Thoughts on the Korean educational system

After a few weeks of teaching here, I’ve noticed some interesting things about the school and the educational system. My experience is limited to one middle school in a rural province, but these observations seem to hold true in other places, according to other teachers.

Korean students work hard.

Our kids are in school by 8:30am.  Most of them have classes until 4:30pm.  After school, they go home for dinner.  Most of them spend the evenings at private academies, learning English, math, science, or music.  If you’re on the streets between 9pm and 11pm, there are kids everywhere returning home, still in their school uniforms.  They live and breathe school.

This is less than ideal, in my opinion.  Erin’s co-teacher has kids, and says that they have no time to learn anything but school.  They can’t cook, they don’t work part-time jobs, and they hardly see their family during the week.  Hell, a lot of the kids are at academies during the weekend, too.  I might be seeing things from an overly American perspective, but in my opinion, it’s hard to call that a childhood.

On the positive side, they take school seriously.  Middle school boys are a handful no matter where they’re from, but I can’t help thinking that these kids get a lot more out of school than I ever did.

Grades/test scores matter, and they matter young.

In Korea, high schools are competitive.  You don’t simply go to the school in your district.  To be admitted to a well-ranked high school, you need good grades and test scores.  I think they typically take an entrance examination as well.  This means that young kids are seriously worried about their grades.  The kids at my school are 14, 15, and 16 years old. (In Western ages, they would be 13, 14, and 15.)  Even the 13-year-old kids take midterms that can determine their future.  Poor grades in middle school, and you end up at a vocational school.  It keeps them focused, but I imagine it’s rough on the late-bloomers.

Rote memorization is still the norm.

This is something that everyone says about Korean education.  It’s important to note that I haven’t seen many classes, and this is a pretty broad generalization.  However, I think it’s often true, especially with older teachers.  Our co-teachers often stress group call-and-repeat exercises, rather than individual efforts.  The kids have memorized responses to typical phrases, but often don’t understand them.  It’s interesting to see.

As I said, this is often considered a common attribute of Korean education.  In my opinion, this is overstated.  I certainly can’t say that US middle school and high school stresses critical thinking.  Even at university, it was often clear that students learned to fill in the blanks, rather than think.  But overstated or not, education here is often a rote processes.  I think this is due in part to the emphasis on good test scores.  These kids test amazingly well, but it doesn’t necessarily indicate real learning.

Corporal punishment is still common.

Yes, some of the teachers hit the kids.  I’d even say that a lot of teachers hit the kids.  This one is changing quickly.  I’ve heard that it’s illegal in Korea now.  I’ve even heard that in the bigger cities, it’s not tolerated.  Parents will complain or sue.  In Gangneung, especially with older teachers, it happens.  Usually it’s a token sort of punishment, a quick rap to get their attention.  Sometimes it’s a bit more.  I’ve seen a few teachers really smack the kids hard.

I have mixed feelings.  I’m sure the educational purists are dead set against it.  I’m sure there are other disciplinary measures that work as well or better.  But here, it seems to be part of the culture.  The kids obviously don’t like it, but they don’t seem traumatized.  It seems to be commonly understood that it might happen if you really screw up.  After it happens, they’re generally very well-behaved, and even good-natured about it.  They don’t seem to hold it against the teacher at all.

As I said, it’s changing rapidly.  The younger teachers don’t do it, and the kids know that it isn’t really accepted.  If I had to venture a prediction, I’d say that this will completely disappear in the next 10 years.

Things really aren’t that different.

All-in-all, I’ve been more impressed by the similarities than the differences.  Boys are boys, no matter where you go,  and teachers seem to have a similar outlook.  There’s the same sense of community (maybe commiseration) in the teacher’s lounge.  Just like teachers back home, there’s always food being shared.

The more places I go, the more they all look the same.

A bunch of hiking pictures

I’ve been lazy about uploading pictures lately.  Today I don’t have to teach elementary, so here is a big batch of hiking pictures.

The first gallery is from our first real hiking trip.  We went to Seoraksan National Park with Ben (a Canadian English teacher) and Mihyun (his girlfriend, also an English teacher).  We hiked to Ulsanbawi, a rock formation in the park.  When I say hiking, I mostly mean stair climbing.  The heavily-traveled trails are pretty tame, for the most part.  Certainly strenuous, but not technically difficult.

