The Thirst for Learning: Education in South Korea

YEOLSIMHI haeyo, Koreans say. Work hard. The phrase is spoken endlessly and serves both as a rallying call and a reminder that no one likes whiners. And no matter how hard a student is working, he or she can always work harder — or so goes the theory.

After all, the nation itself rose from decades of Japanese colonization and the ashes of the Korean War through hard work. South Korea became a model for economic growth and host of the Olympic Games and the World Cup in a feat known as “The Miracle on the Han River.”

Every weekday morning for well over 200 days a year the students arrived at the elite South Korean prep school where I taught English by 7:40 a.m. Teachers and supervisor students were waiting outside the entrance to check their hair (for length and style — no perms or dying allowed) and attire (uniform shirts tucked in, skirts at the knee, formal shoes).

Then they climbed the stairs to their homerooms where they mopped floors, scrubbed desks, wiped windows and cleared trash. The academic day would begin at 8, pausing for 10-minute breaks, a 50-minute lunch and an hour-long dinner at 5 p.m.

At 6 p.m. when I usually shut down my computer, the students would be settling into their seats for four more hours of self-study during which teachers would monitor them to make sure they did not surrender to sleep, chat or do anything other than study. At 10:20 p.m. classes emptied. Liberated kids headed to waiting buses for their ride home (few lived nearby). Most students wouldn’t see bed until after midnight. An old adage recommends four hours of sleep a night in order to enter a top university.

Throughout the years that I taught at the high school, I both marveled and cringed at what the school, parents and the country expected of the students — and how the students tried to live up to those expectations.

Sometimes when I would leave school late — 8 or 9 p.m. — I’d glance into classrooms to watch the students busy at work, perusing their books, some standing at the back of the room to ward off sleep, all seemingly determined to live up to the expectations placed upon them. What about their youth?, I sometimes thought as I walked down the hill with the lights of the school behind me.

Upon returning to America, an old professor offered me the opportunity to speak to his freshman philosophy classes about my years in Asia. Excited, I assembled a presentation while thinking of my Korean classes where students would soak up material, sometimes too quietly.

In front of a class of 20 college freshman, the first thing I noticed were electronic devices on nearly every desk — cellphones, laptops, an iPad. A few minutes into my presentation, I saw a boy fiddling with his phone under the desk, another typing on her laptop and a third typing on her phone in full view. “Would you mind?” I asked. With a bothered look they returned their attention to the discussion, but not for long — they were at it again some minutes later. Subsequent classes differed little.

Later, in the professor’s office, I asked about the general demeanor of students while mentioning the kids in Korea.

“When I retire I will write a book about the collapse of the American university,” he told me. “There is little thirst for learning, for doing the hard work.”

“What about the devices?” I asked.

“They’re everywhere,” he answered, “and even when they’re banned the kids use them somehow.”

A dire assessment for sure, but the professor, who’s been teaching for 30 years, went on to say that I was there for five kids, more or less. That those kids — the ones who asked questions, expressed interest — would go on to do great things because they “take themselves and you seriously,” as he put it.

My presentation finished, I walked across the quiet New England campus, breathing in the cool autumn air, thinking that across the ocean it would be about 9 a.m., the students would be seated at their desks listening attentively, working hard and, most likely, taking things a bit more seriously than a lot of kids in America, for better or worse.

John M. Rodgers, an adjunct professor at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire, is editor-in-chief of The Three Wise Monkeys and editor-at-large of Groove Korea.

The New York Times
The Opinion Pages
Published: October 17, 2012

Education in South Korea is viewed as being crucial for success and competition is consequently very heated and fierce. A centralized administration oversees the process for the education of children from kindergarten to the third and final year of high school. Mathematics, science, Korean, social studies, and English are generally considered to be the most important subjects. Normally physical education is not considered important as it is not regarded to be education and therefore many schools lack high-quality gymnasiums and varsity athletics. South Korea was the first country in the world to provide high-speed internet access to every primary, junior, and high school.

The school year is divided into two semesters. The first begins in the beginning of March and ends in mid-July; the second begins in late August and ends in mid-February. They have summer vacation from mid-July to late August, and winter vacation from late-December to early February. After winter break, students return to school for a week, and then take a short vacation from mid-February to early March. The schedules are generally standardized, however it can vary slightly from region to region. In June 2011, mirroring the nation’s adoption of a five-day work week, the government announced that, beginning in 2012, primary and secondary schools would no longer hold Saturday classes.

Source: Wikipedia


Note from the editor of this blog:
My dear fellow educators and readers. We would like to hear from you on this matter. Your comments are welcome. I also take the opportunity to invite you to see the following post on Changing Education Paradigms.

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