Why do you cut it in half? Is that so it cooks better in the middle?” His wife paused a moment and then answered “I don’t really know, that’s just what I’ve always done. I saw my mother doing that when I was a girl”. Later the in-laws arrived for Christmas dinner and the question was brought up: “Mum – why did you cut the leg of ham in half before placing it in the oven to cook?”  “I don’t really know”, her mother replied. “Your grandma used to do that – so it’s just something I’ve always done – there must be a reason for it!” Later the family all travelled to Grandma’s house to share Christmas tea. During a lul in the conversation, the wife asked her grandmother, “Grandma, why did you teach Mum to cut the leg of ham in half before cooking it?”  “Well“, replied the grandmother, “when your mother was a girl, my oven was very small and I couldn’t fit the whole leg in without cutting it in half.”

I’m not sure if the oven story is true, but I like it regardless, because I see a parallel between the story and a number of school assumptions we continue to hold because our teachers did, and they did because their teachers did. The technological reasons for these practices are now gone, yet we still continue to do them without questioning whether they still make sense.

Here are four examples of 20th Century assumptions I think are still common, but are based on yesterday’s technological limitations, now gone.

  • Teachers explain the most important lessons to their students when they are all together in the classroom. A decade ago that was perfectly reasonable. When else could a teacher communicate with her students but when they were together in class? Now there are hundreds of ways of communicating with students sychronously and asynchronously, at any time of day, in or out of school. That ought to make us reconsider when and how we share our thoughts with our students.
  • Teachers need to ‘know their stuff’ before teaching it. In the past, it was necessary for teachers to be expert in everything the students were learning because classrooms were isolated from the rest of the world. Once the door was closed, the rest of the world was shut out – leaving students with just the teacher’s knowledge (and whatever books were in the room). So if the teacher didn’t ‘know his stuff’ the students wouldn’t be able to learn the subject! But now, students have access to the same pool as knowledge as their teachers – right at their fingertips! That ought to make us reconsider what the role of a teacher is in the learning process.
  • Students all progress through a course at the same pace. In the past it really made sense to be that way.  When the teacher was the students’ primary source of knowledge, and that knowledge could only be shared by talking in class time, we needed all the students to be there all the time, hearing every word the teacher speaks. But now, why do students need to progress at the same pace, or even learn the same things at all? Now that students have access to knowledge from a thousand sources, the practice of keeping them all together is ripe to be challenged.
  • Students must record their learning and ideas in writing. How else, in the past, could they have recorded their thoughts and understandings? There really were no other convenient or practical ways to do it! Now there are many socially current ways. Yet, I think if we are honest, we still value writing as somehow more academically valid. But is that assumption based on anything more than tradition?

I’m sure there are other examples. If you can think of any, please leave them in the comments!

Am I saying we should discontinue any practice based on bygone technological limitiations? Not necessarily. There may now be other (new) reasons for wanting to uphold some practices. But I think, if there are such reasons, we should be able to articulate them.  When someone asks why we cut the leg of ham in half we should at least know why we choose to do it.