Monthly Archives: September 2010

Video for the Classroom: Onandaga Chief Oren Lyons at the 2009 GIA Conference

It’s rare that the past and the present connects in such a visceral way.

Around this time, social studies classrooms in New York are studying the Native American nations of our state.  Among the most famous are those of the Haudenosaunee, the confederacy known as the Five Nations (which became Six Nations in the early 18th century) and more familiarly as the Iroquois.  At their height, the Haudensaunee confederacy stretched their influence from Ohio to Maine, and were powerful actors in the struggles for control of North America in the 17th and 18th Century.

Theres is one of the earliest examples of representative government, and their ancestors are still activists today.

Oren Lyons, chief of the Onandaga Nation, Faithkeeper of the turtle clan of the Onondaga and Seneca Nations, is featured today in a talk he gave at the opening plenary session of the 2009 Grantmakers in the Arts conference in Brooklyn, New York.  In his youth, Lyons was a legendary lacrosse player, both for Syracuse University (where he played alongside football great Jim Brown) and professionally. 

Today, Lyons is a respected and much-admired advocate for indigenous rights, both for his own Haudensaunee brethren and for indigneous people worldwide.  He has spoken to government leaders, indigenous leaders from other nations, even opening a session of the United Nations General Assembly in 1992.  Lyons is also a respected teacher: he serves as a SUNY Distinguished Service Professor and Director of the Center of Native American Studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

 His talk concerns the rights of indigenous people to their land, as well as the need to control climate change in order to maintain the sanctity of nature.  Watch with your students, especially those who feel that Native American lore is a subject for long ago.

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Sorry sir, Just a Bayonet Charge: The Use of Play in the History Classroom

Every year, I do a lesson that makes teachers and administrators cringe.

Around the start of my unit on the American Revolution, I begin with a lesson on the intricacies of 18th century warfare.  The students are lined up in ranks, with meter sticks on their shoulders to simulate their flintlock muskets.  In step to a military cadence playing from my iPod, my little regiment marches in place to face an invisible enemy on the battlefield—which happens to end at the back bulletin board.

After a quick lesson on loading, carrying and firing a musket, I direct the students to fire in ranks, all the while tapping the unfortunate dead and wounded on the shoulder.  True to form, they fall over themselves in writhing “pain.” 

As the survivors make their last volley, I instruct the regiment to “fix bayonets”, and lead them headlong into a charge towards the back of the room, screaming and howling.  By the time an administrator shows up to complain about the noise, there are heaps of wounded on one side of the room, and rabid infantry tearing up the word wall with their pig-stickers on the other.

“Sorry sir.  Bayonet charge.”  It’s a miracle I haven’t been fired yet.

The French and Indian War gets even more fun.  I plant a Native war party all around the room to shoot at the soldiers from any angle in pitch darkness.  The screams and confusion could rival the real slaughterhouses of Fort Duquesne, Crown Point and Fort William Henry.

The teachers can’t stand it.  The administrators shake their heads in disgust.  Yet when they start to write about the Revolution, they use their “battlefield” experiences to their fullest.  When they leave for middle school, it’s one of the few lessons the students actually remember.

They learned history by doing—a rare feat in a field so often associated with dusty old books and dustier old teachers.

Learning through play is often a taboo subject in today’s classrooms, where the relentless drive to get the test scores up can turn classrooms into Dickensian workhouses.  History, with its current devaluation in the NCLB universe, is in an even more perilous state, as teachers scrambling for time will resort to the tried-and-true textbook to cover the basics so that he/she can say with all sincerity that social studies is taught in that classroom.

The lack of play is a symptom of the mechanical nature of Western education, according to noted British education professor Sir Ken Robinson.  In a famous talk at the 2006 TED Conference, he argued that current educational models stifle creativity to the point that Western nations will no longer be the source for new and innovative ideas, and children will be ill-prepared for a world where traditional education will matter less and less.  In a 2009 article for CNN.com, Robinson stated that

“…we’re all born with immense natural talents but our institutions, especially education, tend to stifle many of them and as a result we are fomenting a human and an economic disaster.  In education, this vast waste of talent involves a combination of factors. They include a narrow emphasis on certain sorts of academic work; the exile of arts, humanities and physical education programs from schools; arid approaches to teaching math and sciences; an obsessive culture of standardized testing and tight financial pressures to teach to the tests.”

