Friday, March 27, 2009

Education in Korea

In response to Erin's suggestion, I thought I would write a little about Korean education today. As a teacher, it is something I have a special interest and some experience with. Korean education is also interesting in its own right. Though this may seem like a dry topic, knowing how Koreans go to school can show us our own educational values and the experiences we are accustomed to in America. The easiest way for me to write about this is in a somewhat essay-like format. So bear with me and I apologize for the the boring writing.

To understand Korea's education system today you have to understand the Confucian influence. Neo-Confucianism was the state ideology for about 500 years before the Japanese occupation at the beginning of the 20th century (that is, during the Joseon period). Though it is originally Chinese, Korea has been called the most Confucian society. Confucian values are so entrenched in Korea that it seems Confucianism has influenced every aspect of Korean culture. The two pillars of Confucian thought are respect for authority and the importance of education. The first part gives Korean education a distinctly authoritarian feel while the second makes it extremely important to Koreans themselves. (As a side note, I should add that the Buddhist tradition, which has competed with Confucianism, also values the scholarly type. The Korean verb 'study', kongbu hada, actually comes from a Buddhist word meaning meditation.)

The importance of education for Koreans can be seen most clearly in the intensity of Korean high schools. As in America, Koreans go through elementary, middle, and high school, but high school is only three years. This must be the most intense three years of any young person's life. Typically, a high schooler will go to school from 8 in the morning to 6 at night. Both lunch and dinner are eaten in the cafeteria. After school is over, many if not most students then go to private schools called hagwons until late at night. By the time they get home, it is already after 10 and time to start homework for the next day. I have heard from several Koreans that they would average 4 or 5 hours a sleep a night and use every break in school for a powernap. Unfortunately, time for extracurricular activites is extremely limited.

The goal of all this studying is to prepare for college entrance exam. This exam, the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT), is one of if not the most important event determining a young Korean's future. Competition for spots in the top colleges, like Seoul National University, is fierce in a way Americans can hardly imagine. College grades are less important than the school's name on the diploma, so getting in to a good school is the hardest part. It must be quite a scene the day of the exam is given. Underclassmen line up outside schools and cheer the exam takers into the building. Business hours are shortened to reduce traffic, public transport runs more frequently, trains are forbidden to use distracting horns, even airplanes remain grounded while the exam takes place.

The college entrance exam is not the only exam Koreans take, and it is not the only one they take seriously. One of the teachers I became friends with is now studying to apply to graduate school. She recently quit work, 6 months in advance of the test, to study full time. While she was working, she was staying up until 3 or 4 in the morning every day studying for her exam. Sleep deprivation is a small price to pay, apparently. I know another girl in college who is preparing for an exam to transfer universities, still 8 months away. She is now attending a private school, a hagwon, for the transfer exam and studying more for that than her university classes.

The intensity of Korean education starts long before high school. Since I teach preschool, I can say with confidence that it starts at the very beginning of their educational career. Especially important at all stages is learning foreign languages. I know many of my 5 and 6 year olds (American age 4 and 5) attend private hagwons after preschool is over to learn English. My 6 year olds spend about half their day learning English and Chinese characters. Many parents even opt to send their kids to "English kindergarten", where the entire curriculum is taught in English. As you may have guessed, the standards are very high even at my school. It is difficult for me to teach these five year olds 1rst grade phonics when they hardly speak English! But, as the principal of my school as told me many times, a difficult curriculum is important to keep the parents happy. Korean parents seem obsessed to make sure their children stay ahead in school. No doubt, the elite colleges are at the back of these parents' minds even when their kids are in kindergarden.

Education is so goal-oriented and so fast paced, that I suspect some things are seriously lacking in the system as a whole. One of the constant complaints I hear from other English teachers, who are mainly employed at hagwons, is that they are just teaching for a test. They are pushed to teach far past the level of their student's abilities. The result is that most Koreans know English grammar back and forth but still have difficulty communicating. Personally, I have always been critical of standardized tests. In the name of fairness, they exclude less quantifiable skills. That is why Koreans can listen to English much better they they can speak it. Until recently, the exam tested listening but not speaking.

Another important part of the Korean education system are hagwons, as I have mentioned. Though the public schools are not particularly bad, much of the student's learning takes place after school at these privately owned specialty academies. Most hagwons are for English, and they are everywhere. In my area, I can spot a hagwon in almost every building around me. Most English hagwons employ native speakers, so most teachers who come to Korea teach at these schools rather than in public schools. There are also hagwons for most other school subjects, hagwons for particular tests, even hagwons for sports.

The hagwon system shows, once again, the zeal for education in Korea. Unfortunately, it makes an already cutthroat education even more competative. I am sure parents feel pressured to send their kids to the best after-school programs to push them ahead the crowd. I have heard from Hagwon teachers that even elementary school kids can have nervous breakdowns before an English test and develop an unhealthy fear of failure. Hagwons can also be very expensive, and a whole industry of education has grown up around them. Koreans spend more money per capita on foreign language than any other country in the world. This seems to undermine the ideal of public education, that every student has access to the same quality education no matter how much money the parents have. It also means that the hagwons are run as profit-driven businesses, a constant gripe of hagwon teachers. "The kids are nothing more than little won symbols", is something I have heard more than once.

Fortunately for me, I have had a much different experience at my school. During the first week of my classes, I was told to just play with the kids so that they would get used to me. Even now, my favorite part of the job is the time I am given to play and work in English wherever I can. I have no regrets about working with this age group and would definitely choose the same age if I did it again.

That is all for now. As I said at the beginning, I wrote this entry after reading Erin's comment. If anyone has any other suggestions, or is curious about anything happening in my life, post a comment and I will be much more inspired to write!


  1. Very interesting, Graham. In college, in a class on Japan, I did a section on Japanese education, which is also entirely different than the US system, but also (apparently) very different than that in Korea. Similar in its intensity, long hours, year long schedule (Korea?), focus on tests/achievement vs. personal development. It seems like American kids could learn a lot from the seriousness with which Korean kids take their studies.
    In my experience, the Swiss education system is a bit of a mix b/w the Korean & American. Focus on languages from preschool on (all kids must learn minimum of 3), but also a focus on excellency in sports/competitive academics/extracurriculars.
    I heard an NPR program on the excellency of the Finnish education system this week. Thoughts, Erin? (You studied abroad there, right?)

  2. Really interesting, Graham. Sounds like a lot of pressure and intensity, though. I do admire people that can communicate in multiple languages. Seems like you have to start that so young, which I guess it why Korea has so many teachers like you! Reading Gretchen's comment I think I like the "mix" of the Swiss education system. So interesting to learn the differences in education systems!

  3. Thanks, Graham...very interesting. Especially the hagwons. Is it only the wealthy that can afford this type of extra education? It sounds like you chose well with your school. It is great that they support "play". In my opinion that is so important for preschoolers and even kindergarteners. What have you found about parental involvement?

    Gretchen, I'm going to look up that program on NPR about Finland. I can't speak much for the Finnish school system since I was there over the summer. My memories about life there are mostly about them having a socialist government.

    Can't wait to read more, Graham!

  4. Graham
    I'm glad that you are letting us know what the Korean education system is like. Like Erin, I'm wondering how the less fortunate (monatarily) educate their children.

    TORNADO FRIES! I heard a story on NPR and thought of you.