Back to School: Perspectives on Korean Education

Photos courtesy of Kat Sten and Kelsey Rivers

March sees not only warm spring breezes sweeping into the country and flowers blossoming on trees, but hordes of students returning to school after a long winter vacation. In the spirit of the season, we decided to talk to moms and students to learn their thoughts about the annual return to school, and on Korean education in general.

My first interview was with a long-time resident of Mokpo, Kat Sten. She is both a literal mom, as well as the figurative “Mom of Mokpo,” the go-to person to ask about anything relating to living in our fair seaside city. Come August, Sten will have lived in Mokpo for five years, having worked in all sorts of places around town – from hagwon to public school, kindergarten to English library. Originally, she left the US to pursue her traveling dreams while she was still young and single, and “if only [she] had known … moving to Korea was one of the best crazy decisions of [her] life.” Now she resides in Mokpo on a permanent basis, with a Korean husband and children.

I expected Sten, as a teacher, mom, and international resident, to have some very interesting insights on Korean education, especially as she intends for her own children to attend the Korean public school system. Luckily, I was able to squeeze in lunch and an interview with Sten, despite her busy schedule, which includes juggling two children, freelance English tutoring, and part-time work with a hagwon.

The flow of our conversation circulated around the differences between Korean and American schooling, and whether these differences were positive or negative. Throughout our discussion, some important points came up: continuity and use of time, play, and accountability.

Sten and her children

Sten put into words an aspect of the Korean school year that has always struck me as odd: continuity. For example, finals typically take place in the last week of November or the first week of December, but then there remains a full four weeks before the end of the semester. From the western perspective, this is a highly unusual use of time. Kat saw this in the Korean timeline as a kind of “buffer” zone that gave students time to relax before moving on to the next phase of school. She pointed out that this, along with the “graduation week” that divides the winter vacation into two halves, is seen from the Western perspective as an inefficient use of time, and very different from the kind of school continuity in the US. American students are not given buffer time – they simply move on to whatever is next. She saw this aspect of Korean education in a more negative light in that it did not accurately prepare students for real life, where when one project ends, the next immediately begins, and no buffer time is given to catch your breath.

Sten also pointed out the things that she wished would be adapted into the American school system. Kat told us that she saw more “play” in Korean schools. She saw this in how homework was assigned, as well as in the incorporation of break time into the daily routine.
Korean elementary school students receive little to no homework from their teachers (if they have homework, it is from their hagwons), and so when school is out, the students can have carefree playtime, unlike American students who typically have several hours’ worth of homework each night. I commented that the difference between elementary school and middle school must be jarring, though, for students to go from a more stress-free learning environment in elementary school to something that is, in a lot of ways, like adulthood, with the strict rules, uniforms, and studying that middle school requires.

Sten, however, liked that in middle and high school students do not have to change classrooms between classes. The students are given built-in breaks between classes to unwind. In American schools, that time is spent traveling between classrooms, not relaxing.

Our lunch finished on the greater degree of student accountability she saw in the Korean school system. She noted that there is a whole different culture surrounding schooling – especially when it comes to who carries the blame when students fail. In the US, teachers are more often than not the ones blamed for poor test scores, creating a current of hostility against standardized testing amongst teachers. But in Korea, there is more accountability on the shoulders of students and parents. Students are the first to be questioned when they fail – they are held responsible for their learning and grades.

Accountability is also instilled in that Korean students are made to clean their own schools – which gives students a greater sense of ownership for their school and motivates them to respect the property. This is less so in the US, where students do not have to clean their classrooms.

Jeong Soon-jin

Having examined Korean education from the mom perspective, I also wanted to see what students, those most affected by school, had to say. I had two interviewees: Catherine Lee and Jeong Soon-jin. Soon-jin is a third-year Korean middle school student in Mokpo, a vivacious girl who has a true gift for English. When Soon-jin was my student, she continually impressed me with her desire to speak English and learn more about the world from her foreign teachers. Catherine Lee is a 19-year-old from Minnesota, living and studying in Gwangju on a gap-year Rotary exchange program. She first arrived in Korea last August and will remain in Gwangju until June.

Soon-jin and I discussed the positive and negative aspects of Korean education over cups of hot chocolate at Starbucks. Perhaps as is typical of an angsty teenager, Soon-jin focused her thoughts on the things she dislikes about school. She felt that Korean students face a great deal of stress from their intense study schedules, and that this, combined with strict rules and little free time between the demands of school and hagwon, caused students to suffer from mental and physical illness. Catherine also brought up the intensity of Korean education and how this negatively impacts students on a very personal level: “The school system … creates a great deal of stress, and it seems that school is the only thing many Korean kids have time to do. Because of this, they learn and memorize a lot of information but do not get to develop their identity as a person outside of school very much.”

“But surely,” I asked, “there are things you like about school?” For Soon-jin, art class and other non-core subject classes were what made school interesting. It was in art where Soon-jin felt like she could express herself, where she could tell her stories and portray her emotions. Catherine focused on the social atmosphere of Korean education, “[the] school has a great sense of community. Students spend the whole day with their class … they do many things together, which seems to foster a sense of belonging.” Catherine also pointed out an aspect of Korean culture reflected in the school setting as a positive aspect of school: “There is also a great culture of older students taking care of younger students, and the younger students looking up to them. This seems like a special relationship that did not really exist in my American high school.”

Not surprisingly, through the course of these interviews, alternative interpretations on the same subjects came up. While Sten saw it as a positive that students were not given homework, Catherine saw this in a different light: “We do not have the culture of going to academy … so American students are more likely to be given a decent amount of homework that they have to complete on their own at home. This makes our studying more student-driven because we choose how much we study.” From Catherine’s perspective, more homework instils greater academic accountability, as opposed to attendance at a hagwon, in which studying is controlled by parents.
Ultimately, as Catherine says, “These two systems produce very different people, and there are definitely positives and negatives to each.” So good luck to the parents, students, and teachers out there with the beginning of the new school year!

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