dream_a_dreamer (dream_a_dreamer) wrote in omonatheydidnt,
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omonatheydidnt

The Korean Education System and its Consequences for Adults

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If you hadn’t noticed already, one theme that crops up again and again in my posts on this blog is how I consider many 20-something Koreans to be much more childish than their Western counterparts. It’s a generalization of course, but I also think that it is objectively true, and so blatantly obvious to anyone that’s been here more than 3 months, that I’m tempted to take it as a given and not explain why I have it at all. However, to those of you who’ve never been to Korea, or even those newbies amongst you that are here, it may sound like a big generalization at best and completely racist at worst, and my little caveat that I don’t consider any of my Korean friends childish probably won’t quite get me off the hook.


Here then, is my explanation, albeit one that took longer than I expected because of my now mobile daughter attempting to climb on my lap seemingly every time I sit down to write. As it happens though, she’s my primary motivation for writing in the first place.

My Little Vested Interest in the Korean Education System



This is Alice Jeong Turnbull, who just celebrated her first birthday party, a very big deal in Korea which cost us the equivalent of one month of a newbie foreign teacher’s salary (rent, pay etc. is all done in months in Korea). Her middle name is my wife’s family name 정, and she will share it with at least one and maybe two brothers or sisters. A lot of 국제커플, or ‘international couples’ as they are known here, try to choose names that work in Korean or English, or even have a Korean name and a separate English name, not so much to disguise the fact that the child is half-Korean (although that is a factor for some) but to acknowledge both cultures so to speak. But apart from my wife and I both liking the name (it was my grandmother’s), I had a very serious reason for giving her an English first name.

When I was a freshman in Auckland University back in the mid-90′s, I took some sociology courses (confusedly for Americans, they were called ‘papers’ in New Zealand, although the terminology may have changed since then). In one, the Maori lecturer explained that like most Maoris born in the 1960s and 1970s, she had an English first name and only a Maori second name because her parents didn’t want her to be discriminated against. Sure, racists may not ultimately have hired her because she was a Maori, but at least her name would have ensured that she at least got an interview.

New Zealand has of course changed a great deal since then, and I doubt Maori parents today would think twice about giving a Maori first name, but instead the problem has shifted towards another group: East Asians. Shortly before I left NZ in 2000 I read in The New Zealand Herald, the biggest paper there, that despite some schooling in the country, qualifications gained there, and near native English fluency, many people with East Asian names were still finding it difficult to find employment because employers, solely based on their names, feared a lack of English ability and/or an inability to ‘fit in’ at work.

Granted, those fears did have some justifications just a few years earlier: successive governments in the 1990s were notorious for allowing rich Japanese, Taiwanese and Korean fathers to come to New Zealand simply because they were rich, dumping their wives in their new homes and their non-English speaking children in the local schools there, and then spending 300 days on their business activities back in East Asia (only much later did the rules change to make sure they actually invested some of their money in New Zealand). Most Taiwanese families like this settled in the same rich Auckland suburb called Howick, which meant that their kids went toMacleans College, the same school my parents had connived into accepting my sister and I by briefly renting a house in the area and then moving out and buying a house miles away once we got in. So I was in the front line of all the controversy about this, with the school having something like 15-20% of its students from East Asia. This was all a bit over my head at the time, but on the plus side it did mean I had some East Asian friends as a teenager; on the other hand, it meant I had to (unsuccessfully) compete with some notorious overachievers.

Again, I’m sure New Zealand has improved since then, but considering both Australians and Kiwis consider themselves to be living in countries founded on immigration, they can be bizarrely myopic about integrating immigrants into society, in particular refusing to recognize their qualifications. Hence you have Bosnian refugees that were brain surgeons for 30 years having to do 7 year medical degrees again for instance; at least in America, they can drive a cab. My family suffered personally and financially from this, and it drove us back to England a few years later, so these problems aren’t just an abstract, academic issue for me. And of course neither is Alice. If a Korean name gives just one person pause, and treats my daughter differently because of it, then I would have done her a disservice. Sure, you can say that if someone doesn’t give her a job because of a Korean name then maybe I’m actually doing her a favor, but this is the real world, and if you know somewhere where you can pick and choose your jobs and bosses please let me know.

Which is all hopefully very interesting but a roundabout way of saying that I have a daughter, and so have a large interest in the Korean education system. And what my wife and I have decided is that, for her sake we will be leaving Korea in the end. If that is in 3, 5, or 10+ years largely depends on if and when I can start a career here outside of ESL (see my About page), or alternatively if I can get a Korea-related in New Zealand or elsewhere. But at the very latest, while Alice might enter a Korean middle school at the age of 13, she absolutely won’t be staying there long enough to graduate from it at 16, which means we’ll be leaving in about 2020-ish. But why so adamant about it?

