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Are Korean Students Really Learning English?

Korean Library

I love Korea. Sure, it's not perfect, but what country is? It's amazing to think that back at Korea's economy 60 years ago, and realize how much they have grown since then. With this in mind, how can you not respect all that this country managed to accomplish in such a short period of time?

Since the beginning of it's economic rise, one of Korea's largest investments has been in the area of education, transforming the nation from one of widespread illiteracy to an economic superpower in just two generations. However, even with the great progress Korea has made, there still seems to be an obsessive preoccupation with studying as opposed to actual learning. Especially in regards to ESL teaching.

Before we go any further, I want to emphasize that I don't want to dissuade people from coming to Korea and teaching at private schools (hagwons) -- I've loved my hagwon experience, and it's the reason I've decided to go back home and get a degree in education. But if you're someone who truly cares about education, about the learning process and engaged teaching, then teaching in Korea may be frustrating. But before you fight it or get angry -- we want you to understand the culture of education you are now a part of. Here are some things to know to help you make the most of your teaching experience in South Korea -- not for yourself, but for your students.

The Korean Style of Learning

Perhaps the biggest barrier to ESL success in Korea is how students are learning English. In my own experience, having taught English in both public and private schools, conversational skills seem to be given the lowest priority in the classroom. The primary learning objective is rote memorization to learn the grammar and the Korean style of learning is often criticized for this adherence to memorization and repetition.

While this is important, focusing solely on grammatical structure is simply not an effective way to learn a second language. According to Yi Ju-seung, debate lecturer and CEO of Debate for All, Inc., the suppression of creativity and over reliance on rote learning is particularly dangerous because children grow up unable to think outside the box and lack the critical thinking skills required to participate in meaningful debate. Students are learning for the sole purpose of getting high test scores. Given this fact, it is not surprising that Koreans struggle to actually communicate in English, despite large investments towards ESL education.

So how much time and money are Koreans spending on English education?

According to Swiss-based EF Education First, the average Korean, from kindergarten through university, gets close to 20,000 hours of ESL education (mostly at hagwons) and Statistics Korea reports that the average annual cost of private education is nearly 3 million ($3,000 US) per student.

I've now taught pre-kindergarten through middle school in South Korea and noticed as the students get older, it does become more difficult to get them to think outside the box. I'm not suggesting that Western middle schoolers are, by contrast, more analytical thinkers but I've noticed a serious lag in the area of abstract thought within intellectual development among Korean students. They've been conditioned to memorize and focus only on what they are told they must remember.

Sure, these students score fantastically on exams, but in terms of actual English proficiency, South Korea isn't scoring as well. Given that it is generally accepted that 10,000 hours equates to proficiency -- and Koreans are doubling this time -- they should, theoretically, be arriving at a far higher proficient level of conversational English (according to English Proficiency Index Survey), than they currently do.

Furthermore, their methods and preoccupation with producing correct test answers means that studying is merely a means to achieve a desired grade (ostensibly for the purposes of getting into a reputable university), and not about gaining knowledge for its own joy and or function. For many (but certainly not all!) students, the competitive nature of their society and pressure from parents becomes overwhelming, so they either focus solely on the task of filling out the worksheet just to get it completed with no care or concern for what was written or why, or worse –- they burn out completely.

The Parent Equation

Korean Classroom

However, South Korea recognizes this issue and according to former education minister, Professor Lee Ju-ho, “Intensive education may have been right while Korea was growing its economy, but now it's time for a new strategy... Test scores may be important in the age of industrialization, but not anymore. So we look into the ways to reform our education system, not based on test scores, but based on creativity and social and emotional capacities." Current South Korean education minister, Seo Nam-soo adds to this sentiment, “We still have a long way to go but we are doing some soul-searching in our society, and our goals now are about how to make our people happier.”

As hopeful as Korea's current and former education ministers make the future of Korean education sound, for the time being Korea's private education system is entrenched. And parents are glad. As private school English teachers we do not serve our students' learning as much as we serve their parents' (i.e. our customers) idea of “education”. And in the land of Korean hagwons, the customer is always right. Whatever the customer says is what goes, even if it's not in the best interest of the student. I can't count the number of anecdotes from teachers and friends about being prohibited from veering from the book or trying a different style of teaching because so and so's mom “wouldn't like that”. Even if it is certain that the inclusion of differentiated instruction and methods would benefit the student, many K-moms scoff at the idea and think that it simply cannot be done.

Intensive education may have been right while Korea was growing its economy, but now it's time for a new strategy...

Professor Lee Ju-ho

Before criticizing, it's important to understand where they're coming from. As a product of an older learning generation, many parents assume that what worked for them in school is how their children should also learn. This of course, casts aside all the growth and change Korea has experienced since they were young, and fails to take into account that the world their children are learning and developing in, is vastly different from theirs.

This stubbornness from Korean parents forces hagwon directors to appease to their wants and demands; veritably allowing individuals who are neither teachers or English speakers themselves, to dictate exactly how the classroom is run. Directors don't always stand up to these parents for fear of losing a parents' favor, them pulling their child out of the school, spreading disparaging words about the school, and in the end: losing their tuition money.

