The Pressures of the South Korean Education System

According to a recent survey, South Korean children are the least happy in the developed world – and the reason behind this could be the pressures of the education system they are subjected to.

We’ve all experienced the stress of exam periods at some point or another. The cramming, the worrying, the amalgamation of years of hard work and studying essentially boil down to how well you perform in a few silent hours with an exam paper or 12. We know how important exams and education are for helping to secure a successful future, but no culture holds high exam grades and excellent academic performance in such high regard as South Korea.

Exam times in South Korea are taken so seriously that everyday life for those who aren’t students is altered. In 2012 road traffic was diverted away from anywhere exams were taking place and airline agendas were altered all to avoid causing distractions for those sitting exams. Police cars were also commandeered at the request of students who ran the risk of arriving late to their exams.

This seems like extreme behaviour to anyone outside South Korea, but it matches the intensity of the education system currently in place. South Korea is currently topping the league tables in maths and reading, and is in the top 3 in science, so there is no doubt that the current educational methods are working – but at what cost?

There is such an astonishingly high level of national interest in education in South Korea that means a lot of children and teenagers feel pressured at a very young age. Children as young as primary school age are under stress when it comes to their education as they all have an understanding that they need to get into a good university in order to get a good job.

It seems as though the vast majority of students regardless of age have the same goal: to get into a good university. It is as though South Korean children are programmed, instead of taught. A lot of children attend hagwons not because public schooling is insufficient, but because there is an immense pressure to be the best and to achieve the most. However, these children often come from a higher social class than others, as 41% of students from Seoul who go to Seoul National University come from the 3 richest districts (out of 25) in Seoul. This puts added pressure on those who cannot afford private education as they now have to compete with those receiving a ‘double education’.

Some Korean parents have said that they only have one or two children because the cost of education is so high. Private schooling costs are considerably high regardless of what age the students are, but costs rise as the child gets older. Because getting into a good university is such a high national priority, many parents will put their child education as top priority – therefore can only financially support one for two children.

Obama has openly praised South Korea for its education system and the children of South Korea for their daily hours of dedication to studying, perhaps without fully understanding the repercussions. South Korean students have very little time for creative or personal growth as some students study for 12-16 hours a day. Many even study after compulsory school for ‘self-study’ periods. The exams themselves also lack creativity, as they rely more on memorisation than on actively engaging with questions. Schools are controlled and severe due to bureaucracy and pressures created by a schools desire to maximise a student’s CSAT scores.

The stress of failure or not meeting demands can be too much for some students, and suicide is not uncommon. South Korea has an extremely high suicide rate, with 40 suicides a day, and intensive education and the need to get into a good university may be a factor, as there is a big income gap between those who hold a degree and those who don’t. Their determination to seek and attain the same goal, of entering and graduating from the best universities may be the cause to their universal unhappiness.

Not going to university may be seen as an act of betrayal by some children because their parents pay such a high price for their schooling, and 80% of school leavers go on to attend university. But because graduates outnumber graduate vacancies, unemployment in South Korea is high, with many choosing unemployment over working an unskilled job.
However, the problem has been recognised and efforts to reform it have addressed. In 1996, the Korean government introduced a plan to enhance education with ICT in schools. In 2005, distribution and utilisation of ICT in classrooms began. The plan is to move from uniform and standardised learning, to a more creative and diversified approach. Instead of working as a single student, a more co-operative method to share ideas is being put in place. The passivity of the old way of learning is being replaced by active learning through ICT.

In the past, a strong student was one who could reproduce what they had learned by precisely duplicating it in a test. But future skills will require not just a good memory, but interaction with data and analysing it, selecting what is useful and then recreating it as their own.  In order to help students obtain these skills, a strategy to digitise South Korea’s entire school curriculum is already underway, with plans of completion by 2015.

The digital textbooks help students to engage with others and develop their knowledge, rather than simply acquiring it, and a shift from an individual learning process, to more of a group learning collective is key.

There is also a tactic in place to set up a system where the students can access lessons and the curriculum at home. This will help to bridge the gap between socio-economic grades and give everyone access to the same material, giving students equal opportunities.