The giant buddha is a bronze statue near the entrance of the park.  The other statues are at a shrine on the beach that we visited on our way home.

These pictures were taken from a hill near our apartment.  It’s wooded and there are some trails going up it.  It was a hazy day, so you’re not necessarily looking at smog.  The city is a bit smoggy, but I think it’s usually a mix of exhaust and smog.  It’s not the prettiest city I’ve ever seen, but also not the ugliest.  (This is an unattractive angle, however.)

These pictures were taken on our second trip to Seoraksan Nat’l Park.  Erin and I went alone, and it was insanely busy.  We should have known better than to visit a popular park on a holiday weekend.  We hiked a an easy trail up to a cave in the mountains.  It was a beautiful walk.

These pictures are from last Sunday.  We went to a small mountain near Yongpyeong Ski Resort with Ben, Mihyun, and another teacher.  It was a gorgeous walk, but we got a late start and the trail was a lot longer than we anticipated.  We turned back about halfway up.  I didn’t take many pictures, but the changing leaves are gorgeous.  Korea is pretty if you can get out of the cities.

More writing to follow soon…

The photo speaks for itself

So I’ve officially eaten dog.  Puppy, to be precise.  I’d better explain things before I start getting hate mail from the PETA types.  Dog is a fairly common food in Korea.  It seems less popular with the younger generation, and less popular with women, but it’s certainly not unheard-of.

On Monday we had a half-day because of midterms, and afterwards all of the teachers were to go hiking.  Prior to the trip, they asked us what we would like to eat.  The choices were chicken and dog.  Being the adventurous (and perhaps callous) type, I opted for dog.

The hike was a nice relaxing walk up a hill next to a stream.  After a couple hours, we re-convened at the restaurant near the base of the hill.  Side dishes were served, and before long the waitress brought out a steaming platter of puppy.

The meat was surprisingly tasty.  A bit chewy, and with an interesting flavor.  Maybe a touch gamey, but not in a bad way.  Just enough to make it interesting.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t much actual meat on the plate.  Most of it was skin and organs, which Koreans eat without hesitation.  I, however, am not a big fan of skin or liver, regardless of the source.  The entree was a big bowl of puppy soup, which was excellent.  Not much meat to be had, but excellent flavor nonetheless.

Apparently, Koreans believe that dog meat is good for regaining strength.  They suggest that women eat it after childbirth.  Men seem to eat it to increase their manliness.  Erin said the younger female teachers seemed to regard it as a silly male thing.

It caused quite a stir among the teachers when I sat down at the dog table.  Apparently they were very surprised that I had chosen it.  Maybe that’s just because I’m a bit of a picky eater here.  (I still can’t stand the sight/smell/taste of squid.)  They didn’t seem offended, just surprised.  I don’t really know what to make of that.

Lots of people are really offended by eating dog because they have dogs as pets.  This doesn’t really bother me, provided I don’t think about it too hard.  In my mind, there’s a certain distinction between pets and farm animals, and these dogs weren’t raised as pets.  Maybe people object because they think dogs are smarter than sheep/cow/goats/etc.  Maybe that’s true, but I’ve met plenty of stupid dogs.  I’m just going to assume that I ate a dumb one.

It wasn’t the best meat I’ve ever had, but it certainly wasn’t the worst.  I’d give it a B- overall.  One question remains, however:  What do they use to herd the flocks on a dog farm?

A Victory for the Uighurs, and for US Policy

More than a year ago I wrote about a group of Uighurs (a Chinese ethinic group), that were being held at Guantanamo Bay.  The US had released some of them, but they had no place to go.  They would be persecuted in China, and few countries would grant them residency.  The US sent 5 of them to Albania, but had been unable to find countries willing to accept the other 17.

Yesterday, the New York Times reported on a new ruling the the case.  (Story here)  Judge Ricardo M. Urbana annouced that the men would be released into the care of supporters living in the US.  In my opinion, this is great news for people that have spent years in unjust captivity, and a serious blow to the misguided policies of the Bush administration.

One unresolved problem is that the Uighurs have no legal status in the US.  Potentially, they could be picked up by US immigration.  Judge Urbana said that no member of the US government should molest the freed men, but they have no real protection beyond the order of a federal district judge.

The White House Press Secretary stated that the administration “disagrees with” the decision, as it could be used as a precedent to free other detainees.  We can only hope.