The use of play, therefore, is an important tool in providing a rich, expansive education, especially in history.  Students today have an extreme disconnect with the past, and often cannot understand that people hundreds of years ago have many of the same concerns as people today.

There are times when the linear method of digesting pages of textbook material will not ensure a deep understanding of the past.  So why not explore the past for yourself?  Make a point to involve play as much as possible in your history lessons. 

Role-play events in history and have students create “what-if” scenarios to emphasize the importance of human action.  Stop the talking history and make it a walking, talking, breathing, smelling and seeing history.

Act out how people used tools and weapons: at the very worst, it’ll unload some aggression on kids that desperately want to stick a bayonet into the belly of their worst enemy.

Use the primary sources of history in creative ways: use a “tableau” and act out the characters in a painting or print.  Put famous documents through the writing process to see if their arguments could be improved.

So don’t be afraid to play in your classroom, especially for history lessons.  The more students get to use their brains in creative play, the better they will be at complex, real-life situations that involve critical thinking and analysis. 

In short, play makes sure kids turn into adults.  Make sure your history lessons involve some play and creativity.

Just make sure you shut the door when you signal the bayonet charge.

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NBC Education Nation Summit: “Waiting for Superman” and Teacher Town Hall

The blind and dumb leading the blinder and dumber, courtesy of MSNBC.com

I couldn’t participate in yesterday’s Teacher Town Hall for NBC’s Education Nation, and I blame Blighter for it.

The Ozymandia blogger and my good friend was married on Saturday, and let’s just say I enjoyed myself a little too much to be involved in any serious discussion on education issues.

Yesterday, at NBC’s Education Nation Summit at Rockefeller Center, featured special Meet the Press panel, a panel discussion about the upcoming school reform documentary Waiting for Superman, as well as the Teacher Town Hall I missed.  They’re both linked below, but some things of note:

  1. Randi Weingarten needed some real coaching in that discussion.  It’s amazing, and downright insulting, that we send a non-teacher up to defend one of the oldest professions in civilization.  You can’t go up against Canada and Rhee, the education golden-children, looking like a shrill Teamster’s wife on the picket line.
  2. Geoffrey Canada, Harlem education entrepreneur, has enjoyed enormous success, which should be applauded.  But how many of us have the financial resources he has to do the outside-the-box stuff that works in his situation?
  3. Michelle Rhee comes off as a complete whiner and a bad loser.  She whines about lawsuits, AFT support of her boss’ opponent in the DC mayors’ race, the fact that a democratic government hamstrings her efforts.  C’mon…cowboy up and face reality: you had the White House, the US Department of Education and the reform movement behind you.  Don’t whine about losing an election: those are the breaks.  Man up and deal.
  4. In a part of the Teacher Town Hall, where a teacher (young, maybe TFA?) gets up and says teachers “should be under attack…we should be held accountable…you’re not in this for the money”, she just sounds like a TFA shill.  Furthermore, she should face political and economic reality.  You will NEVER attract the best teachers with salaries not commensurate with other professions, nor will you attract them with the flimsy education requirements of graduate schools.
  5. The fact that teacher/bloggers such as Deven Black, Ira Socol, Sabrina and yours truly–teacher/journalists that not only stick their neck out on education “reform”, but also teach as well–were so underrepresented boggles the mind.  Not to toot my own horn, of course.

Below are the links to each of these pieces, so take a look for yourselves, and be as liberal as you want with your opinions:

MSNBC “Waiting for Superman” Panel discussion

Part II of “Superman” Panel discussion

Part III of “Superman” Panel discussion

Part IV of “Superman” Panel discussion

Part V of “Superman” Panel discussion

MSNBC Teacher Town Hall: “Are teachers under attack?”

MSNBC Teacher Town Hall in its Entirety

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History and Gaming: a review of PBS’ Mission: US

Over the years, video games have attempted to enter the realm of history.  More often than not, the history was sacrificed for the video game.

In my youth, crude games such as Oregon Trail or the more nuanced fact-finding adventures of the Carmen Sandiego series proliferated the market.  They attempted to give useful content information in the guise of video entertainment; the product was often less than the sum of its parts.  Carmen Sandiego games could be completed with a little patience and the guidebook it came with—I did it without the book, but that’s just empty bragging.

As games became more advanced graphically and structurally, companies attempted to fuse historical elements into the realm of “role-playing” adventures—stories where the player actively makes decisions about the characters in the story a la Dungeons and Dragons.  The late 1990s and early 2000s produced a slew of role-playing games with a historical bent: Sid Maier’s Civilization, the Age of Empires series, Caesar, Call of Duty etc.  The games were long, complex, and varied, giving players a great degree of flexibility in play and scenario development.

