Rooting the Rote out of Learning S. Korea Wants Creativity in Its Education System, Not Uniform Ways of Thinking

By Michael Baker, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, December 6, 1996 | Go to article overview

Rooting the Rote out of Learning S. Korea Wants Creativity in Its Education System, Not Uniform Ways of Thinking


Michael Baker, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Why is a country with the most PhDs per capita so worried about changing its schools?

Just look at the faces of South Korea's high school seniors tomorrow, when they receive the make-or-break results of their university entrance exams. With future career paths on the line, the pressure - from both family and society - to get high scores is enormous. Students devote every waking hour, and thousands of dollars, learning the right-and-wrong answers for a multiple-choice world of testing.

But some of the country's world-class corporations who hire these graduates say such uncreative thinkers are ill-suited for today's fast-paced economy. Innovation, not conformity, is required. "If Korean education doesn't foster creative and critical thinking, the future of Korea may not be a bright one," says Chung Bom-mo, a former president of Hallym University. Realizing this, the government of President Kim Young Sam has ordered a commission to come up with a slew of education reforms that would change the way young Koreans learn. But as the details are being worked out, parents and students are leaving little to chance under the old system. According to the Ministry of Education, 20 to 30 percent of private income - around $1,200 a month per child - is spent on private tutoring. In the months leading up to the test, families with high school seniors walk lightly around the apartment and don't flush the toilet too much. Students avoid breaking eggs (an omen of failure) or eating slippery foods like seaweed, lest their grades slip. Tutors and cram schools make an already grueling day longer. High school begins around 7:30 a.m., and after eight hours of classes, mandatory "free study" sessions can last until midnight. "For four months I studied until 2 a.m. and woke up at 6 a.m.," says Bang Joon, a senior who took the test Nov. 13. "It's very hard, but at university we {will} only study 10 hours a week. My parents said, 'When you get to university, you can play.' " Currently, students take 23 subjects in high school, and many complain, like Shin Dong-il, now safely at Yonsei University, that "in high school they want us to be a superman in every field." Lost in the stress of these endless exam preparations is education itself, critics say. While the exam that students spend years preparing for has only right and wrong answers, life is more complex. Mr. Chung, the former university president, says the system is ineffective because it doesn't create well-rounded people. Endless study sessions "lead to the negligence of all other aspects of education," like civic, moral, and emotional facets, he says. The government hopes reforms will allow students to focus on their personal talents rather than just cramming facts. …

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