Written by Douglas Baumwoll
Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” So proclaimed Nelson Mandela, the South African political prisoner and president; and he knew a thing or two about changing institutionalized belief and political policy. Rewind 2,300 years, and you have Aristotle saying, “The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet.” There are famous quotes about education from many of history’s international heavy-hitters: Ban Ki-moon, Martin Luther King, Jr., Benjamin Franklin, Jean Piaget, Michelle Obama, Koni Affan. The list goes on. “Education” has been an integral part of humanity and society since the first cave-dwellers passed on oral information or painted animals on the wall to communicate to their fellow tribespeople or gods.
But what is “education,” exactly? Let’s look at another quote, this one from Albert Einstein: “Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.” And: “The goal of education is not to increase the amount of knowledge but to create the possibilities for a child to invent and discover, to create men who are capable of doing new things.” This is the view of Jean Piaget, the 20th-century Swiss psychologist and pioneer of child development and cognition. Peter Gray, PhD, reminds us that “in the beginning, for hundreds of thousands of years, children educated themselves through self-directed play and exploration . . . with the rise of agriculture, and later of industry, children became forced laborers. Play and exploration were suppressed. Willfulness, which had been a virtue, became a vice that had to be beaten out of children.” And, if you take even a superficial look at the school system in your home country, you can see that remnants of this truth remain in elementary, middle, and high schools even today. Ever heard of Sir Kenneth Robinson? Check out his witty and incisive TED talk entitled “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” and his animated “Changing Education Paradigms” on YouTube.
So, what does the noun “education” mean? When discussing this concept with someone, we must make absolutely clear which facet of this complex and nuanced concept we are talking about. Content? Pedagogy? Methodology? Learning environment? Assessment and evaluation? Rather than argue what the one word, “education,” should mean, let’s just be specific and avoid the semantics issues altogether. And that brings us to today’s topic: what kind of “alternative” education – and I mean schools and their curricula – exist in Jeollanam-do?
First, let me explain that the meaning of “alternative” education in the Korean public school system is not synonymous to “progressive” education as I understand it. When people speak of “progressive” ideologies, I think of Montessori schools (based on the writings and ideas of Dr. Maria Montessori) and of Waldorf Education (based on the writings and ideas of Rudolf Steiner). Both of these educational pioneers wrote about their methods over 100 years ago, and their visions exist today embodied in schools all over the world. In fact, since arriving here from Germany in 1998, 100 Waldorf kindergartens and six Waldorf schools dot the nation (see freunde-waldorf.de for more information). Locally, a Waldorf school opened recently right here in Jeollanam-do (Damyang), and I will write more about it in next month’s issue.
Back to the focus of this article, which is local schools that differ from the prescribed curriculum taught in the public school system. First, there are two alternative schools, one in Damyang County, northeast of Gwangju, and a second in Gwangju. Both are owned and operated by private religious organizations, and their curriculums differ somewhat from the public school curriculum. For information about the Damyang school, named Hanbit High School, see the Gwangju News Online article from January 2014 (issue #143; go to hanbit.hs.jne.kr for more information). The second school, called the Gwangju Sahmyook Elementary and Middle School, is one of 35 branches located throughout Korea. Their curriculum also includes content that may be uncommon in typical Korean public schools. For example, Sahmyook offers courses in both Korean and English, but some of the “English” classes are content classes, such as science, and not only second language learning classes. There are also club activities taught in English that kids take once a week. These include chess, tabletop games, drama, and pop music. For additional information, check out their website at koreasda.com/introduction.html.
Shifting gears, let’s take a look at “alternative” education within the public school system. I discovered two here in Jeollanamdo: the Han-ul High School in Gokseong, and the Cheong-ram Middle School in Gangjin. Both of these schools implement elements of their curriculums that differ from the prescribed public school curriculum; the reason, however, is not entirely pedagogical.
I interviewed one teacher at Han-ul via email, and they graciously supplied me with the following information. Eighty-nine students attend this high school; however, the reason is because these students display some behavioral difficulties in school, and not because their parents have chosen to send them to a “progressive” school in terms of curriculum. Nevertheless, as a tool in managing behavior and educating these students, curriculum is modified and actually leans toward methods used at well-known progressive schools like Montessori and Waldorf. For example, the students at Han-ul take more and longer field trips compared to public high schools. For instance, some experience a 4-day, 3-night field trip hiking along the Soemgin River, others climb Mount Jiri, and still others go to and explore an island in Goheung.
The school offers “innovative classes such as woodworking skills, band, vocal, etc.” I also asked if project-based learning is employed as a teaching methodology and the response was, “Yes, many teachers use project-based learning. Students establish individual or group goals and work throughout the semester to deliver their results. Our school offers experience-oriented and personal-oriented education.”
These methods seem to be effective with these students, many of whom come from socially disadvantaged backgrounds. Given the educational difficulties present for various societal and personal reasons at Han-ul, 50 percent of the students take the Suneung entrance exam and go on to attend university. I asked if vocational skills are taught to students. “We don’t teach professional skills as a profession, but we help [the students] find their dreams and talents.” Students and teachers are working hard here for a positive educational outcome in a difficult situation, and I applaud all of them – administrators, teachers, and students – for their efforts.
A teacher at Cheong-ram Middle School told me they felt that mainstream Korean public schools will start moving toward the methods used there, with less emphasis on testing and more emphasis on intellectual and social development. In the private sector in Korea, progressive educational philosophies and methods have popped up everywhere. For example, Korea now has a Montessori Institute office in Gyeonggi-do, which offers training in the innovative Montessori methods. As mentioned, the Waldorf schools in Korea (and worldwide) emphasize “experiential, developmentally oriented learning through both tactile and intellectual means.” That’s why kids spend much of their day outdoors (again, tune in next month for an article on this).
Personally, I feel education reform is needed in virtually every society in the world in one way or another, and for all ages of students. I call on you, dear reader, to follow up on some of the information I have provided here. In addition to the names I have mentioned above, look up Alfie Kohn, Dianne Ravitch, and Susan Ochshorn. There are many, many more you will find once you start your Internet searches. Their ideas will challenge you to either reconfirm your beliefs about education, or to reconstruct them. I urge everyone to engage in the public discussion. What does education mean to you, students, parents, teachers, and society in general? Free public education is a central tenet of evolved modern day societies, and it must be flexible, adaptive, effective, and non-dehumanizing. Education’s purpose can no longer be to prepare young adults for factory jobs and number-crunching white collar work. We must ensure that students develop critical and creative thinking skills, tolerance of differing viewpoints, a thirst for knowledge, and collaborative skills. They must want to become lifelong learners, and not recoil at that idea. Because, remember, as the great John Dewey said, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”
Doug Baumwoll, a professional writer and editor for 25 years, trains in-service teachers in writing skills and methodology. His personal writing interests include visionary and speculative fiction, climate change, energy, and social justice. He is the founder of SavetheHumanz.com.