Unfortunately, the history often stopped at the characters themselves. 

Most of these games juxtaposed characters and weapons from vastly different regions and time periods in absurd situations: Age of Empires was the worst culprit in this.  How did the Ancient Greeks develop siege cannons and musketeers, all of a sudden?  And when did Mongols ever attack Mayan temples?  One cheat code even involved a sports car with a machine gun barreling down mounted knights and assorted foot soldiers. 

Thus the conundrum: how to create a complex, exciting gaming experience while providing factual, rich content in history.  PBS may have found the answer.

Co-sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, Mission: US  is an interactive multimedia game where students play the role of individual actors in American history.  Although not without its flaws, it is a notable first step in the creation of viable and academically rigorous gaming for social studies.

PBS has launched the first mission of the game, “For Crown or Colony”, as a beta-tester so that teachers and students can give feedback on the game.  Once you register as a teacher or student (registration is free), you can begin by either the streaming web game or downloading the game onto your hard drive. 

You play as the role of Nathaniel “Nat” Wheeler, a 14 year old printer’s apprentice in Boston in the winter of 1770.  The game starts as Nat leaves his Uxbridge, Massachussets farm for his apprenticeship.  Along the way, the player must choose Nat’s motions, thoughts and actions—similar to Legend of Zelda and other early role-playing games. 

As Nat continues his life in Boston, he encounters people from all walks of life, from enslaved African and poet Phyllis Wheatley to patriot silversmith Paul Revere (improbable, I know, but such is the video game world.).  Nat’s actions will ultimately lead to the fateful Boston Massacre, and the ending of the story depends on the choices the player makes: whether Nat joins the Patriot cause, whether he stays out of the chaos, or whether he espouses Loyalist sympathies.

In each phase of the mission, players collect inventory and vocabulary that allow the player to learn more about the everyday life of colonists in the 1700s.  Furthermore, through the Classroom Guide, teachers can access exercises, lesson plans, and other educational materials to supplement.  There’s even a cute side-game a player can unlock: A Guitar Hero-type game where you can play patriotic tunes on a pennywhistle.

As a piece of interactive education, Mission: US covers most of the bases of the time period.  The characters, though, look ripped out of a Japanese cartoon.  Without color tinting, there would be little real difference between Phyllis Wheatley and Mercy Otis Warren.  Then there’s the dialogue: forgive my ignorance, but why must everyone speak perfect middle-America English?  Isn’t this New England?  Where’s the dropped R’s and the drawn out vowels?

While the animation is crisp, there is very little real action: most of the game is spent conversing with various denizens of Boston.  The action is limited to cinematic set-pieces like the Boston Massacre, and Nat as a player can’t get involved.  Wouldn’t it be cool to wing an oyster shell right on the kisser of a redcoat?

Hence the primary drawback of Mission: US—the lack of action for a demographic that demands more action.  PBS is gearing this series towards grades 5-8.  I know 3rd graders who’ll bore themselves quickly from this.  The 10-13 year old requires more virtual action and connection with the material.  Unfortunately, they get this through games such as Grand Theft Auto, which are hardly instructional.   

This first installment works well to introduce the format.  Getting the students’ attention, though, is another matter.  Future installments will have to make the player a more visceral actor in the storyline, making more complex choices.  If there is action or danger, the player should be actively involved—most current video games have a central actor that acts much more than he/she communicates.

Most importantly, future installments have to at least tickle the sensory needs of young pre-adolescents with hints of PG violence or adventure.  The waiting, talking and walking is what made me give up on Zelda.  It won’t work much better in a game designed to teach American history as well as entertain.

On the other hand, making a realistic video game about subjects like the French and Indian War or the Crusades could make Grand Theft Auto look like Pac-Man.

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Happy Constitution Day! Quotes about our US Constitution

223 years ago, a group of men in a stuffy Philadelphia government building spent a stifling summer creating a four-page document that changed the world.

September 17 is Constitution Day, commemorating the signing of the United States Constitution in 1787.  In over two centuries, countries around the world have seen revolution, coups, turmoil and chaos in which governments and constitutions are remade, discarded and remade again.

Yet with only 27 changes, the same crinkly four pages of parchment have served as the basis of one of the most successful democracies in history.  It stands as one of our “holy trinity” of founding documents, including the Declaration of Independence and the United States Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the Constitution). 

