Hwanyŏng Hamnida!

Another week has passed and I have officially started teaching. Koreans value education above many (almost all) things. Their school system is very well developed and it has a lot of positive characteristics but few negative ones as well. The country’s leading scholars, politicians, and activists participate in an active debate about the state of Korean education.

A typical day in the life of a Korean student is a little different from what most of my readers have experienced in the United States and other western countries. With the exception of those with parochial school backgrounds (and honestly that doesn’t really compare either), most people wouldn’t believe the amount of hard work, dedication, and study kids here put into their schooling; even moreso how well adjusted they are. They are fierce!

Korean Students Having a Bit of Fun

From an early age (five or six) students arrive at school between 7am and 8am where they stay until 2pm or 3pm. They then return home briefly to change out of their uniforms (some of you remember those), have a small bite to eat, and head out to the private tuition clubs (after school academies) called Hagwons. All students attend multiple hagwons for different subjects, languages, mathematics, and science.

At our hagwon, we see the kids twice a week for a few hours each day (first block is between 5pm-730pm and second block is between 730pm-10pm). Once the kids hit high school (age 16), they attend some sort of organized educational lessons seven days a week (high school hagwons are conducted Saturdays and Sundays). And if all that’s not enough of a load, when they return home each night, most students still have hours of homework to complete!

A Standard Korean Classroom

It goes without saying that these students are under a lot of pressure from their parents and society. In the United States, hard work and private tutoring are enough to propel students above the average curve toward success (the masses have set the bar pretty low). However, in Korea, all these extra programs merely enable kids to remain competitive with everyone else; they’re par for the course.

Coincidentally the first lessons I taught dealt directly with peer pressure, maturity, and rebelling against authority (fun right?). When I asked my students, most of whom had just finished taking their end-of-year exams (summer break only lasts 5 weeks), what the worst thing was about being a teenager, 99% of their answers were exams and studying.

According to the parents, the goal is that their children gain acceptance into a top tier Korean university or even to a university overseas – many aspire to study at MIT, Harvard, or Princeton. Their acceptance is based solely on test performance and one of the major criteria for these tests is English language proficiency.

Obviously this is where I come in. During a recent seminar given to every foreign educator in Daegu (approximately 375 teachers), it was explained that economic success and prosperity in Korea is directly linked to the citizens’ ability to communicate in English. Across the globe, English is the main language used in business transactions. Therefore it makes perfect sense that this nation of perfectionists provides the highest salary and benefits toward foreign teachers immigrating into their country to teach English. I’d be hard pressed to find another culture that values education quite as much as the Koreans do.

*All Data from http://www.nationmaster.com

The chart to the left illustrates Korea’s educational rankings across a broad spectrum of criteria. They are ranked #1 in the world in: Enrollment by Level, Completion Rate, and Scientific Literacy. Close to the top of the list (from #10 to #2) are also: School Life Expectancy, Reading Literacy, and Math Literacy. In fact in general, Korea is the single most literate country in the history thanks to Sejong the Great who completed founding this written language in 1443 AD.

By comparison (chart below), the United States’ statistics aren’t quite so high; being ranked 18th in Math Literacy, 14th in Scientific Literacy, 16th in School Life Expectancy, 15th in Reading Literacy, and 83rd in Duration of Primary Education. Fortunately we do rank high in some things; #2 overall in Students who Find School Boring and 5th overall in Students who Dislike School with 49.6% of our adult population reading at a “Low Literacy Level”.

*All Data from http://www.nationmaster.com

Initially, an objective view of Korea education seems positive. And they certainly have accomplished a great deal and have so much to be proud of. But lets dig a little deeper, shall we?

The constant pressure put on students has created an epidemic of teen suicide. In fact, since 2008 Korea ranks highest in the world for suicides between the ages of 15-19 (an average of 1 suicide per day). Another concern is that while students are learning math and science, applying themselves to real world business situations, the arts are being neglecting. What happens when a generation of students matures without the benefit of having artistic inspiration via poetry, music, literature, and dance? Of course the same problem exists in the United States as well, however there are more Koreans taking extra curricular piano lessons than in America.

*Korean Times

So this is the machine and I am a part of it in my own small way. I suppose you have to take the good with the bad. It sure beats teaching kids who have no value for their own education in US inner cities (I think I hear a couple Amens from my readers back home). But most of my students feel trapped as they add to the wall of Korean economic prosperity brick by excruciating brick. I do my best to inject some fun into their routine at the same time I prepare them with the necessary tools to ace all their tests. Their futures are counting on it.

Until next time, Najungeh bwaeyo!



6 thoughts on “…Another Brick in the Wall: Part I

  1. This is a really interesting post! I know that the US needs to do better… don’t even get me started on this one.

    As far as US students in the inner city not having respect for their education… we all know that we can find students all over the US from all ethnic/racial backgrounds (as well as suburban, rural, and urban) who have no motivation or respect for school. We can also find students in our country who don’t want or know any better because they haven’t seen any better. 🙂

    I don’t know anything about Korea and I’m learning a lot from your posts. What proportion of children in Korea are growing up in poverty? How many have unemployed parents or go to school hungry? Do they have access to healthcare? Their dedication to education reminds me of what I hear about in India. It seems that although many Indians are extremely poor, they put a high value on education. In the US there are too many people who are living in poverty and it seems that they get caught in their circumstances and don’t move the next generation forward.

  2. Sounds a lot like many of the kids I taught in Guatemala in their after school programs. High values in education create high pressures. Most dealt with it as best they could and with as positive an attitude as they could muster, but some just needed to get out.

    Hope you’re having fun! Keep the posts coming!


  3. Great post, once again, my friend. Especially love the fun (if not insightful) photo links you meshed in! Missing you here at HOPE . . . our summer BBQ is happening again Aug. 25 and we’ll miss your Bobby Flay Burger Flipping!!


  4. Great post, Justin. A lot of work has been done by researchers in the field of education, psychology, and policy with respect to the cultural values pertaining to academic achievement at the federal and state levels back here that often leave out the stark reality of teen suicide rates. I wonder what kinds of support measures or considerations are in place at your school to address the whole learner and cultivate coping strategies that alleviate those pressures and account for early warning signs from students at risk…

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