School life in Korea

I’ve started reading The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way and the author follows a Midwestern exchange student to high school in Korea. Here’s what it is like…

A few minutes later, he glanced backwards at the rows of students behind him. Then he looked again, eyes wide. A third of the class was asleep. Not nodding off, but flat-out, no-apology sleeping, with their heads down on the desks. One girl actually had her head on a special pillow that slipped over her forearm. This was pre-meditated napping. How could this be? Eric had read all about the hard-working Koreans who trounced the Americans in math, reading, and science. He hadn’t read anything about shamelessly sleeping through class.

Next was science class. Once again, at least a third of the class went to sleep. It was almost farcical. How did Korean kids get those record-setting test scores if they spent so much of their time asleep in class?

Soon he discovered the purpose of the teacher’s backscratcher. It was the Korean version of wake-up call. Certain teachers would lightly tap kids on the head when they fell asleep or talked in class. The kids called it a “love stick.”

At ten past two, Eric left school early. Since he was an exchange student, he was exempt from having to experience the full force of the Korean school day. He asked one of his classmates what would happen after he left. “We keep going to school.” Eric looked at him blankly. “Until when?” “Classes end at ten after four,” he said.

Then he went on: After classes, the kids cleaned the school, mopping the floors, wiping the chalkboards, and emptying the garbage. The kids who had received demerits—for misbehaving or letting their hair grow too long—had to wear red pinnies and clean the bathrooms. Work, including the unpleasant kind, was at the center of Korean school culture, and no one was exempt. At four thirty, everyone settled back in their seats for test-prep classes, in anticipation of the college entrance exam. Then they ate dinner in the school cafeteria. After dinner came yaja, a two hour period of study loosely supervised by teachers. Most kids reviewed their notes from the day or watched online test-prep lectures, as the teachers roamed the hallways and confiscated the occasional illicit iPod. Around nine in the evening, Eric’s classmates finally left Namsan. But the school day still wasn’t over. At that point, most kids went to private tutoring academies known as hagwons. That’s where they did most of their real learning, the boy said. They took more classes there until eleven, the city’s hagwon curfew. Then—finally—they went home to sleep for a few hours before reporting back to school at eight the next morning.

Even over summer break, libraries got so crowded that kids had to get tickets to get a space. Many paid $4 to rent a small air-conditioned carrel in the city’s plentiful supply of for-profit self-study libraries. Korea’s sky-high PISA scores were mostly a function of students’ tireless efforts, Lee [an education minister] believed, not the country’s schools.

How far have they come?

the country had no history of excelling in math. In fact, the vast majority of its citizens were illiterate as recently as the 1950s. When the country began rebuilding its schools after the Korean War, the Korean language did not even have words for modern concepts in math and science. New words had to be coined before textbooks could be published. In 1960, Korea had a student-teacher ratio of fifty-nine to one. Only a third of Korean kids even went to middle school. Poverty predicted academic failure. If PISA had existed back then, the United States would have trounced Korea in every subject.

Listening to Lee, I realized that the rest of the world could learn as much from what worked in Korea as from what didn’t work. First, countries could change. That was hopeful. Korea had raised its expectations for what kids could do despite epidemic poverty and illiteracy. Korea did not wait to fix poverty before radically improving its education system, including its teacher colleges. This faith in education and people had catapulted Korea into the developed world.

What happens when it is time for college?

University admissions were based on students’ skills as measured by the test. Full stop. Nobody got accepted because he was good at sports or because his parents had gone there. It was, in a way, more meritocratic than many U.S. colleges had ever been.

It was an extreme meritocracy for children that hardened into a caste system for adults. Even when more universities opened, the public continued to fixate on the top three.

How much does it cost?

Per student, Korean taxpayers spent half as much money as American taxpayers on schools, but Korean families made up much of the difference out of their own pockets.

Are the students happy?

One Sunday morning during that school year, a teenager named Ji stabbed his mother in the neck in their home in Seoul. He did it to stop her from going to a parent-teacher conference. He was terrified that she’d find out that he’d lied about his latest test scores.

