Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Cost of Korean Education

In Korea, education is big business.

Particularly, English education. This is why, a few years ago, the Korean government started employing "native English speakers" in hoards in order to expose Korean students to "authentic language." They want to keep up with the global market.

Foreign teachers (like myself) have taken this opportunity to teach English and learn about another culture. Hagwons or cram schools employ native teachers and dot every neighborhood because most students attend these in addition to their regular school. It is also common for students to compete in English competitions. Students from every grade level gather at these competitions to tell stories, debate, or give speeches in front of judges.

A few weeks ago, one of my grade 5 students was competing in such a competition. I was asked to tutor her after school so she could practice her English. The day before the competition, myself and two other teachers sat and listened to a dialogue she had prepared. At one point when talking about some one's body, she said, "Oh, you have a nice S-line!"

I leaned over to a teacher and said, "What's an S-line?"

She started laughing hysterically as she realized that this was a distinctly Korean expression that this girl had translated and was using in English. The other teacher began laughing too. The girl smiled uncomfortably, but soon she was crying and she ran out of the room.

The teachers didn't seem terribly concerned as she left. I said, "What just happened? Did she think we were making fun of her? I just didn't know what an 'S-line' was." (Apparently, it just means "curvy" like the letter 'S').

"Oh, don't worry about it," they assured me. "She's just very stressed about the contest tomorrow."

Later, I saw the student and asked if she was okay. She awkwardly apologized and started to walk away. I asked her, "Do you feel okay about tomorrow?"

"No. Two years ago, I won. And last year, I didn't. My parents were very upset. I have to win this year to make them proud."

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Awhile ago, I had a conversation with a Korean teacher at my school. A few years ago, she and her family lived in Oklahoma while her husband was serving in the air force. She says that her two sons (now in high school) always speak so dreamily about their time in American schools. "That was the last time they enjoyed school," she tells me. "In the States, you ask your students, 'What are your dreams? What will make you happy?' And in Korea we say, 'What will secure your future? What will make your family proud?' "

We have a different focus entirely. And when I asked her if she felt like one was better, she said that she wanted some sort of balance in the middle between happiness and hard work.

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On Wednesday afternoon, a teacher casually told me not to come to school at my usual time. "Come an hour later. It's test day." I didn't really argue. But later, I learned more about this test day.

It's called Sooneung. Once a year in November, every senior in high school takes this 8-hour long college scholastic ability test. Unlike, our SATs in the States--that may or may not hold high regard in your college placement and certainly isn't the most important factor in your future--this test is of utmost importance in Korea. It's not an exaggeration to say that the results of the test will decide your fate for the rest of your life.

We recently watched this short 20-minute documentary about Sooneung, called ExamiNation. This film helped to clear up a few things I noticed on Thursday beyond my own school starting an hour later and having special "Test Day rice cakes" at lunch.

Businesses and even the stock market open an hour later. Some elementary and middle schools didn't even hold classes to limit traffic and noise for the testers. Police escorts on-hand to assist students who are running late or forget supplies. People hold signs and cheer as the students are walking in.

During this time, planes are not allowed to operate in case they might interfere with the listening portion of the test. Police officers stand outside the schools to hush any noisy interruptions. There are special foods that some may eat to better than chances. Their parents may pray and have very specific superstitions about what will be a factor in their student's success.

This is a big deal.

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At lunch, a teacher recently told me that for all the praise the Korean education receives, its students lack creativity and original thought. They mime. They memorize and repeat. But smothering them with all this information doesn't necessarily lead to a good education.

"Do you remember taking the Sooneung test? How was it?" I asked him.

"It was miserable. Probably the worst time in my life."

"So, did you do well on the test?"

"No, that's why I work here," he said with a chuckle.

I later clarified that he didn't mean that all teachers must have done poorly on the test. Teachers are well-respected in Korean culture. Several of the teachers attended very prestigious teacher education universities. But he had hoped for a different path that he didn't receive because of his test score.

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BBC News calls this Asia's "education fever" in a recent article about this incredible pressure put on Asian students. It's costing parents incredible amount of money, time, and energy to accomplish greatness in their children.

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The other day, I walked to school with my Korean-Oklahoman-teacher-friend (whose kids had attended American schools) and I asked how her sons were doing. "It's testing season. They are very stressed and I am too," she told me.

"Do you think that because you have experienced American schooling, you are more understanding if your sons don't perform perfectly?"

She looked at me with a pained expressions, "I wish I did. But I am still a Korean parent and I still have to keep up with Korean culture."







Kylie said...

Wow. First off, your stories from Korea are helping me better understand my own administrator. Secondly, this sort of pressure to perform nearly perfectly is heartbreaking. Do you feel pressured to push them in a similar way in your classes?

Heather said...

Gratefully, I teach in an elementary school where the expectations are different. We are far from days filled with silly songs and recess, but at least we aren't drilling the kids and teaching to the tests.