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.


4 Responses to “Thoughts on the Korean educational system”

  1. Sasha on October 20th, 2008 8:34 pm

    well done sir. Word.


  2. Mom on October 31st, 2008 10:15 am

    There was an article in the Detroit Free Press about Korean students that are being sent to the US by their parents for high school (and even elementary school) so they can learn to speak English. It was interesting and shows that you seem to be right onthe money with your thoughts. I mailed you a copy of the article.


  3. Ashley on November 3rd, 2008 7:08 pm

    Wow, that is an awesome post. My students are studying culture this week and I’m definitely going to have them read this. Your teaching makes mine better : ) Just like when we used to go to the library!


  4. Hai Nguyen on November 3rd, 2008 8:15 pm

    Yeah, I’m heading out there for Seoraksan and whatever afterwards this weekend. I really dig your blog man. Very clean design and articulate posts. Are you photography buff? From your pictures it seems like you definitely have an eye for it.


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