Since there is no shortage of hagwons, parents have no problem hopping around until they get what they want. As a hagwon teacher in poorly run schools, it can become hard to tell if you are a teacher or customer service representative. (Which is why reviews of teaching programs in Korea -- and everywhere -- is a hugely important component of our mission here at Go Overseas.)

Academic Pressure

Math test

Academic pressure is not just coming from the parents -– it's coming from the schools too. My friend's younger brother is a first year high school student. He's gifted, so he's been placed in the highest class. His “reward” for having a high IQ is staying at school from 8am until midnight, 365 days a year.

This wasn't his parents' idea. This workload is placed on him by the principal and administration. His sister worries that, although he is by nature an optimist, these long hours will make him resent education and he'll lose his love for learning. Korean students are literally being punished for being bright. The better you are as a student, the sooner you end up having your studies be the core focus of your day to day.

Hagwon Status vs. Quality

Often the best education goes to the kids whose parents can afford to send them to the most hagwons. If you can afford hagwons, your child will learn more material than their non-hagwon attending friends, they'll score higher on exams, and thus, get into the best universities. When I interviewed my director about differences between Korean and Western education, she noted that it's quite common for Korean parents to put their children into a school that they know doesn't suit their learning needs; however, because the school has a certain reputation and “so and so” goes there, their children ought to attend too. After three years teaching in Korea I wonder: Are parents who are concerned with status hindering their child's education?

I criticize because I care. As an educator who cares deeply about the students I work with, I want the best for them and want to do all that I can to give it to them. But when a parent who is neither there nor understands their child’s learning needs trumps this, frustration often overrides political correctness. But such is the life of a teacher in Korea.

Rejecting the Traditional Model

That being said, some hagwons are going rogue; they are rejecting the status quo and trying to make a change. My school is one of them. It's very small and other than my boss, I'm the only teacher. Parents know our style and they know where they can go if they want their child to have a more “traditional” private education experience. I love the parents that stick with us because they get it.

They understand that education isn't a “one size fits all” approach or all about test preparation and results. Education is a long process of development and one that is very individual. They understand that a child's development comes in spurts and that not all children learn the same skills at the same rate. Most importantly, they represent a hugely positive change in how some South Koreans are thinking about education.

These parents understand that education isn't a “one size fits all” approach or all about test preparation and results.

Unfortunately, the perception that many Korean parents have when it comes to English education is that their child is a robot who, if taught “correctly”, can absorb information presented to him or her and regurgitate it back with perfect accuracy. If the child fails to learn English with this method, parents tend to assume the problem must be the teacher isn't pushing the child hard enough, and not that their child has a learning style that requires a method of learning.

If parents do acknowledge weaknesses, often the expectation is that the weakness be “fixed”, usually by attending a few more hours of hagwon a week. It's as though we, as teachers, have magic wands and when we recite some magic words, POOF – little Jinho can suddenly read. I've encountered so many parents with these unrealistic, and damaging, expectations and it really makes me hurt for the students because their specific learning needs are being dismissed.

What We Can Do to Help Our Students

Seoul, South Korea

This system of pressure and rote learning won't change overnight and, as we said in our article 10 Don'ts for Teaching Abroad in South Korea, "don't think you are going to singlehandedly change the system". Do, however, understand the complex education culture you're teaching in. and recognize that we teachers can help our students with the methods we choose to teach by.

Work critical and abstract thought into your lessons. Move away from rigid “multiple choice/fill-in-the-blank” assignments and get them analyzing content they're interested in. Incorporate ESL games into your lessons. Ask your students questions that they can only answer if they think outside the box. If they struggle, show them some examples. Make it a consequence-free environment for learning. Advocate for learning through trial and error. Yes, have high expectations, but have them at the end, not from the first go around.

If our goal is to help students learn English, get them speaking it. Some kids are embarrassed to speak (and understandably so), so create a classroom environment of inclusiveness and make it fun. Give them assignments that will allow them to re-discover their creative side. As they get older, this part of them gets suppressed. So if you teach young learners, nurture their creativity while it's still natural to them. Most importantly, lift up your students and be empathetic. As they get older they begin to measure their self-worth by their grades. Remind them it's not the end of the world to get a score of 50% and it doesn't make them inferior or dumb.

Final Thoughts

It has not been my intention to lam-bast the Korean approach to education nor to belittle it. No education system is perfect by any means. And if this kind of system helped Korea go from mass illiteracy to economic superpower then I can understand why they might prefer to maintain the status quo. But when a school is being run more as a business than as a place of learning, it only does the student a disservice -- and while we can't change the system, we can at least choose which schools we work for; which hagwons have the values we most want to support.

And with any teaching position abroad, it's important to keep in mind that if teachers can't cater 100% to their students needs, then they're going to be ineffective in helping those students learn and grow. Korea is rapidly changing. It is vastly different from the world it was even just five or ten years ago, and though it certainly doesn't have a perfect education system, who knows -- maybe they'll power through this hurdle too and 60 years from now we'll be looking at South Korea again thinking "wow, they've really come a long way".

Photo Credits: Visionstyler Press, Samuel Orchard, Yeowatzup, and Math Test
Photo of Lisa Vinish

Lisa Vinish is a Canadian expat who was bitten by the travel bug in 2008 and hasn't looked back. She has taken her passion for teaching to Kenya, Tanzania, and South Korea. Her global adventures (and misadventures) are chronicled on her blog Tales of a Travel Addict.