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09/25/2017 Special > Special


[Op-ed] Sometimes, Too Much Is Poison

Problems of the South Korean Educational System


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“I don’t want to go to an academy, but my parents force me to. How can a sleepless day full of studying be happy?” In South Korea, young students heading straight to private academies after school is a familiar sight, often caught on the street. Often times, elementary students, barely taller than a height of a meter, are spotted on a street with heavy backpacks. What emotion does this scenery convey to you? Despite the fact that South Korea provides a 12 year long public education, demand for private academies is rising annually. What caused Korea to cry with pain and is there any cure for this illness?
Play by the rule like AlphaGo
Facta, non verba. Here is the time schedule of a 17 year old me:
OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) suggests a teenager to sleep at least eight to ten hours a day. However, eliminating the time for public school, private education, assignments, and personal studies from 24 hours of a day, only 6 hours remain on the table. Surprisingly, this is a common schedule of a South Korean student.

What led Korea here? As a country lacking resources, land, and capital after the Korean War, South Korea was a rare, but successful case of democratization. Without anything to trade, human resources were the only resource to export. Arduous efforts to educate people continued, and the young generation of the mid 20th century left their motherland to earn foreign currency needed to develop their country. 
However, efforts became habit. Back in the days, chosen people with intelligence got the opportunity to receive advanced education provided by the penniless Korean government. In the process of the selection, students frequently took examinations and were lined up according to their grades. 60 years later, students today still get report cards with their ranking on them.
According to the survey: 1,955 teenagers answered that the major reason for their stress was going to academies everyday, followed by grades, tiredness, and more.

Competition intensified, and more exertion to outrun classmates festered over time. Private education helped individuals overtake one another, and both parents and students were strained if they were missing out on private institutes that their classmates were attending. The result was all students having the same timetables of a day, like AlphaGo, trying not to lag behind by each other. In order to line up all students by ranking, the yardstick of the CSAT (College Scholastic Ability Test) had to be objective, in other words--thoughtless. Memorizing well like robots became a primary strength in South Korean education. Private tutoring expanded students’ capacity to remember what they learned in their grade and prepare for upper grade level lessons.  
Can students be rescued from this robotic education?
According to the data presented by the Ministry of Education, 18.6 trillion Won was spent annually on private tutoring, bringing about an individual spending of 240 thousand won on average. Considering the polarization of private education expenses, there was a ten times difference in the budget between the bottom 20 percent and top 20 percent of the income group. Believing that more tutoring in elementary school will lead to a better middle and high school that will eventually consolidate a rigid route to a prestigious university, the new trend of the private kindergarten arose. Little kids that barely know their mother tongue now learn a foreign language, in addition to math, science, and art.
If nothing is done, this situation will get worse and this should not be the future of Korean students forever. Among various solutions that experts suggest, I do believe that two cures will work out, though time and effort will be material to gradually amend these problems.
  • Alternation in the CSAT format
The proportion of setting exam questions in the multiple-choice type should be reduced. Objective style exams are effective in grading and ranking the answers of students. However, it does not necessarily allow students to show their critical thinking process and opinions. In the era of the fourth Industrial Revolution, memorization and multiple-choice are the not the tasks of humans anymore. Students should be given the opportunities to think and forge their ideas and realize them. Thus, increasing the subjective examinations will mark the starting point of both reduction in private education and magnification of creativity.
  • Improvements in the non-academic sector
Despite the efforts to increase creativity in students utilizing subjective tests, the South Korean education system may not change. Perhaps, academies such as ‘idea generation’ or ‘creativity augmentation’ may proliferate. What Korea needs to know is that academic intelligence is not the only way individuals can become successful. Taking the non-academic road should also be regarded as a great career option.
In the case of Germany, industry, technical, and art schools are all equally treated and managed as academic schools. Figuratively speaking, technicians and professors have few difference in pay and honor. Freedom of choice in occupation and school are then automatically provided for German students. South Korea will become a more blissful country if such a policy and cognition change could be adopted.
Picture of South Korean students finishing their assignments given from school and academy
(Photo courtesy of Teen On Generation)

Kim Ju-hyun
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