Friday, May 27, 2011

School in Korea (or why I forgive a lot of my kids bad behavior)

For post number 100 (which seems crazy to me) I'll start with an update. Life is going well right now. The weather is in the high 60s-low 70s (19-23C). Remember when you live on an island where virtually everything to do is outdoors, weather is big. Next weekend is the Korean Memorial Day weekend. I will be using the time to visit some friends on the mainland and explore a bit.

When you combine those plans with my Mavs continuing to win in the NBA playoffs, it makes me a happy man. Funny story, for those of you not from Dallas, the Mavs pulled off a huge come from behind win Monday night. The game ended regulation tied at 101 each, just as my last class of the day was coming in. So it was time to close the game and teach. Except that didn't happen. The first part of that 5th grade class was spent watching the Mavs beat the Thunder in overtime. It was still an educational experience. They learned phrases like "Go Mavs!!" and "That's a foul!!" and "YYEEEEEAAAAAAA!!!!". The students quickly figured out to root for the blue team since it made the teacher happy (and a happy teacher means a fun and easy class). So by the end of the game, I had a whole room full of kids cheering every shots Dallas made. I was so proud :)

Now for more about my current home country, let's learn about the school system here. Like most countries, school begins around 8-8:30am and ends in the early afternoon. The children are taught all the basic subjects (science, math, korean, music, PE, etc) plus English. After school elementary classes cover a variety of topics from traditional drumming (very cool) to soccer to English to piano and even harmonica.

Sounds normal so far right. Where it gets crazy is with hagwons. Hagwons are very expensive private schools that run from early afternoon until late evening. Even my 1st graders go from school to hagwons and often don't get to go home until 6 or 7. For older students it gets worse. High school students are usually at at school from 8am-9 or 10pm every day. And every other Saturday is a full school day. So very often the only off day in a week will be Sunday.

The reason for this is that the best middle and high schools in Korea are extremely competitive. Students must score very highly on test to even be admitted. And getting into the best schools is the only path to the best jobs. Getting into University is even tougher. High school students literally spend months doing nothing but studying for the entrance exam so they can go to the university of their choosing. And when I say they do nothing but study, I mean they study almost none stop 16 hours a day, 7 days a week for months and months.

As a foreigner, this method of schooling strikes me overzealous in the extreme. It teaches children how to memorize a great deal of information and get better test scores but it stifles creativity and problem solving. American secondary schools are sadly lacking in many ways but they remember an important thing. Children need to be children some of the time. So when my children are bouncing off the walls in class and can't sit still, I at least understand why. In their position, I would be doing much the same thing. I try to work with this by anticipating when this buildup will be the strongest and putting kinesthetic learning into those lessons.

Suffice it to say I have a great deal of admiration for the Korean zeal to learn. It's the implementation of that desire that i might question. In plain speak, parents here are willing to sacrifice much of the happiness of childhood (and huge amounts of money) in exchange for better test scores. To me that trade simply isn't worth it. What would be ideal would be a mix of Korean and American educational systems. Take the respect and fair pay teachers get in Korea, the focus on education here and add in the American ability to relax and encouragement of the creative arts and problem solving (maybe play the video game Portal in school to encourage this). All this together would make a near perfect educational system.

And since i'm already dreaming, I'd like a Ferrari.

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