The Korean Education System Before University

I have no problem with Korean elementary schools; in fact, in international tests students from them regularly get amongst the highest scores in the world. True, the Korean education system is perennially short of funds, is loath to treat exceptional students differently, and corporal punishment is both legal and liberally used and abused. I’ll return to that last point some other time, but for now I doubt it’s used much in elementary schools, and any teacher who so much as lays a finger on Alice will be in for a shock. On the other hand, Alice needs a strong Korean component to her childhood, Korean language ability, and the rote-learning of Korean schools matters very little when you’re learning the basics…I mean, how creative can you get learning 6×7=42, 7×7=49…King Harold and 1066, or the names of capitals?

The problem occurs when you hit 13, 14 and 15 and your worldview begins to extend beyond just your immediate surroundings and friends and family…I don’t need to go on about how crucial the environment in which you do this is. And what’s wrong about the Korean environment is because at this age the whole education system shifts gears from teaching what students need to know to what they need to know to get the best score in the University Entrance Exam, otherwise known as the 수능시험 “Su-nung Shi-hom” (say “soo-nung she-hom”).

Here, I’m going to explain why the test is so important, but I can’t go into the whole convoluted history of the pre-colonial concepts of education, the establishment of schools by Christian missionaries, the huge expansion of development-driven schooling under Japanese colonialism, the continuation of and imposition on top of that of American liberal education ideals after both wars, and then the playing out of the convoluted mix of all that in the five decades since that is how the test came to be so important. That would require an entire book, and indeed it has: it’s called Education Fever by Michael J. Seth, and if you’re interested in Korea, and if you’ve read this far you probably are, then you absolutely have to buy this book. Not because its about the only English language source on the subject, and not because anyone planning to live and work in a wholly foreign country should, but because if you’ve never been to this part of the world you have absolutely no idea of the huge scale and impact on society that it has here. It is absolutely nothing like back in your English-speaking home (unless that home is HK maybe).

First, there are the after-school hagwons/학원. Other than relatives that I’ve roped into ensuring that my daily hits remain above zero, I’d be surprised if any readers still left here wouldn’t know what they are, but I’ll be nice and point them to a great introduction here (see Wikipedia too) if you need it. As for the rest of you who know about Korea but haven’t been, you’re probably thinking nightly cram-schools like in Japan, and you’d be right, but the crucial point is that there are not just a few hundred of these for rich kids or the odd night-school for adults; there are tens of thousands of them, 4% of GDP is spent on them, and if by middle-school age (13) your children aren’t going to one or several after school every week night, then they will be ostracized as poor or freaks by their classmates, and you won’t fare much better with your relatives and neighbors either. (Update: this is according to my 13 year-old students, in 2 new pictures below; according to my 14 year-old students, they do have friends that don’t go to hagwons, but out of their entire school only maybe 5% of students don’t go)

Doesn’t sound all that bad? So Koreans place a high value on education, and so sending children to hagwons is the norm…so what? Then let me present the timetable for one of the hogwans I work at. I won’t give too many details about the hagwon online because of Korea’s draconian libel laws (read about a representative case here), but they are not my concern here. Rather, just look at the times below:



The “중1″, “중2″, and “중3″ refer to the middle school grades 1-3, or ages 13-15. The “고1″, “고2″, and “고3″ refer to high school grades 1-3, or ages 16-18. Students do their big University test in November of their last year in high school.

No, those times are not in the morning. That last class finishing at 12.20 means 20 minutes after midnight. If the non-Korean speakers amongst you can’t make it out what it’s all saying, in sum it means that, after school:

13 year olds start at 5:50, have 2 60 minute classes and 1 70 minute one and go home at 9:30. Once they arrive home, they have homework from school to do and homework from the hagwon too.

Same for 14 year-olds. (Update: I asked my 14 year-old students about their schedules, and most get home at 10, do school and institute homework until going to bed at 12, and get up at 7:30 or so)

15 year olds start at 7:05, have 1 60 minute class and 2 70 minute ones, finish at 10:55, and have a hell of a lot of homework to do.

16 year olds, now at high school, start at 9:45pm, have 2 70 minute classes and finish at 12:20am, then have even more homework to do.

Same for 17 year olds.

Same for 18 year olds.


There are Saturday classes as well, as although its being phased out most schools still have a half-day on Saturday 2, 3, or 4 times a month, and there’s special classes on Sundays too for the lucky high school students.

Again, teenagers going to classes this late are not the exception; they are the norm. Yes, I hear you…WTF? 13 year-olds maybe going to bed at 11 or 12pm? 16 year olds going to bed at 1 or 2am, getting up at 6 or 7? Yes, not only are they not going to learn anything that way, but even a cultural relativist would be hard pressed not to admit that this is child abuse, pure and simple.



