A new year and it’s back to school! Whether you are a student or educator in grades k-12 or higher education, January signals a renewed educational effort. So, I thought it would be the perfect time to write a blog on education in South Korea, since its students consistently score the highest in the world on standardized tests, we assume that they must be doing something right. Or is that a wrong assumption? Let’s take a brief look and see what you think.
It would not be an overstatement to say that South Korea is an education-obsessed country. You must get into the right kindergarten, so that you can attend the right elementary school, then into the right middle school and high school, and finally into the right college, which gives you a springboard in landing the right job and marrying the right spouse. I am not exaggerating!
This fervor for studying is reflected in helping South Korea consistently rank at the top of the developed world in reading, math and science scores, but studies also show that Korean students come in last in a survey of student happiness at school and they also have the highest suicide rate in the developed world. The high-stress focus on education seems to have a downside.
South Korea’s unhealthy preoccupation with exam results has deep roots, in particular, Confucian roots. The legacy of Confucianism is to improve oneself through education, and the passage of the civil service examination, which has existed for over a thousand years. During this long history, the only means a male (no females took the exam) could socially advance was to pass the exam. In reality, the odds of exam-success favored those high-status families who had the means to lavish money on instructors for the intense preparation needed to pass the difficult exams. But there still remained a very slight possibility that a brilliant boy from a poor family could be mentored and pass the exam. High status and glory awaited the privileged few who passed.
After the end of the Korean War in 1953, the country had only bombed-out infrastructure, few natural resources, and one of the lowest GDP’s in the world. Once again, drawing on its Confucian heritage, the main way of getting ahead in these dire circumstances was via education. The country realized that the only true resource they had was the intellectual resources of its citizenry, and this resource had to be cultivated through education.
Today students are living out the legacy of the Confucian emphasis on education. Not only do students put a full day in attending normal classes, but the vast majority of teenagers do a double shift: they go to hagwons for after-hours study. A hagwon is a for-profit private institute, academy or “cram school” to help students improve scores on the standardized exams, for a fee, sometimes a very hefty fee.
Increasingly, online hagwons are replacing traditional brick-and-mortar cram schools. One instructor at a hagwon, now has about 300,000 students take his online class at any given time, paying $39 for a 20-hour course (traditional cram schools charge as much as $600 for a course). He teaches them tricks for taking the timed exams, including shortcuts that students can take to solve a problem faster. Many of the instructors at hagwon’s are making more money than teachers, and some even crack into the million dollar range! The hagwons have become a $20 billion industry.
There are critics of the Korean approach to education. Former minister of education, Lee Ju-ho, states that “All this late-night study could lead to problems in enhancing their other skills, like character, creativity and critical thinking.” “Hagwon is all about rote learning and memorization.” Lee and others cite problems with the college admissions procedures, which have been slow in looking beyond test scores to other criteria such as extracurricular activities and personal essays, as is common in many Western countries.[i] But I think it goes deeper than merely college admission procedures.
From my take, the Korean educational system is a reflection of the society at large. They are a relatively small country competing in a world of big-fish economies. They have to develop and draw on their strengths in the global economy and these include a diligent and hard-working work force, preciseness, and taking an already existing product, such as the Apple i-phone, and copying and/or improving upon it, such as in the Samsung Galaxy. They have been successful on the world stage because they do not emphasize critical thinking or creativity in their education, but memorization skills, sheer endurance, and obedience to a prescribed path.
As the current President Park Geun-hye promotes a “creative economy” as the key to taking South Korea to the next level in its development, many analysts say the country would do well to take a more creative approach to education. Perhaps there will be a change in the educational focus from rote memorization to creativity and critical thinking, but it will also mean that the standardized test, as they currently exist, would need serious revamping. I wonder what Confucius would say about that!
Questions to Consider:
1. What differences do you think there would be in a curriculum that emphasized rote memorization from one that emphasized creativity and critical thinking?