The Difficult Life of a Korean Student
by Sharon -- June 21, 2010
Here in Korea, we have had the privilege of spending a lot of time with a family friend who happens to be 14 years old. He also happens to be taller than Jason. This friend of ours is named Jinho, and he is the subject of this post regarding the education system in South Korea.
As a general background on the school system in Korea, their structure of grades is very similar to that of many US schools in terms of Kindergarten-High school. The main school subjects are English, Korean, math, social studies and science (although in High school they take 11 subjects).
Once students enter Middle school, their lives change quite a bit. They are supposed to start taking school much more seriously in preparation for the big exam they take to determine which high school they attend. In Korea, High schools are ranked academically, and you have to score well to get into a good high school. Then, they have the burden of the college entrance exam, which is basically the most important thing in a student’s life. If you don’t get into a good college, you have much less of a chance to be traditionally “successful”. Students attend after school lessons at private institutions called “Hagwons” which is basically schooling on top of their regular schooling.
Since English and math are two of the main subjects in Korean schooling, they usually attend an English Academy and Math hagwon as well. Our friend, Jinho, doesn’t usually come home from a normal weekday until 11pm-12am. Then he has homework to do!
Korean schooling is also held on Saturdays. Our friend Jinho has class every other Saturday, but I’m not sure if that is the norm or not. Also, when he is preparing for a test, he often spends his Saturdays and Sundays at Hagwon or at study hall from 10am-11pm, rotating between class and self studying.
Although many Korean teenagers achieve amazing test scores and may know how to solve a math problem better than I did when I was 15, it’s really depressing when I hear that these kids are locked up in study hall all day. They miss out on their childhood because they’re too busy studying and stressing out about classes and tests. Jinho doesn’t have time to play outside with his friends after school because sometimes he comes home at 1am!
An interesting thing about Jinho is that he lived in the States for a few years when he was in Elementary school, so he knows what it’s like to be able to play outside at 4pm after school. When we lived in Seoul, sometimes Jason and I would come over to his parents’ house to have dinner during the weekends, and Jinho would often take a break in between self studying at school to come along. At this time, at least twice I have seen his teacher call him on his cell phone to ask why he isn’t at school… at 6pm… on a Sunday….so he has to miss dinner and go back to school. He’s still a kid, and you can see the disappointment in his face when he has to miss dinner and is summoned back to study hall.
Due to the constant pressures of tests and the bleak childhoods that come from the strenuous education system, South Korea also has experienced an increase in suicides relating to low test scores. It now has the highest suicide rate amongst the member countries of OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) and that rate continues to grow at 5% each year. Often times, high achievers who experience bad test scores are suicide victims.
Another difference with Korean schooling is its emphasis on fact-based, strictly objective testing (which is supposedly meant to eliminate corruption and provide fair results). There is only rote memorization of meaningless facts for tests. I can only imagine that that sort of ideology from a young age can create a “black or white” philosophy on life. If I don’t get this score on this test, I won’t get a good job, so I won’t make a lot of money, and I won’t find a husband/wife; if I don’t get into the top school, my life is over.
There is so much constant academic pressure put on children at a young age here but it doesn’t end there. After college, the pressures to find a good job are enormous, not to mention the fact that once they start working, they put in 12 hour work days EVERY DAY.
As much as Korea may be top achievers in academics, they don’t seem to provide a very nurturing, creative environment for kids once they enter middle school. (A friend of ours once taught English at a school here in Korea that punished children for smiling too much. I don’t think most schools are that strict, but having any schools like that is ridiculous in itself). I know there are parents in Korea who would like for their child to have a more joyful childhood, but the bad news is that if they let them, their child will fall behind quickly. It seems to be a problem; if you want your child to have a prosperous life here in Korea, you have to follow the “rules”.
*Some facts were taken from the Wikipedia site on Education in South Korea.
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