Today more than ever, students need to understand the development, tenets and underlying beliefs of our system of government in order to be productive citizens.

The following are quotes about our Constitution.  Many are celebratory, some offer sage advice, and others give sharp critique.   Whatever the point of view, it stands to reason that one crinkly set of papers caused so much commotion.

Happy Constitution Day, everyone!

“The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.” – Benjamin Franklin

 “The United States Constitution has proved itself the most marvelously elastic compilation of rules of government ever written.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt

“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” – John Adams

“The American Constitution is the greatest governing document, and at some 7,000 words, just about the shortest.” – Stephen Ambrose

“In matters of Power, let no more be heard of confidence in men, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.” – Thomas Jefferson

“The strength of the Constitution, lies in the will of the people to defend it.” – Thomas Edison

“As the British Constitution is the most subtle organism which has proceeded from the womb and long gestation of progressive history, so the American Constitution is, so far as I can see, the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.” – William E. Gladstone

“A constitution is not the act of a government, but of a people constituting a government; and government without a constitution is power without a right. All power exercised over a nation, must have some beginning. It must be either delegated, or assumed. There are not other sources. All delegated power is trust, and all assumed power is usurpation. Time does not alter the nature and quality of either.” – Thomas Paine

“Constitutions should consist only of general provisions; the reason is that they must necessarily be permanent, and that they cannot calculate for the possible change of things.” – Alexander Hamilton

“Don’t interfere with anything in the Constitution. That must be maintained, for it is the only safeguard of our liberties.” – Abraham Lincoln

“Our constitution protects aliens, drunks and U.S. Senators.” – Will Rogers

“The government was set to protect man from criminals — and the Constitution was written to protect man from the government. The Bill of Rights was not directed against private citizens, but against the government — as an explicit declaration that individual rights supersede any public or social power.” – Ayn Rand

“I think there are only three things America will be known for 2,000 years from now when they study this civilization: the Constitution, jazz music, and baseball.” – Gerald Early

And lastly, the birthday document itself:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” – Preamble, Constitution of the United States of America

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The End of the Line for Social Studies Tests in NYS–for now.

The NY Board of Regents on their way to chapel (just kidding)

Well, I think we found something close to closure in the social studies test saga.  It won’t be back for a while…but there’s still hope.

Since we last left the saga of the missing state social studies tests, I have been badgering the Regents to give a more intelligent response than the terse, one-line cast-off I was given.  Apparently, it must have touched a nerve to e-mail over the Jewish holiday, because today I receive a response from Dr. John King, Senior Deputy Commissioner for P-12 Education at the NYS Education Department.  Dr. King wrote:

Dear Mr. D:

I appreciate the opportunity to respond to your concerns regarding the Grades 5 and 8 Social Studies Tests. They were canceled due to fiscal difficulties, not because they were inadequate assessments. Given the current fiscal climate, there are no plans to reinstate these tests in the immediate future.

States may not use Race to the Top funding to support the development and administration of summative assessments. The US Department of Education held a separate competition for assessment funding, but that was focused on the development of a new generation of ELA and mathematics tests. It is worth noting that the application of literacy skills to social studies texts will be a feature of the next generation of ELA tests.

Thank you for your interest in New York State’s testing programs and for all the work you do on behalf of our students.

Sincerely,

Dr. John B. King

This response was a whopping two-paragraphs longer than the last note I received from one of the Regents.  In spite of all the jerking around this summer, I really did appreciate Dr. King being frank with me about the reason why the tests were cancelled.  Still, I didn’t exactly want to let him off the hook.  Here was my response:

Dear Dr. King,

First of all, thank you so much for responding to my concerns. I had reached a dead end all through the summer and I appreciate your candor and forthrightness in explaining the situation and the disposition of funds re: summative assessment.

Also, I fully take into account the difficult fiscal situation we are in, and accept the fact that social studies assessments will not be reinstated in the immediate future. I had wished that social studies not be the perennial whipping-boy of austerity, unlike ELA, mathematics, and science, but such is the situation we face.

However, I do want to leave you with some words for the future. In my years of experience of teaching in the No Child Left Behind universe, I have come to one immutable conclusion: if a subject is not tested, then it is not taught. The pressure, often the terror, of failure in exams has pushed students, teachers and administrators to focus efforts on those subjects that matter most to the education establishment, namely ELA, mathematics, and science. Social studies, far too often, has been left on the backburner, either through tests that have little or no stake in promotion or in half-hearted attempts to “integrate” social studies into the more “preferred” disciplines.

