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Studying In South Korea: An English Teacher Asks How Much Is Too Much

South Korea Culture
by Bessie Julia Crum Mar 8, 2010

There was a moment when I thought I might get some honest answers.

“I spend too much time at school,” the discussion book read. “I want to spend more time playing with my friends, but my mom makes me spend all my free time studying.”

I’ve been teaching English to this class of Korean 5th graders for months, and we’ve all gotten comfortable. I was thinking, wow, maybe we can really talk about the intense studying kids do in Korea. Alas, as in many other situations I’ve encountered living here, I was way off.

“No,” they chorused. “We don’t think so.”

“You don’t think you spend too much time studying?” I asked.

“Not too much, Teacher, just normal.” Another added, “A lot of time studying is good.”

I probed further, “So you don’t want to spend more time playing with your friends, instead of studying?”

The oldest girl in my class thought for a few seconds, searching for the words. “No, Teacher. Not more time with my friends; playing with my computer is more fun. Studying a lot is good.”

Sigh. We just see things so differently.

The way I see it, studying in South Korea is out of control. Kindergartners are immersed in English five hours a day, moving through phonics, spelling, and grammar books higher than their level. At the private academy I work in, kids can start full-time, formal education as young as 3 years old. Forget naps, playing and snack time, we’re getting you ready for Harvard. All of you.

But it’s not enough that students just be good at English. Most kids attend Korean public school and then spend hours at private academies on nights and weekends. They study science, math, Chinese characters, Japanese, or literature. Most add piano, swimming, tae kwon do or art classes to fill any potential free time they might have.

I once mapped out the weekly schedules with a 1st grade class, and most of them easily had 7 different extra classes to attend each week. It’s hard for me to comprehend being in class so much at that age, but it’s extremely common. Kids attend schools so late that a law was recently passed prohibiting schools from having class past 10 pm, although it’s routinely broken.

When I was young, 5 or 6 pm would have been a late day at school. To comply with the new Korean law, a number of schools now start classes earlier in the morning. It of course sidesteps the issue that students are spending really long days in class. How do they keep up with it all?

Perhaps they are not handling it well, but there is a lot of pressure to be successful and kids are forced to respond to it. In the pas sixty years, South Korea has grown from a war-torn country to the world’s 15th largest economy. It’s no small feat, and Koreans are very proud of this progress.

I don’t think my students’ parents that went to school with limited heat and food would agree with me that their children should work less. After all, they’re the ones signing them up for all the classes. But at what point is the desire for the next generation’s success getting out of hand? Can I be the only one noticing the kids’ struggle?

I think many of the students are feeling stuck, but only some are comfortable admitting that they don’t like it. I see it in the diaries they write me each week. They write about staying up until the middle of the night to study and getting hit when they don’t do well enough on tests. A girl complained about her mom making extra homework and tests for her after she finished her schoolwork.

Quite boldly one day, a friendly 5th grade girl wrote in her diary: “Why Korean students study too hard? In Korean parents’ story, some of the parents just play after the school. Before they play all day but now, it’s not. It is opposite. Now, students go academy after school. In vacation, too. Please… can you just see what we do? We want to play! We don’t want to be studying machine!”

It think a lot of students feel like this, but it’s just not popular to say.

Her description of being a studying machine is an apt analogy. About four months into the school year, my kindergarten supervisor told us she needed “output”. The parents wanted to see what their students were accomplishing. My expat co-workers and I cocked our heads in confusion, wondering what 5-year-olds’ “output” would look like. I pictured my mom’s Christmas tree and my “output” hung on it: a red macaroni noodle picture frame with my smiling 5-year old face in the center.

That is not at all what my supervisor had in mind.

We were soon given three hundred page Curious George books to practice so the students could read to their moms from them each weekend. Then, we were given the sentences they’d memorize and recite. Three book reviews were due each Wednesday. Every Thursday there was a twenty word spelling test, and it didn’t stop there.

Most of the kindergardeners produced their “output”. The ones whose moms spoke English or hired private tutors, that is. Others were embarrassed they couldn’t do the work or just skipped school. My job was to push them harder. More output.

One student was falling asleep in class one morning, and I pushed her to keep reading until she admitted she stayed up until 1 am finishing her homework. I tried insisting she go lay down and take a nap, but her pride made her resist. It was just another hard day’s work for her.

I’m lost knowing how to deal with these situations because my own experiences contrast starkly with theirs. Growing up I loved going to school. I remember watching butterfly cocoons hatch, taking art projects home to hang on the fridge, and looking forward to summer vacations with friends. We had real vacations from school – there was no studying. Extra classes were for trouble makers or maybe the nerds. I couldn’t have dreamed of being at school until 10 pm.

So now as a teacher, I want to help my students learn the best way I know how. The idealist in me wants them to love learning too. For me it’s not about perfect scores but the progress you can’t measure, like kids’ increasing confidence and their making new friends.

I try hard to teach so my students to enjoy learning, but the system almost makes this impossible. The Korean system values long hours, a heavy workload, and cramming in as much information as possible. It’s awfully hard to get kids excited when so many of them already feel tired and burnt out.

This is the hardest part of my job: finding a balance when I’m caught between value systems. In many ways I’ve learned to adapt to the system. I can get my kids to fill out twenty pages in a workbook in 45 minutes and keep the 4th grade boys in their seats after a ten-hour school day.

I still can’t rationalize the excessive memorizing, studying, and writing my students have to do for my classes. I can’t ignore the pressure it puts them under. But if my students are right, and a lot of time studying is good, maybe it’s up to me to adapt. Like it or not, I’m part of the Korean school system – I do most of what’s expected of me. At least if I have kids someday, I’ll have plenty of reasons why they should never complain about school work.

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