According to his test scores, Ji ranked in the top 1 percent of all high school students in the country, but, in absolute terms, he still placed four thousandth nationwide. His mother had insisted he must be number one at all costs, Ji said. When his scores had disappointed her in the past, he said, she’d beaten him and withheld food. In response to the story, many Koreans sympathized more with the living son than the dead mother. Commentators projected their own sour memories of high school onto Ji’s crime. Some went so far as to accuse the mother of inviting her own murder. A Korea Times editorial described the victim as “one of the pushy ‘tiger’ mothers who are never satisfied with their children’s school records no matter how high their scores.” As for Ji, he confessed to police immediately, weeping as he described how his mother had haunted his dreams after he’d killed her. At the trial, the prosecutor asked for a fifteen-year prison sentence. The judge, citing mitigating circumstances, sentenced the boy to three and a half years.

Is a country where every bureaucrat is good at math able to sort out bad teachers from the good ones?

To elevate the profession, Lee rolled out a new teacher evaluation scheme to give teachers useful feedback and hold them accountable for results.

Korea’s teacher evaluation scheme did not include student test-score growth; officials I talked to seemed to want to use this data, but they didn’t know how to assign accountability, since so many students had multiple teachers, including outside tutors, instructing them in the same subjects.) Under Korea’s new rules, low-scoring teachers were supposed to be retrained. But, as in U.S. districts where reformers have tried imposing similar strategies, teachers and their unions fought back, calling the evaluations degrading and unfair. Pretty policies on paper turned toxic in practice. As a form of protest, some Korean teachers gave all their peers the highest possible reviews. In 2011, less than 1 percent of Korea’s teachers were actually sent for retraining, and some simply refused to go.

What does the author think that we can learn from this system?

As Eric [the exchange student from Minnesota] had noticed on his first day, Korean schools existed for one and only one purpose: so that children could master complex academic material. It was an obvious difference. U.S. schools, by contrast, were about many things, only one of which was learning. This lack of focus made it easy to lose sight of what mattered most.

it was clear that the real innovation in Korea was not happening in the government or the public schools. It was happening in Korea’s shadow education system—the multimillion-dollar afterschool tutoring complex that Lee was trying to undermine.

More: read the book.

16 thoughts on “School life in Korea

  1. I’ve been to S. Korea many times (early 90s) as part of a long term transfer of technology agreement with the Korean government. Observations:
    1– A wonderful country full of kind, hardworking people. Twelve hour jet lagged, I felt safe and comfortable walking the streets of Seoul at midnight.

    2– Very smart and disciplined in “structured academics.” In those days, application of creative design (out of the box thinking) was difficult for them because of the severe hierarchical structure of the culture. Korean children are taught from day one to respect their elders, obey, and live well within the rules. And they do. At the time I was there an iconoclast Steve Jobs type was out of the question. {I can’t help thinking of the high school kids on the sinking ferry that went to their cabin, as they were told by the crew, instead of going topside to abandon ship.}

    3– If you have grey hair, you are god. Respect for elders that borders on worship. They take very good care of their old people. When I was there those with grey hair were the ones who came through the war.

    4– Most of the people I worked with had PhDs from American universities. In those days the government sponsored (paid for) the best of the best in getting a first class education. They knew education was their ticket to growth and prosperity. They were right, it worked.

    5– The “average U.S. student” will never compete with the “average S. Korean student.” At least not in my lifetime. The root cause is cultural.

    Link compares U.S. crime rate with South Korea. Tolerance for crime is cultural. See bottom: safety comparisons United States vs South Korea. compare_countries_result.jsp?country1=United+States&country2=South+Korea

  2. Lectures are a highly inefficient way to learn. When I was in college, I found that if I tried to pay attention in class, I would be too tired to do the real learning of memorizing notes, so my grades improved when I skipped as many classes as possible and dozed when I did come in. I was fresh for studying in the evening. The only problem was professors who took that as an insult and purposely tested material that wasn’t I’m the books or lecture notes.

