The South Korean educational system has recently gained international recognition for all the wrong reasons – its students are known to study until late hours at night, focus on standardized multiple-choice tests rather than acquiring skills, and put their parents in debt over private tutoring costs. Everything to enter the SKY – Seoul National University, Korea University, or Yonsei University. But there is a hidden gem buried in the South Korean school curriculum. Two hidden gems, in fact.
A meteoric rise
South Korean school programme may seem quite tough and focused on encouraging competition between students. After a full day of school activities students continue on in hagwons – cram schools. The most important part of the learning experience is preparation for the CSATs. On the day the exams are taken, the entire country holds its breath. Employees are asked to report later to work, police are mobilized to handle the traffic efficiently, flights are restricted and concerned parents flock to churches to pray for their kids’ future. In East Asia in general, and in South Korea especially, adequate education is a sign of status and social class. However, South Korean curriculum is not as rigid as one might think.
The country’s rise from one of the most impoverished places in the world, with low literacy rates, to one of the most modern and thriving economies in the last five decades has had the whole world in awe. But the rise of South Korea is anything but a miracle and it is the strong work ethic and values of the South Korean labour force that are the foundations on which the country’s greatness has been built. And no way of instilling and perpetuating those values is better than a good school curriculum.
The education system in question offers alternatives to the classical way of learning. Specialty schools allow children to focus on a particular area of learning, such as foreign language or the arts, and autonomous schools, much alike Montessori schools, allow for more flexibility and give space for students to design their own programme. Even the traditional schools offer a wide range of electives – from liberal arts, through traditional theatre to home economics. Schools are also allowed to add different subjects to their curriculum in accordance with the specific community needs. Unexpectedly enough, South Korean education offers to its students a very western, individualistic approach.
Gem no. 1
During primary school’s first two years children learn subjects called Good Life, Wise Life, and Happy Life, earlier known together under the name of Intelligent Life. That is our first hidden gem.
These interdisciplinary subjects focus entirely on the student’s growth as a person, their emotional wellbeing, and their smooth transition to school life later along the way. Children learn basic studying skills, problem-solving, creativity, and dealing with adversity. And all that while enjoying themselves playing, singing, drawing, and taking part in role-playing activities.
Ever since the implementation of the governments’ plan to nourish creativity among teachers, South Korean schoolkids have been able to enjoy learning through folk tales, traditional dance, movies, games, and a wide range of enriching activities. The emphasis is on happiness and enjoying oneself while learning important life skills. The Good Life, Wise Life, and Happy Life subjects are also a first step towards creating individuals of good character and good ethics.
While they move up the education ladder, children learn individual responsibility, teamwork, and taking care of the common. That is not done through studying per se, but through other activities. Every day, before the classes start, and after they are finished, children clean their classrooms. They also take turns serving lunch to their peers and helping the kitchen staff. Through practice, children learn how their own engagement benefits the community and are happy to see the fruits of their labour.
After the classes, children receive plenty of guidance and feedback, which helps them grow to be kind and respectful people. That guidance is seen as extremely valuable. Kids are also encouraged to use checklists prepared by their teachers and assess their own personal growth.
Gem no. 2
In lower secondary school, a new interdisciplinary subject called Moral Education is introduced. That is our second hidden gem. While Moral Education could be likened to social sciences courses, it is not as simple as that.
Moral Education aims at creating healthy relations between the individual and the nation, teaching morality and civic virtues, as well as cooperation. It focuses on a harmonious development of body and mind while fostering physical as well as mental perseverance. The graduates will one day form the backbone of society, as well as of their own families and communities. But most importantly, they will be autonomous, emotionally developed individuals, with a sound mind, physical strength, and critical thinking abilities.
A lot of the values taught in South Korean schools stem from tradition. For instance, children are encouraged to have self-control and be honest. They need to accept their responsibility when need be, be respectful of others and of the traditional culture. But it does not stop there. Children are also taught to value freedom, development, and study the functioning of the democratic system – some very important modern values of today.
In practice, students learn etiquette, observe social rules with critical approach, and develop a sense of community through participating in team tasks and real-life experiences. For example, they could be asked to prepare a batch of kimchi for a local community centre or deliver groceries to the elderly people in need. Those experiences can be very enriching and fulfilling on an emotional level.
Students also learn communication and conflict resolution through confrontation. The debate clubs are very popular. Themed days for different countries are also organized. Children learn about various cultures through experiencing it first-hand. That instils in them the notion of peace, which is of incredible value in the South Korean society. And that strategy seems to be working very well, as the new generation of South Korean youth is very open and curious.
Moral Education has been implemented as a part of a national strategy against a constant security threat coming from North Korea, as well as an answer to ongoing modernization of the country. Ever since the mid-90s the “Korea’s Vision for the 21st Century” strategy has been introduced to encourage students to become global citizens who are open to diversity, have broad horizons, understand the various traditions and cultures of other countries, and are sensitive to environmental issues and conflicts among regions and among races.
The tipping point, however, for the return of Moral Education to the 21st-century South Korean curriculum was the tragedy of the Sewol ferry in 2014. More than half of the 172 survivors were rescued by private fishing boats, almost an hour before the Korean Coast Guard arrived. That has sparked a national debate on government’s culpability. While the politicians focused on shifting the blame on the individual actions of the ferry crew, a huge question was raised on the morals of everyone involved.
Of course, one’s ethics are not only a subject of education but take a lifetime of work. The moral development of children does not stop when the school bell rings. However, the implementation of the new subject has created a country-wide debate on the values and methodology, that is still ongoing today. And debate is always a good thing.
The school of life
Among the hidden gems of South Korean education, which have been created with the spirit of holistic interdisciplinary education worthy of the 21st century, there is just one more tiny hidden gem. It is called an “exam-free semester” and it has been introduced in 2013.
South Korean education is very exam-oriented for the most part. Every year students need to pass many multiple-choice tests that are the basis for their promotion. However, through the exam-free semester programme, teachers encourage students to participate in student-centred activities of their liking. They may choose a subject that is not taught in their curriculum, focus on something that sparks their interest or learn a subject with a new approach. During the exam-free semester, students debate, create presentations and do fun experiments together. And most of all – take a breather from the stress of everyday school life.
Even though South Korean education system may seem rigid, there has been a lot of effort in making it more open and more modern and through that building a society of creative individuals capable of blue-sky thinking. If there are lessons we should take from South Korea, let it be those interdisciplinary subjects focused on the student’s personal growth in a holistic way. In the end, that is what is the most important – creating a society of free-thinkers rather than testing experts. And the South Korean government is keeping up.
Author: Małgorzata Sidz
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OECD (2020). Korea: Overview of the education System. Education GPS.