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South Korea’s national obsession with education

By Deva Lee

On Monday mornings, I always ask my students how their weekend was. I expect tales of teenage parties and perhaps a family picnic, but am usually disappointed. Most of the time they tell me they did not have a good weekend, and that they are tired and sad. “Why?” I ask, remembering how much fun I had on my weekends when I was in high school. “Study only,” they tell me.

Despite the fact that 2012 marked the first year that all South Korean schools were required to close on Saturdays, all senior students come to school on Saturdays to self study and some younger students attend various after school classes or self-study sessions. For instance, I teach a voluntary English lesson on a Saturday for two hours. In addition, many of my students attend private academies known as Hagwons on both Saturdays and Sundays.

Before coming to teach in South Korea, I was aware that academic education was a national obsession. I was told that most students attended at least two different educational institutions each day, and that competition for university entrance was rife. Nonetheless, when I learned that my school was building a dormitory so that students could stay overnight and spend more time studying, I was surprised. It became clear to me that this obsession was more pervasive and unhealthy than I had previously imagined.

My students often ask me what time students in South Africa finish school. When I tell them that students in South Africa leave school at about 2pm each day, they explode in a series of laments. “I envy them,” some tell me. Most of the students at my high school are at school for 13 hours a day. Classes end at 4pm and then students are required to self-study until 9pm under the supervision of a teacher. The senior students, who are under more pressure to perform in their university entrance exam, are at school until around 11pm. Students eat both lunch and supper at the school.

The self-study hall at my high school, where students spend about five hours studying every day.

Beware the Hagwon
Some students leave school after their last class to attend Hagwons, which specialise in teaching certain subjects. Until 2009, when a law made it illegal for Hagwons to teach after 10pm, some remained open until around midnight. Since Hagwons teach from early in the afternoon, some students, middle school students in particular, leave school early and skip supper to ensure that they attend their Hagwon for a certain length of time. Sometimes Hagwons give the students sweets or snacks, but this is not standard practice. And they definitely don’t serve supper.

The definition of success
From a statistical perspective, South Korea’s focus on education has certainly produced its desired results. As data compiled by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) shows, South Korean students score way above the OECD average in both reading and mathematics. While the country is benefiting economically from its education system (South Korea has one of the fastest growing economies and is currently ranked as the 13th largest economy globally), the side effects are manifold. According to 2011 data, Korean students were ranked as the unhappiest amongst the OECD countries. As some of the interviews in an upcoming documentary by Kelley Katzenmeyer show, students are aware that the problem is systemic but don’t feel they have the power to combat the expectations that Korean society places on them.[1] Considering the extremely high teen suicide rate in Korea, which has been the topic of many a news article in the last five years, the Korean education system should be doing more to address students’ emotional and physical wellbeing.[2]

Working hard rather than smart
I often think that the fixation on academic excellence here is, ironically, detrimental to Korean students’ overall education. My students are often too tired to concentrate in class and they have very little time for homework. In addition, they are not provided with any time to develop independent learning skills. Without time to process and apply the bulk of information that is being taught, I doubt they understand much of what they are learning. While they are able to memorise them very quickly, my students often don’t understand the English phrases and words that I teach them. Here, knowledge is defined as a set of memorised facts, with little emphasis on creative thinking or a holistic approach to education.[3] My school seems to be better than others in this regard: physical education and home economics feature regularly in the timetable.

While the Hagwon crackdown and elimination of Saturday school is evidence that the Korean government has begun to implement change, the issue is compounded by the role of both schools and parents. If schools don’t provide self-study facilities and extra academic classes, it will affect their reputation in the eyes of parents. Similarly, parents who want to raise their children in a manner that deviates from the status quo often feel as though they are limiting their children’s ability to compete with other students at their level. It seems that all involved have tied their hands to the same stake and major policy reform is necessary to enact the change that governments, parents and students are hoping for.

As a tiny cog in the system, I find it difficult to combat these issues in my own classroom. I never give homework and all my after school classes are focused on popular culture and language games in the hope that I can provide a break from their rigorous academic schedule. That said, I often question the value of English (and thus my role) in their lives. What has unquestionable value in the life of any growing person, I would argue, is the imagination, and enough free time to use it.

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[1] Katzenmeyer’s documentary investigates South Korean youth culture in public high schools, including the effects of Korea’s education mania. You can pledge to see the film here.
[2] For a perspective on the Korean education system from a high school student in my city, Daegu, see here.
[3] There are alternative schools in existence that deviate from the national curriculum, but attendance at such schools is not an option for most South Korean students.

Deva Lee is a South African currently working as an English teacher in South Korea. Visit her blog here.

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