These ideas and strategies to help transform the current education system from a stressful, miserable and pressurised duty to a more positive and interactive experience are already underway. They are not fully there yet in terms of improving the happiness of South Korean children, and relieving them of unnecessary pressures, but they are a step in the right direction and a welcomed change in regime.

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  • Terri

    Very interesting article. Quite honestly, while I would have hated the long hours, I think I would have been ok at school. But when it would come to the exams, I think I’d self-destruct from the pressure.

    I hope the changes made have a positive effect, and that South Korea addresses teh problem of its high suicide rates, and sasaengs.

  • Guest

    Same system we have had in Greece. Studying like mad, going to private tutoring since elementary school, memorizing and having to learn by heart and recite as it is in the books and hope you’re lucky enough the things you remember are in the tests.

    Then come the last two years, where who you know or bribe is what sometimes determines if you make the final exams which will determine your average and therefore in which universities you can go to (as they all have a number you need to have more of to get it).

    Then off to university, where again, sucking up to teachers, bribing and mostly having connections or sometimes even doing sexual favors is what gets you grades.

    It’s not always like this, but those do happen often. They drive kids insane and parents to debt, with the grand result being a pile of forced data that is forgotten by the time you step out of highschool. I remember nothing from school and I was an A student for most of my years. Except for the last two (the important ones), when I suddenly went dumb and started getting Cs, meaning my family could not afford private tutoring.

    Many education systems rely on pressure to reach a level of perfection that is unrealistic. Most of them are made to create worker bees, not smart, creative individuals capable of independent thought. In that sense, I think these systems are in fact worse than more liberal ones in education. True education, not producing workforce.

  • http://orion21.blogspot.com/ Orion

    Samesystem we have had in Greece. Studying like mad, going to private
    tutoring since elementary school, memorizing and having to learn by
    heart and recite as it is in the books and hope you’re lucky enough the
    things you remember are in the tests.

    Then come the last two years, where who you know or bribe is what
    sometimes determines if you make the final exams which will determine
    your average and therefore in which universities you can go to (as they
    all have a number you need to have more of to get it).

    Then off to university, where again, sucking up to teachers, bribing
    and mostly having connections or sometimes even doing sexual favors is
    what gets you grades.

    It’s not always like this, but those do happen often. They drive kids
    insane and parents to debt, with the grand result being a pile of
    forced data that is forgotten by the time you step out of highschool. I
    remember nothing from school and I was an A student for most of my
    years. Except for the last two (the important ones), when I suddenly
    went dumb and started getting Cs, meaning my family could not afford
    private tutoring.

    Many education systems rely on pressure to reach a level of
    perfection that is unrealistic. Most of them are made to create worker
    bees, not smart, creative individuals capable of independent thought. In
    that sense, I think these systems are in fact worse than more liberal
    ones in education. True education, not producing workforce.

    P.S: I accidentally did something with the comment. Reposting.

  • Guset

    In Korea, student high school study almost 18 hours to 20 hours.
    Even they are saying only memorized every things. No thinking, no debating, only memorizing.
    This education cause a suicide in Korea.
    Korea have to fix this educations.

  • Taruni Tarun

    cant believe that students have to put in 18-20 hours..seriously south korean education is terrifying ..No wonder some depressed students tend to commit suicides..what is the charm in life if it is lived like this?
    …Recently read an article that the people who occupy top positions world wide are all normal/average students and not extraordinary brilliant scholars..hope south korea understands that there needs to be a fine line of separation between allowing what children like to do and are capable of doing and forcing things on children even without their interests..Just because they are parents they have no real rights to force students to engage stressfully like this ..Success is not always measured in terms of high earnings / getting married to a equal social class etc..It is also happiness in doing an act/satisfaction derived and thereby living a stressfree life..Surely after reading about such suicides most south korean paents would definitely understand and allow their children to live without pressure .

  • Edinburgh Medical Student

    Interesting, but I think their education system is fine. Yes we have it easier, but then again competition in Korea is high for everything is it not?