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.