Yong Zhao's recently released book Catching Up or Leading the Way is a must read for educators and policy makers who want to see where our current high stakes testing regimes will take us. Zhao does a masterful job of showing how China has long had an obsession with standardized testing. As far back as AD 605, the Sui Dynasty instituted a Civil Exam called the keju. It was a high stakes gateway to the ruling class that, during its 1,300 year history, proved to be one of the only ways of gaining social promotion. The keju’s importance has risen to astronomical heights – so much so that many have come to see it as China’s fifth grand invention after the compass, gun powder, paper and movable type. Yong Zhao shows the obsessive importance of the keju in his book Catching Up or Leading the Way:
Passing the exams was considered one of the most important accomplishments in a person’s life. Indeed, the two happiest moments for an individual in China were said to be the wedding night and seeing one’s name on the list of people who passed the keju. It was the pursuit of a lifetime for many. With no age limit or limit on how many times one could try, historical records show that some persisted in taking the tests into their 70s. The most famous case took place in 1699, when an individual took the test at the age of 102. Chinese literature has many stories – romantic, sad, happy, and bizarre – about individuals who studied for the keju or about their long journey’s to the sites where the keju was held.
Zhao goes on to explain that even though the keju was never an education system, but a political one, it has infected the Chinese classrooms with its obsessive preparation and narrow focus. For 1300 years, teaching and learning in China has been hijacked by standardized testing.
Because the Confucian classics were the core content of the keju, rote memorization became the most popular kind of learning. Most test questions involved reading an excerpt from the original classics and identifying the missing phrases.
Zhao does a remarkable job of giving a short history lesson that illuminates the long term effects of this kind of education. China began using the movable type printing technique 400 years before Guttenberg. They used the magnetic compass perhaps as much as a century before the rest of the world. And of course, the Chinese were the inventors of gun powder. At one time, China showed some very strong initiative and creativity, but that was centruies ago. Something seemed to happen around the 15th century - China ceased to be cutting edge.
There are probably many answers to why China has suffered from this lack of innovation, but Zhao makes a compelling argument that the keju is certainly a prime suspect. Because the keju placed so much emphasis on such a narrow list of skills, a kind of 'talent cleansing' occurred. People with an alternate skill-set were discriminated and discouraged from pursuing their interests in science and technology - those individuals and China as a whole have suffered the long-term consequences.
Traditional China's keju can be found in its modern day reincarnation the gaokao. The gaokao is like the American's Standard Aptitude Test (SAT) on steroids and ecstasy. College admissions in China are solely and entireley dependent on performing well on the gaokao.
Together the keju and gaokao have contributed to a widely recognized problem in Chinese education: gaofen dineng which literally means high scores but low ability. The sheer number of stories and examples of how wide spread gaofen dineng has become in China has lead many Chinese to actually associate gaofen dineng with their entire education system.
In Canada and the United States, most recognize the term valedictorian as a title 'earned' by those top performers in their graduating class. In ancient times, China bestowed the top performer of the keju with the title of zhuangyuan. Today, zhuangyuans, those who achieve the highest scores on the gaokao, become instant celebrities. They have their '15 minutes in the spotlight'. The problem is that the research is showing that their importance and success isn't lasting much longer than that 15 minutes. Zhuangyuans who become distinguished leaders, accomplished engineers or creative entrepeneurs are the exception and not the rule. For the most part, these zhuangyuans excel on the tests and disapear into obscurity - leading many to question why the tests were so important in the first place.
There is a real paradox revolving around this whole China story. Canada and the United States are looking across the Pacific Ocean, and we are envious. We aspire to be more like the Chinese - we want more standardization and more accountability through high-stakes testing. And yet the Chinese are looking across the Pacific and wish they were more like us. They are envious of our creativity, ingenuity and individualism. There is a real 'grass is greener over there' scenario going on here. The scary realization we need to make here is that they are right - we have it right, but we are squandering more and more of it every time we longingly look east.
Yong Zhao summarizes very nicely in his book Catching Up or Leading the Way that in the end, it makes very little sense for developed countries like the US and Canada to fret over 'catching up' to developing nations like China. We got where we are by leading the way, and for some reason we are now turning around to follow those who are trying to catch ujp with us.