Seoul, South Korea – “Korean education is like a jungle. There is a lot of competition, you eat and get eaten”, says Young Hwan Kim, an articulate 17-year-old with a dark blue school uniform and glasses.
It’s a sunny Monday morning in Seoul. The trees wear autumn colours and an older man sweeps a park free from leaves. On the baseball field of an elite all-male high school in northern Seoul, a group of youngsters have just started an early physical education class. Beyond the neatly trimmed trees across the school yard reads the following sign: “Boys be ambitious”.
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I have no time to think about my future or my dreams.
Here, Kim and his classmates study between 8 am and 3:40 pm every day. Many stay to do homework until late at night – the library is open til 11 pm. Others go to private institutes called hagwons for evening classes. One of them is 17-year-old Inchae Ryu, who studies 12 hours a day, including homework and extra English classes twice a week.
“I have no time to think about my future or my dreams”, says Ryu.
All he has time for is to study.
Next November he will reach the finishing line. That’s when he will take the feared University test Suneung, which determines which university he can get admission to. The most prestigious insititutions in Korea are Seoul National University, Korea National and Yonsei University.
“To get admitted there decides what you can do in life and who you can marry. It determines your future”, Kim tells.
But now, critical voices are being raised about South Korea’s educational system, which they blame for high stress levels, problems with bullying and the highest suicide rates in the developed world.
The number of students who considered suicide varies. According to the National Youth Policy Institute in Korea, one in four students considered committing suicide in 2012 while the Korea Health Promotion Foundation states that one in eight students considered suicide in the same year.
Moreover, the Korea Health Promotion Foundation, the country’s governmental organ regarding health policy, declared in a statement that “youth suicide rates in OECD countries have been falling on average, but Korea has the second highest youth suicide rates among OECD members”.
The Korean school system is regarded as one of the best in the world. For several years they have topped the roughly 70 member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) educational league, which measures 15-year-old students’ knowledge through the PISA test, an international student assessment exam within OECD member states.
After World War II, only five percent of Koreans had high school education or more. Going from there, to having the highest number of students with completed high school diplomas and leading the higher educational league (roughly 75 percent go to university) is what has been dubbed the Korean educational miracle.
In a country that lacks natural resources, investment in human capital has paid off. Korea’s economy has grown parallel to the knowledge level of its citizens.
But 56-year-old Sun-joon Hwang, who works as a education researcher at Gyeonggi Institute of Education and has previously worked for the Swedish School Authority, is among those who are critical of the system.
He believes that the Korean education mainly focuses on memorisation, a system with a decreasing beneficial return over time.
“The problem with this type of fact cramming is that it misses critical thinking,” Hwang said. “Then you can’t come up with original and creative ideas”.
The Canadian teacher Rob Ouwehand, who has worked in Korea for a decade, agrees. “Teachers know that the test fixation in this country does not prepare the students for the global market,” he says.
There is still a hierarchy between student and teacher, the students can be very afraid to make mistakes in front of their teachers and peers.
Nearly 41 percent of Korean fresh graduates remain unemployed a year after finishing their degrees, according to the Ministry of Education.
And despite all the hard studying and high test results, coversational English remains poor in everyday interactions.
Amy Mihyang Ginther, a language teacher who taught in Seoul since 2009, has a theory about why. “There is still a hierarchy between student and teacher, the students can be very afraid to make mistakes in front of their teachers and peers,” she tells.
She feels that the lack of a safe space in the classroom is not conducive to learning a language.
“It leads to a lack of experimenting with the language,” she said, adding that English is mainly taught by textbook.
“The teaching is not something that inspires communication, friendship and travel but is rather about answering correctly on a test,” she tells.
Hwang believes that students should be tested through essays as opposed to multiple choice. Written exams, where students write in their own language, account for 30 percent of all tests. Hwang would like to see that number at least doubled.
That might lead to other problems though, says Jason Ryan, an English teacher at Shinil High School. “If they started that tomorrow, the mothers would be here as an army, to fight with the teachers for marks,” he said.
The Korean educational miracle is not simply about the government’s effort in boosting education or the high competence of the country’s well-paid teachers. There is one more part to the equation: The Tiger Moms.
“The mothers are the sole essence in the Korean education,” 16-year old Kiwon Song tells. “They are the ones who create this atmosphere of competitiveness.”
But despite the mothers’ high demands, English teacher Nicki Gerstner sees the family support structure as predominantly positive.
“I cannot see myself going back and teaching in the US; the students here are so much more disciplined and respectful,” she said.
Gerstner also likes the physical closeness that she has with the Korean students. “You can hug and touch them here. It was cultural shock in the beginning.”
During her five years in the country, she has already seen Korean schools changing. The younger teachers are using more modern teaching methods and the younger language teachers also speak much better English than the older generation. Many exchange students return home with new impressions from the outside.
What her colleague Duckwon Cha would like to see, is a change in the basic definition of success. “I just want to tell the students that you don’t always have to be a high rank physician, you can just enjoy your life.”
On the day of the SAT, flights are cancelled in order not to disturb during the hearing test. Police cruisers and ambulances help students running late with rides to the test centres.
A difference that Hwang has noticed between Swedish and Korean education are the sets of values that are being instilled by the systems. In Sweden, notions like democracy, gender equality and freedom are close at hand. The idea is to teach social values in the school. In Korea, the education is rather about the individual’s knowledge. Hwang would have liked to see some kind of middle way between the two systems.
Even though cut-throat competition remains prevalent in Korea’s classrooms, Young hwan Kim, insists, that
“there is also a lot of love and friendship in the jungle”.