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Obama lauds South Korean education

Most people who have had contact with South Korean culture, especially in a teaching context, know that Koreans take education seriously. I asked a Korean friend for chapter and verse on this, and she told me the following.

Elementary schools start at 8:30 and finish between 12:30 (first grade) and 2:30 (sixth grade). Pupils usually attend after-school programmes prepared by their own schools or go to hakwon (private institutes) for further study in art, music, sport and English language training.

Middle schools start at 8:00am and finish between 3:00~3:30pm. More than half of middle school students go to hakwon after school (usually to study maths, writing and English).

High schools start at 7:30am and finish between 4:00~5:00pm. Almost all the students go to hakwon to take private lessons (usually maths and science) or remain at their schools to study in the classrooms or libraries until 9~11pm. Top students usually study until midnight or even 1:00 am to 2:00 am.

Given that Korea still remains predominantly associated with the North Korean crisis and the eating of dogs, it is nice to hear the leader of the free world recognising an aspect of Korea that has powered South Korea to the top of the industrial league tables over the past few decades.

“South Korean children are outpacing our kids in math and science,” Obama said in a speech at George Washington University to unveil his fiscal policy centering on budget deficit cuts while maintaining heavy investment in education. “They’re scrambling to figure out how they put more money into education.” (Yonhap News 14 April)

The first South Korean friend I made was at school. He seemed to have little issue with taking six A-levels, and for Maths he occupied the hallowed ‘0’ division, a special class for the handful of students deemed too advanced for the 1st division. He never exhibited the outward characteristics of an egghead, and was liberal in helping others with mathematical problems during Personal Study periods. I never got the impression from him that he felt he was overburdened. From a South Korean perspective, I doubt that his workload was particularly unusual, and the mind boggles as to what the future holds for a country with several millions like him going into the worlds of finance, industry and politics. I only hope that we overcome our macabre obsession with North Korea in time to learn from the positive lessons of the South.

A typical Korean student
Not a typical Korean student


4 thoughts on “Obama lauds South Korean education

  1. Hi,

    I graduated high school in America last year, and also attended Korean high school as an exchange student. Currently I’m deferring a year from Columbia to make a documentary on Korean education.

    While the long school hours certainly make Korean students better at studying, they also take away students’ free time to have hobbies or play sports. Because students are working roughly 16 hours a day, there’s little time to develop individual passions or talents outside of school. While the Korean school system gives its students one form of education, it takes away another.

    South Korean education may seem positive and successful from the outside, but as my Korean classmates say here, it’s “examination hell”. Student suicide is not uncommon; South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. It is understandable when one’s entire life is school– to fail a test makes you feel worthless.

    The Korean school system needs to be changed.

    You can learn more about our documentary here.

    1. I admit the Korean system is not perfect. Given that all systems are imperfect, I think what Obama is saying is that we in the West can learn from the high standards of Korean students. I am sure that it is an ‘examination hell’ in Korean schools, but would you not agree that anyone has to go through hell to really become pre-eminent in any field, whether sport, study or music. It’s very easy to judge other systems as unacceptable by concentrating on their flaws, but looking back on my own education, I personally think I would have benefited from the more intensive approach adopted in Korea. Your film looks really interesting by the way!

  2. I am a korean student currently studying in Canada. I had taken both side of educational system so I can conclude, with zero doubt in my mind, that american educational system is superior. In korea, the students with talents outside of math, science, or english often are forced to neglect their passions so they can compete in subjects they are not interested in. American schools however, give more options
    O the students so they can try as much things as possible .

    1. Okay dude πŸ™‚ But someone really ought to tell President Obama because he keeps making these speeches. The Education Secretary has joined in too. πŸ™‚

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