  3. Unfortunately, it’s very hard to draw lessons from Korean culture that will work in American culture. The cultures are so different. Near where I live there is a Korean-American hagwon (SAT cram school) , ambitiously named “Yale Academy”. For a while they had a billboard with a giant motto – “With much pain comes much gain.” They were promising you a painful experience for your child (Korean parents would be expected to make such decisions as selecting a hagwon for their children – children are considered not to have the maturity or life experience to make such important decisions on their own) as their chief selling point. This just doesn’t work in the American context – imagine telling your high school age American kids , “I’ve picked a cram school for you – I’ve chosen the one that promises to inflict the most pain upon you, because that is surely the best.”

    A recurring complaint, as in Paul’s comment above, is that the Korean system does not encourage or allow for individuality or creativity, that it emphasizes memorization and obedience to authority too much. There is no Steven Jobs of Samsung, just a bunch of faceless army ants. Somehow Samsung seems to be doing OK without one. Edison said that technological development is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. Somehow the Koreans manage to come up with the remaining 1% despite their system (according to Apple, they steal it from them).

    I think this beef is sour grapes by non-Asians – yes, they work incredibly hard and do really well on tests, but they lack that certain je ne sais quoi. This was the same excuse used to keep Jews out of top American universities in the 1st half of the 20th century and indeed it looks like there is an unspoken Asian quota in effect now at the Ivies. In places that practice “admission by test” (Cal Tech, Berkeley, the NY elite science high schools), Asians are sweeping the field.

  4. When I was in high school, I go to school 08:30 and come back home at 0:30… It was painful to everyone: parents, teachers, and me. Some researchers says “Most of korean middle/high school student cannot use drugs, go to party. No TIME”

    I thought the position of country is the problem. During 700 years, the distance between capital city of china and border city of korea is one-week distance. According to the history, military Pressure is very high. And 1.5 million solders stuck near Seoul City now. Most of south korean thought quality of man is the most important thing. (Unfortunately the quality of product isn’t …)

    To maintain quality, korean goverment use test to pickup goverment employee during 700-1000 years. If noble family couldn’t pickup as goverment employee 4 generations (about 60 years), these family lose their titles. Test is important… 🙁

    I thought korean’s thinking is changing. But it is very slow…

  5. Any school in the States that setups a school program resembling a Korean one will be sued for child abuse.

    @Izzie is right on, this is a culture driven mind set, the US cannot do this due to our diversity.

  6. A lot of people also point to the similar Chinese Imperial system of civil service exams as a reason for the Chinese facility for test taking. I am a little hesitant to draw the connection. First of all, the system was discontinued a long time ago. The last imperial exam was given in 1905. The structure and subject matter of the test was very different than a modern SAT. Only a small minority of Chinese took the test – most of today’s Chinese are descended from illiterate peasants. Although the test was theoretically open to more or less anyone, most people could not afford the many years of study required to prepare for the exam. I assume the same was true in Korea. So while there are broad parallels, there is not really much of a direct connection.

    However, on some level, Asians are culturally more comfortable with the idea of high stakes testing, whereas Americans feel that it is somehow unfair to distill a person down to a single number (especially if it is a low number and you are that person).

    I do like the idea that you had to come up with someone useful to society in your family at least once every 4 generations or your whole clan is booted from the upper classes. They take away your McMansion, your Chevy Suburban, the summer house on Nantucket, everything. On that measure, some American families are reaching their sell-by date.

  7. Perhaps for easily testable subjects like math and science it might be better for government to simply set the test standards and forget about the curriculum or teaching methods.

  8. What’s the point? As Bob Dylan says, “20 years of schooling and they put you on the day shift”.

  9. When I was in the Air Force I spent a year near the city of Taebaek, South Korea. I was one of only two U.S. Military officers in that region, so I got to spend a lot of time working and socializing with the local people. I also taught English a number of times in local High Schools and businesses.

    The exchange student’s observations match exactly with what I saw. The school kids do all the janitorial work in the schools, they stay late at school and then go to tutors.

