Tag Archives: Standardized test

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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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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