South Korea: A Study in Education

In keeping with my recent posts’ international bent, I would like to travel halfway across the world to take a look at South Korea’s education system and explain why it is so successful, as well as some of its shortcomings. I will address its unique features, and also identify how some schools in Canada already share similar characteristics. For my popular post on Finland’s School Model, please click here. In case you were wondering, the featured image of this post is the Korean Bell of Friendship in California.

As in Finland, teaching is a highly respected and desirable profession in South Korea. Their teachers receive competitive salaries and job stability, in return for acquiring rigorous academic credentials and professional qualifications. Due in part to South Korea’s complex job market, elementary teachers are from the top 5% of the high school academic cohort. The Korean government encourages teachers to undergo professional development throughout their careers by favoring candidates who receive additional certification with promises of promotion. This is in contrast to Ontario’s education system, whereby a candidate who graduates teachers college is considered “done”, having “finished” their qualifications. But continuing to receive training and professional development throughout their careers ensures that Korean teachers will never become complement at work, and instead adds new skills to their arsenal to adapt to our rapidly changing Digital Age. That is why I wanted St. Jude’s Academy to be an IB World school. In order to teach at St. Jude’s, our educators had to undergo additional training to become IB certified. This is to adhere to Switzerland’s strict international teaching standards, and to ensure the students will receive an international standardized education.

Let’s take a look at an account from a BBC interviewee. Hye-Min Park is now a nineteen-year-old South Korean student who is at university studying to become an elementary school teacher. She attended two different schools for 13 hours every weekday. Hye-Min went to her regular high school from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. After a brief dinner and some independent studying, she attended a hagwon from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. before returning home again to do even more self-study until going to bed at 2 in the morning. Wow. Where do I even start? This personal description of her day-to-day life is representative of the majority of South Korean students. It reflects the culture of placing a lot of value on education, and the belief that performing well in school will affect your life’s outcome, for better or for worse. However, with this strict adherence to academic success comes a school system that is the complete opposite of the Finnish school model.

Hagwons are private schools on an industrial scale. Parents spend thousands of dollars to send their children to these afterschool programs that take place at night so as not to interfere with regular day school. What may have started out as a place for supplemental tutoring has now ballooned into a massive industry that any student wishing to compete for admission to one of the highly coveted SKY universities (Seoul National, Korea, and Yonsei Universities) must attend because the education bar has been raised to a new standard. Korea’s culture of valuing education has created a highly competitive atmosphere, so that on top of attending two different schools students feel the need to compulsively complete hours of self-study at home. During exam season, students rent rooms called goshiwons, measured at 3.3 square meters to ensure maximum concentration and studying power. These rooms are tiny! Some of this intense and almost religious devotion to education has historical roots, from when the Japanese occupied Korea from 1910 to 1945. When the Japanese left, illiteracy was at 78% and their national economy was in shambles. Investing heavily in their education system allowed South Korea’s economy to rapidly grow and create a new, highly educated society.

The result? Today’s students perform very well on standardized tests, and those who get accepted to one of the extremely prestigious SKY universities become Korea’s leading citizens in medicine, science, law, education and government. South Korea is one of the highest educated countries in the world. When given a British GSCE math exam, South Korean teenagers completed it almost perfectly in half the expected finish time. But this success comes at a steep price.

Critics outside and within South Korea have argued that this zealous devotion to learning is stifling students’ creativity, social skills, and emotional development. South Korea also has a high graduate unemployment rate, because everyone is so highly educated and there is a low desire to do vocational or trade work. Every student wants to become a teacher, doctor, or lawyer. Students would rather remain unemployed than accept anything lower than the very high standards that have been set by their education’s competitive culture. In 2013, Statistics Korea and the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family reported that “worry over career and academic performance is the main reason youths aged 13-19 contemplate suicide . . . suicide was the biggest cause of death among people aged 15-24 in 2011”.

When I reviewed the Finnish school model in my other post, I drew comparisons to Ontario’s private schools and recommended that we adopt many of their practices. However this analysis is more complex. South Korea’s respect for teachers and its cultural appreciation for education is definitely something I advocate for Ontario to adopt. But we can also learn from their shortcomings, especially the detrimental pressure they put on students to perform well, and the habit of studying for over 16 hours a day. If I had to make a choice, I would agree with Finland’s reduced school hours. Their school day is around 6 hours long, yet as I reported Finnish students are considered internationally the crème de la crème.

After reading both my posts, I ask you: which would you choose? Thank you for reading.



3 thoughts on “South Korea: A Study in Education”

  1. This is an interesting report I must say. The level of devotion in these students is highly admirable. Do these kids have video games, cell phones and i-pads like the average american kid? How do the kids manage to concentrate for 16 hours a day? These are very lofty ideals.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hello Gbolabo, thank you for taking the time to read my post, and for the great insight.

      South Korean children are very attuned to technology and begin using the latest cell phones at an early age (I’m talking Samsung Note 7’s). According to government data, close to 80% of South Koreans aged 12 to 19 owned smartphones in 2012 – double the number of teens who owned a smartphone in 2011. Tech giants like Samsung play a big role in South Korea’s economy and job market, but that’s a different topic.

      In fact, the South Korean government has become greatly concerned with what they are calling mass addiction to smartphone use among children. Another study reported that 72% of South Koreans have a smartphone by the age of 11 and that they spend an average of 5.4 hours every day using the devices. So, if we allow approximately 4 hours of average sleep time, plus 15 hours of school and self-study, that allows 5 hours of smartphone use. How does travel and eating time factor in? I don’t know. But that raises an apparent paradox: how Is there time for all this addiction to smartphones and obsessive study? I can’t really answer that. If I had to guess, I would say the smartphone “addiction” is occurring in students before high school – attending two schools/hagwons only really occurs when students reach high school.

      As for ability to concentrate – South Korean students are HIGHLY motivated to succeed well in school. They believe that how well they do in school will determine the outcome of their entire life: which university they get into, which in turns affects their job prospects, which in turn affects their living style etc.

      Liked by 1 person

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