When Rote Learning Fails against the Test of Global Economy South Korea's Economic Crisis Has Forced a Rethink of Confucian- Style Education with 'Test-Aholic' Students

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Shim Jai-ok is well aware of the havoc the Asian financial crisis is playing on South Korean students.

Ms. Shim, deputy director of the Korean-American Educational Commission in Seoul, helps students get into US colleges and universities. The halls outside her office are no longer packed with students filling out forms to study overseas. But she still hears of their difficulties, and her own niece had to give up studying in the United States after it became too costly.

Despite this, Shim thinks some good may come out of the situation. "Korean high schools are like factories. Only the scores on your exams matter, and the only way to get into university is to pay for after-school tutoring, six days a week until 11 o'clock at night," says Shim, whose two sons started being tutored in the sixth grade. She and other education experts hope the economic crisis may finally shift the emphasis to where it should be: providing a well-rounded education, rather than cramming for a standardized university entrance exam. Rote learning in a global economy Korea's Confucian tradition - with its sterile emphasis on rote memorization of facts - has promoted an education system focused on passing standardized, multiple-choice tests and qualifying exams. Critics say this "facts only" education leaves little opportunity for students to develop creative talents or critical problem-solving skills, and has contributed to the country's recent economic crisis. "I worry about the future of Korea not because of the {financial} crisis, but for the lack of vision in educating Koreans," says Yonsei University philosophy Prof. Kim Hyung-chul, a former adviser to the minister of education. "Our system is increasingly unable to compete with other developed countries." Education experts say this realization may rally the political will to build the "open education society" ministry officials have been talking about for years. Education reforms would give individuals greater freedom for original thought, and offer students a wider range of classes. And adults who need retraining for new jobs could take more courses or pursue degrees. If universities and colleges become more "customer driven," experts say they will become more diverse, competitive, and responsive to the changing needs. Of particular concern has been dismantling the so-called "examination hell." Since university acceptance has been based almost entirely on an applicant's score on a standardized national exam, teenagers toil for years in after-school tutoring programs, while their parents toil even longer to pay for these programs. The average family is thought to spend nearly half its income on tutors, tuition, and other education-related costs. "We're a society obsessed with education," says Lee Hyun-chong of the Research Institute for Higher Education. "Children are 'test-aholics' and parents are 'tutor-aholics.' " A child's whole future may depend on the university entrance exam. "Confucianism holds that education is what makes the human being, building and completing one's character," says political scientist Hahm Chai-bong of Yonsei University. "That's still the standard by which people are judged in Korea, and why people invest so heavily in it." "The lives of high school students have been extremely abnormal and unhealthy, with enormous physical hardship for the whole family," he says. "If we hear that a family has a child in high school we express our condolences. And if that person is a relative,they are automatically excused from family gatherings." For years Korean policymakers have been trying to change this and other aspects of the education system. Private tutoring was forbidden a decade ago, but the system thrived underground. …