I just had a conversation with a middle school girl. During the course of the conversation, I asked her why she looked so tired. She told me it was exam month and that every night she would study until 2am. She would then get up at 6.30am and leave the house at 7.20am to walk the 40 minutes to school with her friends because it was the only free time she would have in the day. I asked her if, after the exams, she would have time to relax and rest and she replied no because she was then going to prepare for high school. I also asked her about her hobbies and she told me that she effectively doesn’t have time for hobbies because she’s expected to study so much.
This got me thinking to my life, in Ireland, at her age. I would go to school from 9am to 4pm. Go home, study for a few hours and go to bed. I would also play music and sports and enjoy regular social activities even in the dreaded “exam month”. My parents forced upon us the belief that you don’t always have to get 100%, as long as you can stand by your work and say that you gave it your best, then that was the most important thing.
What that student described to me was the life of a regular middle school student in Korea. Expected to study so hard for so long that she has been denied the opportunity for hobbies. It’s not surprising that suicide is the leading cause of death among the young people in Korea. They are simply following what society expects them to be, not what they truly are. Korea is a country that prides itself on the academic achievements of its young people. There is nothing wrong with this, it’s the sacrifices it makes to achieve those results that’s wrong.
Education in Korea is a factory like machine. Everyone does the same thing, are expected to produce the same high results and anything outside of those high results are disregarded as substandard materials. It’s not just a middle school problem. This mindset starts as early as kindergarten. The 7 year olds at my school are expected to complete an English exam at the end of term. Our school is not an English academy, it’s a Korean playschool with English as a subject. We do mock exams to prepare and it’s gotten to the point where I can only give the results to the teacher because the competition was so high among the students. It wasn’t just the competition, it was the fact that the students who got lower scores, even though they passed, would be looked down on by the higher achievers.
What should also be considered is what the Koreans actually call “education”. Students are only encouraged to memorize and repeat. No form of understanding or independent thought is necessary, just remember this and it’s all fine. There is no room for creativity or critical thinking. Twenty hours of studying wouldn’t be necessary if it was quality study that was occurring. Native teachers will tell you that students in Korea, although they study, score very poorly on comprehension and even worse on open questions. We should also look to the relationship between teacher and pupil in Korea. Although students show a great ability, Korean teachers quite often don’t trust the students enough to independently answer a question. Instead they spoon feed the answers to them. The lack of trust in this critical relationship is what makes the learning environment uncomfortable and stressful.
A few weeks ago I watched a TED talk by Sir.Ken Richardson (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r9LelXa3U_I). What I took from this speech is that education systems dislocate us from our natural talents. This happens worldwide and is not just a problem isolated to Korea. But I feel Korea could learn a lot from transforming their education system. To say “reform” here would not help because it would be a case of same same but different. In fact, I really wonder if transforming the education system would do anything to transform the mindset of the Korean people. People here expect the great results and fantastic achievements because it’s what they’ve grown with, it’s the only thing they know.
But it’s not working. In 2012, students and young people should be encouraged to be more than what society simply expects them to be. I saw a clip from a documentary recently on the pressures faced by high school students in Korea http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z5GvkcjszLk.
I’m sure the problem of industrial like education is not Korea’s alone. No education system is perfect. What Korea needs to understand and appreciate though is that all students are not Einsteins. Each has their own talent and ability and we, as a nation must start encouraging our young people to foster and develop those talents, alongside a healthy education.