It was new year’s day, and I was gathered for dinner at my aunt’s apartment in Seoul. One of my cousin’s kid, who is in 8th grade, was sitting in the living room with a notebook in hand. It turned out that he was working on his math homework. Not for school, but for his hagwon (academy that Korean students go to after school and on weekends).Then, one of my relatives suggested he get help from my brother and I.
As we looked at the four problems, trying to understand the Korean and the math was a struggle. I had no idea how to solve the problem, as my high school precalculus knowledge was pretty rusty. My brother, the math teacher, seemed to understand better what the problem was asking. In the end, we weren’t much help. About 15 minutes later, before we started eating dinner, he left the apartment, as his father drove him home. He wanted to go home and study more.
There are some “good” aspects of the Korean hagwons. If you are spending more time studying more, you are going to be able to reach advanced levels of high school/college math while you are in middle school. You can also get exposed to harder science as well. I have some students (fifth graders) who are really into chemistry and were recently talking about the periodic table of elements and showed me this cool IPAD application they had on the periodic table. We don’t cover that in the fifth grade curriculum at my school. They had learned about it in their science academies that they go to.
During these past four years of teaching here in Korea, and also growing up with Korean parents, I have learned a lot about the education philosophy and system of Korea. It is interesting to look at the PISA 2009 test results and compare how different the education system in Finland differs from Korea.
Well Korea is obviously doing something right. The PISA 2009 results show that Korea had higher overall scores in reading and math than Finland. Finland had higher scores in science though. These scores are higher than the USA and many other countries. What I’ve seen first hand is an emphasis and importance on school. I can’t say the importance is actually on learning, but more on doing well on the standardized tests and college entrance exams.
This emphasis is seen in how hagwons (academies) in Korea are found in every corner where there are people living. There are academies for almost everything, from sports, musical instruments, academic subjects, arts and crafts, languages and other talents. There are academies for little kids to adults. People are always trying to “learn” something. The hagwons are a booming business, as many families spend thousands of dollars a year on sending their kids to multiple hagwons.
I’ve had multiple conversations with my students’ parents about hagwons. Many of them feel pressure to send their kid to a hagwon because everyone else is doing it, from at least kindergarten age. Some of the parents that grew up abroad in America and other countries are less willing to send their kids to hagwons. However, after a few years, many of them succumb to the hagwon culture as they feel like their child is falling “behind” their peers.
The common belief in Korea seems to be that the more students are studying, the smarter they will be. I can’t say that I disagree with that, but after learning more about the Finland school system, I believe that good learning isn’t always from studying more. The Finland school system has kids studying less hours than the Korean students. 30 minutes of homework a day in Finland is amazing. Most Korean students go to hagwons, that probably give more homework than their actual school. Many of my students say that they couldn’t do my homework because they had too much hagwon homework.
Korean students have vacation camps at school where they “study” for a few weeks during winter and summer vacations. Many students also go to intensive hagwons during their vacations. This is of course in addition to going to hagwons after their daily school during the week. There had to be a new law passed recently in Korea, saying that students couldn’t stay in hagwons after 10pm.
Yes, Korean kids in general are performing well on these PISA exams compared to students from all over the world, but that doesn’t really measure whether these students are truly learning and valuing education. The Koreans have a lot to learn from Finland’s education system. They seem to be way more efficient with their time.