Some Thoughts On Korean Education System by Sue Jean Joe

07/10/2010 20:47

In November each year, Korean students sit for a college entrance examination. For many of them, it is a decisive moment which can determine their future and the universities they can go to. As such, the examination is an issue of utmost importance to many Korean parents. It is also extensively covered by major daily newspapers, which publish the questions that have appeared in the test. The whole nation, in fact, seems to be obsessed with the examination.

In a way, such an obsession is quite understandable as the examination represents a culmination of the students’ studies and tests what they have learned for the last twelve years: six years of primary school, three years of junior high—or middle school—and finally, three years of high school. The craze also reflects yet another obsession that the majority of Korean parents have with university education: they want to secure their children a place at university at all costs (preferably at the most prestigious ones such as Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University).

As a Korean student who has watched the news unfold every November and is currently frustrated by the kind of education offered at university (and, sadly, even at a graduate school), I have many reasons to be critical about the state the Korean education system finds itself in today.

One of them is an overemphasis on rote learning. What has surprised—and frustrated—me recently is the small amount of attention that is put on writing. It would be, of course, a lie to say that Korean schools do not provide students with any writing opportunities, but my Korean experience greatly differs from what I experienced in Malaysia (2000-2003) and later on in the U.S. I remember, for instance, writing (in Malaysia) all different kinds of letters and brochures, leaflets and newspaper articles in English classes. In one course I was also required to write journals at the beginning of every class and submit them before the beginning of a lecture.

In contrast, studying in Korea involves a lot of rote learning: students learn by heart what seems to be a little more than a list of dry, uninteresting facts from textbooks, the knowledge of which is then tested in the form of multiple choice questions. There is generally no interest in the different opinions that students might have on a certain issue, let’s say, on the definition of history. In other words, classes do not account for the differences—or I might say, diversity—that exist among individuals.

Students miss out on a lot if they only memorize facts. Learning should involve more (actually, much more) than that. Students should learn how to think for themselves and to express their ideas (writing being one of the best ways of doing that) in a logical, powerful way. Schools must provide students with opportunities to learn and polish their skills in order to prepare them as well as possible for their future, which lies in a larger community. In order to become full members of society, students will need much more than churning out facts.

Second, universities have a troubling tendency (and I say this especially in regard to the Department of English Language and Literature where I study) to turn into giant English language institutions. I say that it is troubling because I am quite sure that it is not the reason why, for example, our university decided to have the department in the first place. It is supposed to be a place where students explore the works of English literature, their beauty and the beauty of the language itself. For me, it is a place where students develop their love for English literature and the English language. Yet the majority—or, to be more precise, the vast majority—of students in the department focus on learning English rather than English literature. I have heard a lot of students either talking about going abroad—to the U.K. or the U.S. or Canada, for instance—to study English or holding TOEIC or TOEFL books in their hands. I am not saying that English is not important, yet what I would like to point out is that the university (and the English department within the university) should be more than just an English language institution: it must teach students how to think and to nurture their interest (if not necessarily love) in English literature or any other field that they are majoring in.

Finally, there is over-competitiveness, which brings me back to the college entrance examination that I mentioned in the introduction of my essay. The competition to get into a prestigious university is so fierce that some parents force their children to learn English at a very young age. There are considerable numbers of parents who, for example, send—despite huge costs—their children to English-speaking kindergartens (even before they learn to speak Korean properly) so that they could have a head start in the English language. Starting in primary school, many Korean students are forced to go to private educational institutions—e.g. English language schools or institutions specializing in mathematics—besides going to public school and doing their homework. Their parents make them attend these in the hope that the extra knowledge they receive there might one day enable them to make it to a prestigious university like Seoul National University. As a result, children are deprived of opportunities to play or go on trips on their own or with their friends (which is not uncommon in Europe), opportunities that could ultimately prove more useful to them than the hours spent sitting at the desk studying. This is in fact what I realized myself upon my return from Ireland, where I met students from many different countries of the world: life is not only about studying. I learned that by putting so much emphasis on my studies, I had missed out on a lot of other things that make a person’s life meaningful.

So, this is a glimpse of the Korean education system from within, from a person who has experienced it and has been concerned about it: a Korean student. These are the thoughts that have troubled me especially in recent years. Certainly, what I have offered is not a complete and comprehensive picture of what the Korean education system stands for, nor do the opinions stated here necessarily reflect the views that other people may have. Nevertheless, I hope that this essay raises some important questions about education not only in Korea, but also in other corners of the world.