Here are some of my 13 year-old students frantically finishing their homework for the other classes before the start of mine (I don’t give them any). Feeling sorry for them, sometimes I give them an extra 10 minutes after the bell has gone to work on it before I start our class. They have so much homework, the only way they can deal with it all is by doing the homework for one subject each and then sharing their answers with their friends, and getting the answers for another subject from them in return.

Of course, all the copying means that the homework is pretty useless, but ironically it leads to a spirit of sharing and mutual support that children in New Zealand, say, largely lack. To illustrate it, Michelle, the girl in the foreground, normally hates Jack, the boy she is talking to (foreigners (not unreasonably) find Korean names all the same, so to remember the students they tend to give their students English names if they want them, and most of them do), but when it comes to homework she’ll help him just as readily as she would her female friends. Not knowing anything else, most Koreans don’t realize how unique this makes them and underrate it, but, like 쟁방극장, its one of the things foreigners come to love about Koreans.



Still busy, but Jack shows he’s still a normal 13-year old.

By comparison, the schedule for my 500 or so 19-year old 재수 students, who’ve graduated from high school but are studying to do the test again, is a complete breeze (see the bottom of my post here for more details about them). An oddity is how 60 or 70 minute classes are considered okay for 13 year-olds, but the classes for 19 year-olds are only 50 mins! Indeed one might argue that this schedule is spoiling them…I mean, not only are the classes short, but they only spend 12 hours a day in their classes; seriously, with all their homework they could even manage to get to bed by 11pm if they tried hard! Tsk, tsk…the youth of today, they don’t know how lucky they are!



Here are the 19 year-olds enjoying the last year of their footloose and fancy-free adolescence, in the 5-10 minute extra break before the bell I always give the poor things occasionally give them if we’ve finished a chapter of the book we use and don’t have time to start another:



Most Koreans are aware that things are better overseas, but because this zombified hell is the norm for Korean teenagers it can still take a lot of convincing them that in New Zealand their parents would be sent to jail, or that when was 18 I not often enough did homework for a whole 1 or 2 hours after school, and I considered that tough at the time.

In case you’re getting the wrong impression, I don’t think that any of the other 80 or so teachers at my hagwon are evil, reveling in inflicting misery and suffering on poor sleep-deprived children. Some of them shouldn’t be teaching children, sure, but most genuinely like their students, are affectionate towards them (Western mania about pedophilia isn’t even on the radar here, although this is slowly changing), understand when they have important in-house tests at school and so let them study for those instead rather than giving them normal lessons during school test periods. A great many are undoubtedly like me too, being aware of the inherent flaws in the system and worrying that they are merely perpetuating it rather than contributing to its downfall, but in the meantime have to make a living too.

But the hagwon I work for is one of the oldest and biggest in Busan, with about 120 staff, 80 teachers, 15 drivers of mini-buses, and so many thousands of students that it has its own quasi-traffic cops to get them across the nearby 5-way intersection, and teachers have regular duty marshaling them through all the corridors. And with teachers generally there about 12 hours a day 6 days a week, they make a lot of money but the burnout means that there is a high turnover…so no teacher can be a revolutionary there. So while individual teachers are friendly and unevil, the organization as whole has a vested interest in maintaining Korean parents’ belief that only with this hagwons help can your children get a good score on that crucial exam. So change to the system will not be coming from hagwons…

…but it won’t be coming from parents either. Koreans are generally sensible, normal people, but on some issues they completely lose all vestiges of common sense. Fan Death; is the classic example. In that case, the persistent belief in it is largely due to a lack of critical thinking in their schooling, in turn a consequence of all the focus on the exam, so I’ll come back to that in the next post. As for overcoming what must surely be your most basic parental instincts and thinking that you’re a good parent if you force your child to get only 4 hours sleep a night…well, me pointing out how crucial and important the exam is, so much more so than in other countries, isn’t going to cut it; no matter how important it was, no decent Western parent would give their kids anything less than 8 hours sleep and free time for hobbies and friends while studying for it. Yes, I acknowledge that there are a whole host of historical, cultural, and socio-psychological reasons that allow Korean parents to make that mental leap, and many a foreigner here has spent a drunken evening ranting about dealing with the consequences of them. But, like I said, figuring all that is probably best left to your own drunken rants, so I’ll spare you here.

For now, I’ll leave you with that timetable, a lot to digest if its news to you, and hopefully it will put you in the right frame of mind to appreciate how important the exam must be to Koreans, which I’ll explain in Part 2. Also, as change isn’t coming from hagwons or parents, I’ll outline what the government is doing to change things.


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Tags: culture, school, wtf
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