I caution you, however, to not create a “holy trinity” of subject matter while leaving social studies as the mincemeat of integration. Former Harvard president Derek Bok once said that “If you think that education is expensive, try ignorance.” We cannot produce informed, intelligent citizens without a focused, intense instructional system in social studies. Integration into ELA, while useful, does not highlight the content, but rather the reading skills and strategies. The content matters. Our democracy cannot function if our citizens now little or nothing about its form, function or history. This instruction cannot be left to ELA curricula that have different priorities in mind.

To put it in more urgent words, do you trust the future of our American democracy to students that have been cheated out of a proper education about American democracy?

Please remember these words when the fiscal situation changes.

Thank you very much for your time.

Sincerely,

Mr. D

I think this was an appropriate ending–albeit unwanted–for this summer’s social studies drama in New York.

However, that doesn’t mean we will give up the fight to restore social studies’ rightful status in the education of New York’s schoolchildren.  If you want to contact Dr. King and give your reasons to protect social studies in this state, here’s his contact info:

Dr. John B. King, Jr.
Senior Deputy Commissioner
for P-12 Education
Room 125 EB
89 Washington Avenue
Albany, NY 12234
Telephone: 518-474-3862
Fax:  518-473-2056
To give the New York Board of Regents another piece of your mind–because they appreciate your letters so much–click here for my original post on the social studies tests.  The contact information for each of the members of the board is listed.
Let’s not give up the fight.  When the economic situation improves, remind your government representatives, superintendents, the Regents and the grand poobahs in the Education Department that social studies is too important to be cast aside.

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How Standardized Testing Created, then Destroyed, an Empire

Candidates looking at scrolls where the results of the examinations are announced. (Circa 1540)

This is a story about one of the greatest civilizations on Earth. It rose to power and dominated a continent for almost a millennium.

Its decline was swift and complicated.  By the dawn of the 20th Century, it was a shell of its former self…

and it was all, at least partly, due to standardized testing.

China has had standardized testing longer than any other society on the planet.  For an almost unbroken string of 1,300 years, the imperial examination system attracted candidates from all over the country, studying and hoping for a chance to rise to positions of power and influence in the imperial government.

Along with gunpowder, paper, the compass and the printing press, a civil service based on meritocratic competitive exams is one of China’s great contributions to the world.  The abuse and corruption of that system, unfortunately, helped signal its downfall in the late 19th-early 20th century.

Although earlier attempts were made in the 3rd Century BCE, the Chinese government began their famous examination system in the Sui Dynasty, around 605 CE.  Under the T’ang period (618-907), the exam system would spread across China, prompting a cottage industry of schools and tutors designed to prepare candidates for the tests.

The examination system, at least until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), consisted of a comprehensive examination of the “Five Studies” (military strategy, civil law, revenue and taxation, agriculture, and geography) as well as the Four Books and Five Classics, a set of philosophical works written by Confucius and some of his disciples.

There were multiple levels of exams based on the position one sought in the government.  Each degree level demanded a more complex understanding of the content material.  At the district level, the exam focused on knowledge of the Classics and composing poetry using proscribed forms.  At the provincial level, the exam expanded to also test the breadth of knowledge of the content material.  At the highest level, the national examination or palace exams, the candidates were required to apply the Confucian classics to analysis of contemporary political problems, along with all the tests needed in the previous levels.

Examination Hall with 7500 cells, 1873

Candidates would often take 24 to 72 hours to complete the exam.  They were locked in bare, isolated rooms or in cubicles with other candidates.  They had to bring their papers, brushes, ink, food, and other materials for the duration of the test.  In the room were two slabs of wood, that could be put together as a bed, or aligned at different heights to create a desk and chair.  To prevent bias in scoring, all candidates identified their work with a number instead of their name.  After the exam was completed, another person would rewrite the examination before evaluation, so that the candidate’s handwriting couldn’t be recognized.

More or less, the exams were open to all male candidates in China, regardless of social position.  In truth, however, the preparations for the exam, as well as the exams themselves, were time-consuming and expensive.  Often a village would funnel all their resources so that one lucky boy can prepare for exams and rise to high office.  Yet the system remained remarkably free of social or geographic bias, according to Justin Crozier in a 2002 article for China in Focus magazine:

“During the Qing period, over a third of jinshi (national) degree holders came from families with little or no educational background. Nor was the system biased towards the inhabitants of the capital. Degrees were awarded to scholars from throughout China; indeed the provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang boasted the greatest number of jinshi graduates.”

