Education in Korea

Given that this blog was supposed to be dedicated to education, I suppose I shall return to that topic. For more travel writings, please see my other project, Cast Off, Set Sail.

Here, I will provide a quick primer on what I have experienced with the Korean education system so far.

Koreans take education extremely seriously, some would say too seriously. Born out of the Confucian ideal of an educated ruling class, advancement in Korean society is based on one’s educational attainment. For centuries, becoming part of the elite class required achievement on a written examination. In the age of international competition and standardized testing, this tradition has become even more entrenched in Korean society.

Children begin preparing for higher education in elementary school. Everything is based on competition. The best students get into the best middle schools, the best high schools, and the best universities. Success in academics translates to higher positions and higher pay in the workforce. The idea seems simple enough, but where do we draw the line? Elementary students are often in school more than 10 hours a day. Adding in music, athletics, and other extracurricular activities, children as young as 10 are struggling to finish their homework late at night. There is a saying that goes something like this: 4 hours of sleep, you pass; 5 hours, you fail. This is an exaggeration for most students, but there are those for whom this is a daily reality.

The pressure comes from the parents. Their tough love leads them to push their children to the absolute limit. Of course, they only want the best for their kids, and they believe that extremely hard work in school and sports will lead to that success. I think that they believe this because it was this way for them. In 1953, South Korea was in ruins. The allied forces had recently pushed the North Korean army back across their land and to the northern edge of the Korean peninsula. Where once there had been cities, only a ruinous battleground remained. When the ceasefire was signed in July, the divided nations went about picking up the pieces. Through their collective effort and grueling work, South Korea went from rubble to one of the most advanced nations in the world in a mere half-century.

Though South Korea has joined the ranks of the advanced nations of Europe and North America, the toiling attitude persists. This starts with childhood education. They strive to be the best in everything, especially international standardized tests. The Programme for International Student Assessment has become the standard for ranking the world’s students. South Korea scored in the top 3 of 65 nations and economic zones in all categories during the last exam in 2012. These incredible scores should tell you that their education system is one of the best in the world. While many Koreans see the results in this light, many have begun to doubt the applicability of their students’ success to real-world challenges.

Knowing the type of information students need to know for international tests like the PISA, schools have taken the approach of forcing rote memorization of the pertinent data. As the results have shown, this is effective for high scores, but the question remains: Is it good for the real world? Koreans who have been through the system have all the necessary information for the exam, but arriving at solutions to problems beyond the test is not something they learn in school. Critical thinking and forming opinions is not part of the curriculum.

I have seen this issue firsthand. I have two junior classes that meet twice a week. I only have them for 30 minutes every other day, but I have seen how they struggle when they must produce answers that do not come from the book. Convinced that the book we use is below these students, I have prepared my own curriculum focusing on short stories and argumentative writing. In both classes, the students are adept at getting information straight from the day’s text or from the pertinent data. However, when asked to give their opinion or make an inference, they give me nothing but blank looks and silence.

In my younger class (four middle school boys), we are reading Aesop’s fables. After identifying the characters, setting, plot, and resolution of the story (concepts they grasped easily), I asked them to describe one of the characters. They hesitatingly read off random lines from the text. Despite asking the question in half a dozen different ways, I could not get an original answer out of them. Finally, I took all of their papers and put them on the front desk telling them, “The answer isn’t here. I want you to tell me what you think.” Finally, after getting them to tell me if they liked the character or not, I was able to get them to justify why they liked or disliked the character, and I started getting original adjectives. It was clear through this whole process that these boys are not used to giving their opinion about much of anything during class.

In my older class, we have just started into argumentation and debate, and it is going to be a challenge. Fortunately, I have one student who is well ahead of his peers in his English, so he helps move the class along. This next week, I will be constructing arguments with them. I will give you the update on how they do with coming up with original contentions.

Next time, I will dig a little more into the history of the Korean education system. I have a small sample with which I am working, but I will try to apply these history lessons to my observations in class.


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