Education in Korea – Hagwon

In class, we’ve been discussing education a lot.  In particular, Korean education versus American education.  In the PISA test (an aptitude test given by the OECD to 15 year olds from around the world to assess and compare across countries), there is a huge difference in the test scores between Koreans and Americans.  In the image we were looking at, comparing 2006 and 2012 data, Koreans had been fourth, but more recently dropped to fifth place in maths and the United States had been 34th, now 36th in maths.

Scores such as these have led to politicians in the United States regularly calling for the education system in the US to be more like Korea.  The assumption is that the results we’re seeing in PISA are reflective of the same 8-4 school day, with the difference being the teaching style, plus the quality and content of material taught.

However, that’s not the case.  We were introduced to a new term, ‘Hagwon’, which is a private academy attended by students at night from 6pm until 10 or 11pm at night.  Every night.  Every week.  For the duration of high school.  It’s so ingrained in their culture that I have spoken to several Korean university students, who continue to attend extra classes or self-study sessions in the university as they’re accustomed to having 3-4 hours of sleep per night.

During high school, students don’t eat dinner with the family, instead they are picked up from school, driven to the academy and given an opportunity to grab some food nearby if there is time.  They also don’t play any games or do any extra-curricular activities except maybe on the weekends.  Even then, they study.

This mentality of slavishly studying all hours of the day has one primary goal.  Pass the final exam, called Suneung.  After that of course, they need to pass the exams to get into one of the 3 best universities in Korea (Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University) because if they don’t, their job prospects are limited.  After that, any decent job they would hope to apply for will also require them to sit an exam.

Constant exams seem to be a normality for Koreans.  It was originally introduced to aspects of society to decrease chances of nepotism and to promote meritocracy.  However, the majority of the high school education system is now focused on rote learning and sitting exams, with very little attention given to creativity or critical thinking.

Yes, there is an issue in the United States.  But that has to do with the sheer size of the country and the huge discrepancy in quality of life for its citizens.  Comparing the education system in the US with Korea is a pointless endeavor, because I really doubt American kids are willing to study until 11pm at night.


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