Furthermore, the exams’ emphasis on uniform standards of content and skills formed a unifying force that united China, a country with dozens of ethnic groups.  No matter where the candidate came from, they had to learn the same Confucian classics and content knowledge, and helped spread the Mandarin Chinese dialect—the dialect used in examinations—towards its status as the standard for Chinese language today.

Yet with any system, the examination system would decay and decline—and its decline can serve a lesson to those who cling to standardized tests as the only standard in measuring student progress.

That decline came with an essay.

Around 1370, the so-called “eight-legged essay” developed in the tutoring houses and academies of exam preparation.  700 characters long, this essay form had 8 specifically proscribed sections that demanded an extreme rote knowledge of the Confucian classics and certain idioms and figurative language used in Confucius’ time.   By this time, the other subjects needed for the exams were largely abandoned in favor of an extremely intense knowledge of only the Confucian texts.   Each text averaged over 400,000 characters that had to be carefully memorized and interpreted.

"Damn! I'm two legs short on this essay and I gotta use the john."

By the 1500s, the eight-legged essay became the standard for imperial examinations throughout the empire. Scholars at the time praised its rigor, structure and ease of scoring, since essays of the same format could be scored uniformly.  Thanks to the change in format, the best examination papers were published at the behest of the emperor, who wanted to give candidates anchor papers of what was considered exemplary work.  So along with the exams came the first exam guides, first published in 1587.

This push towards memorizing texts led to various methods to cheat on the test, as well as multiple methods to thwart cheaters.  Crozier mentions that:

“The sheer volume of knowledge required to succeed in the Imperial examinations elevated cheating to something of an art form in China. Miniature books were devised to be concealed in the palm of a hand; shirts had important passages from the Confucian Classics sewn, in miniscule lettering, to their insides; fans were constructed with pass-notes on their obverse.”

Other forms of corruption would also proliferate.  Proctors were often bribed for various reasons: to give the benefit of the doubt on an essay, or simply to have the candidate skip the early degrees to go straight to the national exams.  Imposters, usually exam-takers themselves, would often take tests in others’ stead.

The biggest disadvantage of the new system, however, was also seen as an asset: its uniformity.

The emphasis on the Confucian texts and proscribed methods such as the eight-legged essay produced government officials with no practical knowledge of government service or political problems.  The rote method of learning the classics meant that the deep morals of the Confucian philosophy were lost on candidates who memorized the texts in order to pass the exams, yet used their government posts to corrupt their office and enrich themselves at the expense of the people.

Ranked list of results of palace examinations, Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279)

As the Western universities moved towards natural and social sciences in the 19th century, the Chinese system seemed outdated and obsolete.  Western powers would exert more influence on China through pressuring increasingly corrupt and incompetent government leaders—leaders whose only qualification was the completion of an essay they probably memorized.

By 1850, the examinations would indirectly lead to the second-most bloody conflict in world history.  Hong Xiuquan had failed the provincial examinations in four attempts.  The stress of the exams forced Hong into bed, where he had a mental breakdown and claimed he was the younger brother of Jesus sworn to overthrow the imperial government.  Hong’s movement would create a rival kingdom in southern China and result in the Taiping Rebellion, a civil war that lasted 14 years and cost over 20 million lives.

Attempts were made to reform the exams in 1898, but it was too late.  The Chinese empire officially ended the examinations in 1905, only to be finally overthrown by nationalist warlords in 1911.

The imperial examination system is an important historical example of the triumphs and limitations of standardized testing.  The Chinese system, in its original inception, tested candidates in a basket of knowledge that was applied to political and social problems, thereby creating a civil service based on merit, not on personal connections.  It was open to all levels of Chinese society, and it provided a unifying spirit to a vast empire of disparate peoples.

Yet the system’s greatest strength, its uniformity, would lead to its downfall.  The overemphasis on a simplified—albeit still complex—answer form and the de-emphasis of critical thinking at the expense of rote knowledge created an artificial test.  It became an exam that created industries and crimes designed not to find the best candidates, but rather to do best on the exam.

It led to corruption, foreign influence, stagnation, rebellion, death and disaster.

The Chinese imperial examination system is truly a warning from history.

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