Entering Hades!


Most South Korean students consider their last year in high school “the year of hell.” It is when all students are put to the ultimate test and were some arrive (particularly in country schools) at the pinnacle of terminal decline. The élite succeed supported by endless hours of school supplemented by academy or hagwon additional study.  Unfortunately for many it is the end of eight years of purgatory, they have been told they are serial failures, they have passed zero exams, why? Because it is the élite who are celebrated in school and the “fodder” are generally redundant. Remind you of anywhere else? The UK perhaps? I believe that building self-esteem is the catalyst for the devlopment of a kids education. I also agree with Robert Brooks, faculty psychologist at Harvard Medical School, that “Self-esteem is based on real accomplishments,” but kids need the basic building blocks to succeed.  Good basic math’s teaching; language and science teaching; social skills development, vocational skills, play and entertainment are they not those building blocks?

In the face of high expectations and over-testing, many South Korean teenagers don’t enjoy what many would consider a healthy balance of school, play, and sleep. So-called enrichments such as sports and arts are at a low premium. Supporting student social life is also a low priority and involves expeditions to iron foundries and naval bases, sooooooooooooooo stimulating. Middle class South Korean high school kids often sleep only four hours per night for several months leading up to the college (university) entrance exams, thereby adhering to the popular maxim “Sleep five hours and fail, sleep four hours and pass.”For those in country schools, low incomes mean extra lessons are replaced by evening work into the early hours making them even more disadvantaged. The ranks of the working poor are swelling; many Koreans are unable to escape from poverty no matter how hard they work.  They walk a tightrope, getting by from day-to-day, endangered by the strong possibility of falling directly into the poverty class when they experience a sudden illness or unemployment.

In 2011, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) announced that South Korea had the highest rate of low-wage employment among all its member nations, with its 25.6 percent rate.  According to 2010 figures from Statistics Korea, a full 2.11 million workers in the country had earnings falling below the legal minimum wage of just 858,990 Won ($767) per month, or 4,110 Won ($3.67) per hour. Six years have passed since the 2006 creation of the Irregular Workers Protection Act, yet around 12.7 percent of workers are living below even the minimum wage. For many of my students this may be their future, fuelling the economic miracle but with no tangible benefits.

My mindset is  that US/UK/Korean modus operandi of incorrigible ‘training’ is not education, and stifles creativity.  This learning by incessant rote has a real cost to the kids personally and to society as a whole. Still far too many kids ebb through the school system without learning anything. Schools spend time ‘teaching the test’, but their students are still failing the test even when they are teaching to it!  May I be bold enough to theorise that something is very, very wrong? Sadly, the education establishment globally bleats that they need to teach ‘creativity and skills’ but then follow a delusional test mantra. It may suit the middle classes but what about the rest?

South Korea’s idée fixe with education and academic attainment is ingrained in it’s Confucianism. The long practice of assimilating social status with academic achievement has left a tradition of investing everything into studying. From a distance, South Korea’s results look covetable. Its students consistently outperform their doppelgangers in almost every nation, particularly in reading and math’s. In the U.S., Saint Obama and his Education guru speak blithely of the ardor South Korean parents have for educating their children, and they deplore how far U.S. students are falling behind. In the U.K. NUT general secretary Christine Blower suggests, “An obsession with league tables and unnecessary testing is stifling education from the reception class onwards. The Education Secretary can’t just decide to have a hands-off approach in one part of the education system yet want to take total control over the rest.” Back in Korea, Education Minister Lee Ju-ho says, “Americans see a bright side to the Korean system, but Koreans are not happy with it.”

Neither am I! So why do they carry on testing? Sounds like a very funny film in there somewhere!

It’s a normal test day today 🙂 Roll on Suwon, Friday!

5 thoughts on “Entering Hades!

  1. I thought that “the year of hell” thing only happens in Indonesia. We got something called as Ujian Nasional (a kind of National Exam) here, in which the high school students will be tested in several subjects. The materials tested include all the topics they have learned in the last three years, from grade 10 to grade 12.
    I remembered it as a super stressful time. Students who fail the tests, would have to retake them or they can say goodbye to their post-graduate study plans.

      • Ah, I see. How many tests do the students have to take to graduate?
        Here in Indonesia we have to pass School final exam (conducted by the school, students will obtain school diploma and study report book), National Exam (conducted by the government, supervised by teachers from other schools; students will get the “permit” to get a higher education) and if a student is interested to study in public university they have to pass the university entrance test (conducted by each university, based on their own standards) and SPMB test (conducted by the government, students who do not pass will have to pay very-much-higher tuition fee, if they insist on entering the univeristy).
        I have no idea why the educational institutions love conducting tests so much!

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