South Korean Education
South Korea is known for it’s advances in technology, business, and urbanization over the last 50 years, but one thing I don’t believe South Korea gets enough credit for is the schooling system in the country. As someone who has studied at Korea University – one of the SKY, or top three, schools in Seoul, and who has done much research about the schooling system of younger individuals, I would say there’s a reason why South Korea is thought to be one of the most intelligent nations in the world.
First, let me outline some of the extreme differences in their educational system.
As early as kindergarten, students are sent to an after-school school, called a hagwon (학원).
When natives speak to foreigners, generally hagwons are called ‘private schools’. These schools operate through the money parents pay to the school, similar to tuition, rather than through government money like most public schools. Rather than joining after school activities, most students go to these hagwon establishments in order to continue learning. From what an acquaintance who is currently teaching in South Korea told me, these can be open until 10pm; though generally it is the high school students who are there this late. However, even a friend I met in university informed me he was going to study at a hagwon, so they offer services for all ages.
From what I understand through reading articles and talking to friends, rather than the college application system in the USA, where you apply to a college, take the SAT/ACT tests, get recommendation letters and such, the system of admittance in Korea is much different. Students study for one college entrance exam, which is only offered once a year. Some students will even take a year off to solely study for the exam. The score you receive on the exam dictates which universities will accept you. If a student is not happy with their score, they are able to take the exam again so they can attend a more prestigious university.
The habit of study and memorization is shown to be useful during university. The last time I remember having to memorize something for school were simple math formulas in Algebra. Otherwise, professors always let us use a notecard for important formulas, or even made exams open note. Not in Korea! For exams, everything was based upon memorization. For one sociology class in particular, the information that had to be memorized was arbitrary – not definitions, formulas or key words, but a random word pulled from a sentence. With professors requiring memorization like that, it’s a no wonder the students are up all night in coffee shops or libraries studying.
I can admit I struggled more academically during my semester in South Korea than I have throughout any other time during my USA schooling. While in Korea, I took classes for my major (Communications) and minor (Sociology), and I went to a relatively competitive college, but none of the courses I took were half as challenging or intellectually demanding. Most of my professors allowed open book exams, or didn’t even require a final. While I benefitted from this as someone who preferred writing papers, it didn’t challenge me. While South Korean students are used to this rigorous type of schooling, it’s challenging for them. Their minds are constantly working, and absorbing new information. While there are negatives to simply being able to regurgitate information the way students do, memorization is a skill that changes the way the mind works.
Many students even take courses during the summer, be it to finish their degree on time, to finish early, or simply because it is expected. Even with all the pressure students in the West feel regarding schooling, from what I observed, the pressure is tenfold in South Korea. Interestingly enough, many majors at Korea University must also take a minimum number of classes in English in order to graduate. English is, as we know, not the native language of the students. Despite that many of them have been learning English since they were young, one can only imagine how difficult it must be to have to learn material relevant to your studies in a second language.
To me, it’s easy to see why South Korea is becoming one of the most advanced countries in the world. The education system is so rigorous in the country, and despite many students feeling immense pressure; it’s obvious how much the nation has prospered due to the education of the citizens. Students spend so much time in school from a young age, they are used to having to put in long hours later in life. It is almost as if education is a lifestyle in South Korea. While the system is not without flaw, it’s clear that the South Korean education system is one of the best in the world.