Korean Students: Things Are Never Looking Up?

August 21, 2011

I had one of the most depressing and culturally insightful classes with some of my higher-level students this week. Unlike in some hagwon, where foreign teachers are not allowed their say when it come to class format and textbooks, my boss really values my input; I have had total creative control of the gold classes for months, which includes choosing their course book. Naturally, when I came across one at their level featuring Calvin and Hobbes, I just had to go for it.

As it turned out, the comic in question was a prelude for a discussion on the positives and negatives of childhood. My students knew most of the simple vocabulary, but as any native speaker is aware, adding a preposition like ‘up’ to the end of verbs can completely change their meaning. However, it didn’t take too long before they understood what Calvin was saying, and the highs and lows of an American elementary school student.

At some level, we know that children are all born with a fresh slate, and could almost be interchangeable ‘parts’ across cultural lines up to a certain age, e.g. Korean toddlers will be fascinated by the same shiny objects, pointing and giggling in much the same way an American, African, Spanish, or Japanese infant would do. But, I think around age 6 or 7 (based solely on my experience), they cease to be children of the world and instead begin their transformation to adults, influenced by their environment, their parents, their culture.

I say this not to imply one culture’s values are superior or inferior to my own; they’re just different, and sometimes, really, really frustrating to wrap my head around.

Let me set the stage again. Eight students. Five boys, three girls. All with a reasonably high level of fluency for their age. When they looked at the fifth panel, featuring Calvin dull-eyed and waiting for the clock to run down, there was an understanding, a muttering of consensus. But when we came to the sixth and final image, highlighting the wordplay and leaving the reader with a sense of hope, it might as well have been alien to them. Being excited about coming home from school? Why is Calvin smiling as though his worries are over?

How could any kid not feel a sense of relief at the end of a school day? I honestly thought that final panel would be completely cross cultural.

To my American readers, I’m sure you heard the President extolling the virtues of the South Korean education system at the State of the Union address. For the most part, he was completely right; Korean students do score better than their American counterparts in nearly all areas (except when it comes to higher education, but that’s the subject of another blog). But at what cost? My kids get up at 7:30 or 8:00, go to school for several hours, walk over to the hagwon for English study, then possibly to another academy for extra classroom study.

Fine, you might say. So they can’t relate to the sense of jubilation at getting out of school. But what about when they’re finally released from the academy at night? Surely they must be looking forward to going home, getting dinner, watching TV?

Well… as my students explained to me… not really. In fact, for them, home is almost worse than school because their parents pressure them to study so much it makes them feel like no time is their own. The weekend is the same: more time off from actual school means more time to hit the books at home.

I have to confess, when I heard that in the classroom, I felt like crying in sympathy for them. I had always thought of my students as pretty happy-go-lucky. Looking at them now, I’m amazed they’re able to be so upbeat with so little time to just be children.

3 Responses to Korean Students: Things Are Never Looking Up?

  1. Tom on August 21, 2011 at 3:34 pm

    Eurgh Obama needs to stfu when he looks at the Korean education system and he should actually look at the facts – Korean kids score well on MULTIPLE CHOICE TESTS that they’re prepped endlessly for. Anything involving thought or opinion and they fail miserably.

    My kids have almost no free time. When they’re not at English hagwon, they’re at math, science or history hagwon. Their weekends are spent doing homework. This is ten year olds we’re talking about.

    The Korean education system is seriously flawed – Koreans are great at replication, but not innovation. Look at Samsung vs Apple’s recent case – Samsung copied the iPad, then demanded to see all of Apple’s future plans so as to avoid “making the same mistake again” – HA! Nice try, Samsung.

    Kids don’t have time to be kids here, and as such Korea is raising a generation of spoiled brats who’s parents make up for the lack of free time by buying them and letting them do anything that they want. Even the Korean teachers comment on how little respect many of the students have, and they all put it down to the kids having no free time.

  2. noe on August 29, 2011 at 3:47 pm

    Luckily it seems I am one of those few whos given complete control this time around. Working on a syllabus now.

  3. Mack Reynolds on September 14, 2011 at 11:37 pm

    That is a bit sad, but it’s also the culture. They do so well because that’s how they are raised. Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, talks about all kinds of cultural norms and how some things can be attributed to cultural history. I mention this because there’s a segment in the book talking about why Asians are typically good at math. Very interesting, but the book doesn’t show how sad Asian students can be because of their rigorous schooling.

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