    Pretty much their whole economic future depends on their test scores.

    One thing I never saw was any room for individual creativity or any questioning of the status quo. Everything is very hierarchical and group-think oriented.

    There could never, ever, be a Steve Jobs or Elon Musk in South Korea.

    Let me also mention something folks should know about Korean crime statistics. There are no unsolved crimes in Korea. The police solve 100% of all reported crimes, and the government convicts 100% all suspects accused of a crime.

    If a crime cannot be solved it is considered the mistake or fault of the person reporting the crime, and he or she will be strongly pressured to withdraw the report.

    Because the Chief of Police and the local District Attorney lose a lot of face if a crime goes unsolved, and those two guys are the most important individuals in the local community.

  10. Jim: Regarding “There could never, ever, be a Steve Jobs or Elon Musk in South Korea.”… The management of General Motors was pretty sure that there would never be any real car-making talent in Asia….

  11. The “Korea” being discussed here is, clearly, S. Korea. There are no NAMs and no first-generation immigrants in S. Korea to pull down average standardized test scores, unlike in the U.S.

  12. I think the in-class sleeping can often be a result of students having already covered in advance the materials that the school teaches. I myself stayed ahead of some of the school’s curriculum by a year or two when I was growing up in Korea, and that’s what those hagwons (and private tutors) are for! And (at least when I was growing up) Korean school wouldn’t dare consider having “advanced” classes for those students who are obviously more on top of the materials than those who fail to follow; otherwise you could and would be considered to have created government-sponsored caste system! Being afforded equal opportunities is the name of the game and the results will depend on how hard you work (but of course, the reality is very different, where people who can afford better education districts and better access to hagwons and private tutors will tend to be better off). I think it’s a semi socialist culture if you think about it. One recent example is, some schools started providing free lunches for poorer students, but to prevent those who need free lunches from feeling poor (and they’re really the minority by an extreme margin – nobody starves in Korea), they’ve made it mandatory for the vast majority of the students to eat free lunches that the schools provide (rather than being allowed to bring lunches from home). I may be wrong on details of this example but I hope you get the picture. This cultural background can also partially explain the importance put on various entrance exams, where “qualified” people are selected based on objective test scores. This way, it can be said that everyone is afforded the same opportunities and let the better prepared get the position (and that way, the people who are in charge of selecting candidates avoid blame when something goes wrong). Subjective qualification criteria could be too dangerous although they are being considered more and more nowadays.

  13. And Korea is a pretty crammed place – 50M people in a land with very little natural resources and similar to Indiana in size. It’s a very different environment than what we’re used to in America.

  14. I’m convinced that Korean students learn a lot, and much more in-depth than almost any student of any Western country. But I wonder how relevant what they learn is.

    What’s informatly called “maths” can be either mathematical science, or rote computation skills. I know I couldn’t do science in 16 hours workdays, and I believe I’m representative at least of Western people. Rote learning, on the other hand, can be done even when seriously dulled by boredom and sleep deprivation.

    The feedback loop, which indicates whether tests accurately measure the acquisition of wealth-producing skills, is long and noisy. I tend to believe that the skills best acquired through such harrassing craming sessions will most easily be made obsolete through software. What has worked in the late XX-th century will not necessarily work in the next few decades.

  15. >But I wonder how relevant what they learn is.

    Plenty relevant. There is this whole yes, but current when it comes to Asians. Yes, they are beating the pants off of us on all sorts of measures, BUT, they are not as creative, rely on memorization, yada, yada. There is no but.

  16. There’s an interesting Bloomberg article that quotes South Korea’s President Lee Myung Bak: “Reckless university enrollment has aggravated both the private education burden and youth unemployment…It’s a huge loss, not just for households but the whole country.”
    Apparently the “world’s smartest kids” grow up to be the world’s most overqualified unemployed. Also note that Korea ranks near the bottom for OECD countries in the “happiness index.” [link].
    I’d rather be fat, dumb and happy.

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