Learning in, and from, Korea

Social Double-take

Wind the clock back 13 years and look halfway across the globe, and you’ll find me: a curious and eager 6-year-old girl in Seoul, South Korea’s capital. If it’s a Saturday, you’re in luck. My Saturdays weren’t filled with morning cartoons and the full-fledged satisfaction in the arrival of the weekend. Good thing my tantrum-prone 6-year-old brain didn’t catch on that somewhere in the world, kids were actually doing whatever they wanted on a Saturday morning — because I, along with the rest of the first-graders of Seoul, would be in school (ironically feeling grateful that this sixth school day was a half-day), furthering our education and craving the nearing first and only nonschool night of the week.

Education has become an increasingly pressing issue in the United States, in regard to funding, standardized testing, our inability to compete with other nations in STEM subjects, etc. Having experienced school in both Korea and the United States, I see why there is such widespread recognition of the benefits of Korean education and why many see the U.S. education system as inferior. Over the past few decades, South Korean students have been outperforming U.S. students, evident in Korea’s high school graduation rate of 93 percent, compared with 75 percent in the United States. But I don’t believe the current problems of the U.S. education system can be fixed by merely imitating the systems of other countries.

When I hear anything said about the need for educational reform in the United States, those Saturdays are automatically what I think of first. Don’t get me wrong — it’s not that I believe we need to enact six days of school here. It was the normality and approval of it all. I clearly recall school on Saturdays being considered totally ordinary. It was considered not only acceptable but also necessary, so much so that I didn’t even fathom that it could be another way. It is entirely a difference in culture. Aspects of the Korean education system, such as its longer school days, highly trained teachers and mass digitalization, could all theoretically be implemented in the United States as well. But, the absolute prioritization of education — which is still pretty lacking among the American public — in Korean culture is decisive in the success of its education system. How we interpret, accept and promote the importance of education determines just how well our students are taught and cultivated. Personally, even those couple years of school within the education-focused Korean culture were enough to have a lasting impact on my attitude toward learning and my desire to succeed.

It’s not that education is completely neglected in the United States — many Americans recognize and preach its importance as well. But the huge emphasis on education in Korean culture is backed by the unyielding support of the government, evident in the centralization of school funding, extensive teacher training and high salaries, and regular government maintenance of all schools.

An even more important source of support for Korean students’ education is the family. South Korean parents spend more on education (close to 25 percent of their household income) than those of any other nation. In addition to pushing their children to work hard in school, parents put in a huge amount of money and effort to get kids into “hagwons.” These are private institutes that provide supplementary education for students to improve their grades or to learn extra information in addition to the school curriculum. Yes, even as a 6-year-old, I attended a hagwon for math and writing and so did most of my classmates. Six years old and already attempting to reach an advanced level — what would be a relatively rare sight in the United States is norm in Seoul.

 There are obviously negative aspects of Korea’s cultural emphasis on education, such as the widespread acceptance of corporal punishment and the lack of encouragement of creativity and the arts. Although corporal punishment — the most common type being light disciplining with a thin stick — is now widely banned throughout Korea, I personally found that fearing physical punishment was not the right motivation for doing my work, especially at such a young age. And I did find many more opportunities for music and the arts here in U.S. schools.

Nevertheless, the moment I entered primary school in Korea, I was taught that a successful education determined success, and this mentality stayed with me throughout my U.S. education. Although the idea that “school is everything” is potentially limiting or problematic, I feel that it served as an important foundation for the rest of my academic career. Learning early on that my education should be one of my top priorities benefitted me greatly, and this is the notion that is not as prevalent in American society. Though our Saturdays are probably safe, a shift in our cultural attitude toward education is far overdue. When this shift takes place is when American students will get the world-class K-12 education they deserve.

Hailey Yook writes the Monday column on contemporary social issues. Contact her at [email protected].