South Korean Education: Filling the Pail

South Korean students are arguably some of the best in the world. They consistently score highly on standardized aptitude tests and out-perform many other developed countries in Math and Science. Where the USA scored 17th in reading, 31st in Math, and 24th in science on the PISA test, South Korea scored 2nd, 4th, and 6th respectively (source for 2011 data). University enrollment is at an all-time high. Children as young as three are in English-language kindergartens. 97% of students complete secondary education (an insane number when one considers that at least 25% of US high school students drop out before graduation).

It would seem that South Korea is doing everything right when it comes to education. Indeed, many western newspapers have suggested that the United States and others ought to follow in the footsteps of South Korea if they want to garner a competitive advantage in the coming century.

I’m not sold.

I can’t speak to the global implications of pitting students from hugely different backgrounds against one another solely through a multiple-choice test administered to 15-year-olds every year (and since I am a teacher of students of the same age, I can honestly say that they probably take it way less seriously than the OCED does). I can’t talk about the public education system in South Korea, as I’ve never set foot in a public school. I can’t truly understand the motivations of parents, seeing as I can’t even call them for a chat if their child acts up in class due to my personal massive language barrier. Yet I’m still against adopting South Korea’s education culture.

Let me put it this way: in the nearly six months since I moved to Suwon, I’ve collected enough anecdotes to tell me that I would not send any child of mine into the Korean education system. The pressure is far too high, the returns for the years spent sacrificing and living to study are low, and the whole system stifles the skills that should be the very core of education.

1. The Pressure

In South Korea, it is not uncommon for students as young as eleven to commit suicide. I would let that sink in a moment, but it bears mentioning just how common student suicides are in this country. 353 student suicides were recorded just in 2011. That’s nearly one per day, every day.

Given the high numbers of suicides in general in the ROK (Republic of Korea), this may be more culturally normal than not, but those very numbers doubled in the years of economic boom and the advent of South Korea’s role as a global education and business leader, reaching their current level of 40 per day for the general population.

For a country this small, it’s insane. As a teacher, I see how miserable the constant pressure to perform, memorize, and achieve makes most of my students. Many times when I ask them to come up with something that would make them happy, they write either “Explode Avalon” (my academy) or “No more school.” I’m terrified that one day I’ll give a student detention and that will be the final straw. I’d feel that the blood was on my hands.

Suicide aside, the joy is sucked out of my students. They don’t have time to enjoy things. Their friendships grow and fade not with the tides of adolescence but the competition within classes to be the best. They say things like “I don’t believe in free time.” They don’t like to waste time drawing pictures and even the young ones sometimes go to school from 8AM-10PM (for those of you keeping score at home, that’s up to 70 hours per week without including homework). Some of my students tell me that they only get to speak to their parents ten minutes per day due to their study and work schedules.

An entire generation is growing up visibly miserable, and it’s mostly due to the fact that they aren’t allowed to simply be kids.

2. The returns are low

The huge cost involved in raising a child in this education system has pushed the birth rate in South Korea to plummet faster than in any other country in the world. In 1960, the average South Korean woman had six children. These days, they have 1.15. The cost of sending one child to school, and academy, and eventually university is simply too high. Add in the time and (dare I say) childhood cost, and it becomes clear that this is a country that invests a huge amount in education.

That should be a good thing, but it’s not possible to build a whole country of doctors/dentists/opthamalagists or the market gets saturated and over-education ends up making it extremely hard for even the highly-educated to get by. Most ROK citizens believe it is hard to get any job without a degree, leading to 82% enrollment in colleges after high school. That’s up from only 5% in 1977.

In the economic collapse, those with degrees have suffered as much as in any other country, but considering the massive investment of time, money, and energy on the part of themselves and their families, the net cost may be higher. Up to 43% of graduates are unemployed, leading some to question what the point of all the sacrifice and hard work was.

3. An Education, rubber stamp or ongoing process?

All this pales in comparison to the way that the culture of rote-memorization and overloading students from the time they enter the world with study and pressure destroys the true meaning of education. The real reason that I would never want my own child to be raised in the system of South Korea is that I want them to have a different education. I might argue a “real education.” Social, cultural, philosophical, and imaginative development all bow to the great gods of test scores and class rankings here. My students fight amongst themselves all the time, thinking that the stars I draw on the board have some intrinsic value other than keeping track of who participates.

The point of education is to develop young minds into the kind of citizens that can support their country and our shared world. Ask almost any foreign teacher in the ROK education system what activity is the most difficult for their students, and the answer will almost always be “Problem-Solving.” Second hardest in my mind are lessons about things without immediately obvious value…art, music, poetry, dance. It’s as if anything that doesn’t help a student to gain the next rote rung on the education ladder isn’t worth the time wasted thinking about it. Besides, who cares about philosophy when there are English definitions to memorize from my vocabulary book?

The product of this type of education system may have been rapid economic growth, but the roots are beginning to unravel. People who lack critical thinking skills and at least some appreciation for intrinsically important but memorization-incompatible knowledge are not truly educated. In my mind, pushing so many so hard only serves to cheapen the results of the system as a whole. 

When I lived in Chilean Patagonia teaching English as best I could to wildly unenthusiastic middle-schoolers, I caught a glimpse of a wildly different education culture. I was disturbed by the lack of focus within my school and the overall inequality and confusion of the Chilean education system. I often felt as though I was fighting a Battle of the Blackboard, trying to eke out an inch of serious academic work. I tried to fight that system, mostly fruitlessly. I learned to know better than to believe that my tiny opinions, served from an outsider’s perspective and tempered with my own biases, could truly make an impact on the system itself. Yet in my classroom, during my limited time with those students, I gained something of a reputation as a hard-ass.

In South Korea, I’m considered an easy teacher. I don’t always push my students hard enough, in favor of a tangential talk about something that really matters in the lives of the little minds in the room. I often don’t hurry them hard enough to finish all the book work. They see my system of strikes as a cakewalk compared to the gauntlets their parents and teachers put them through daily.

I’m just fine with that. After all, these are only children. Fourteen years old at most. I’m happy to subvert my tiny corner of the Korean education system, and in my tiny way make some tiny impact on the lives of my few students. I may not be able to convince them that education is more than what they’re told it is, but I may be able to give them a tiny glimpse that it’s not the same everywhere. Maybe that will make all the difference.

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