Korean Education: Focusing on the Future

Often, as educators, we view our educational environment as unique. We see social and academic issues that we face in schools as singular cultural events. Learning about other societies and their educational systems can provide a larger perspective and new insights for examining our own problems.
During the summer of 1996, the authors participated with a group of American, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand educators in the ninth annual Korean Studies Workshop. Hosted by Korea University in Seoul, and sponsored by The Korea Society, this three week program provided opportunities for travel, school visits, and academic lectures.1 This article is based on the authors' impressions of the educational system in the Republic of Korea.

Richard Diem, Tedd Levy
and Ronald VanSickle

Our bus wound its way uphill on a narrow, crowded street toward Shin Il Boys High School, and one could only imagine the mixed excitement and disruption we were about to cause its staff and students. Hanging over the school's entrance as we approached was a banner welcoming our group of 19 Americans and more than 40 other educators from Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. We could see dozens of faces peering at us through the windows of the four story school building.
Our visit to this high school was one of several we would make during the Summer 1996 Korean Studies Program sponsored by The Korea Society, an organization dedicated to academic and cultural exchanges to promote greater understanding of Korea and its people. Our visits and talks with teachers, students, and school officials allow for some at least preliminary impressions and observations about education in the Republic of Korea (South Korea) today.

The System of Education
The Korean education system is divided into three parts: a six-year primary school, followed by a three-year middle school and a three-year high school. Most high schools are either for boys or for girls, with only about five per cent being co-educational. The curriculum in all schools is similar, with the notable exception that boys study technology and girls study domestic science.
The primary curriculum consists of nine principal subjects: moral education, Korean language, social studies, mathematics, science, physical education, music, fine arts, and practical arts. The major objectives, as stated in a 1996 Background Report by the Ministry of Education, are: "to improve basic abilities, skills and attitudes; to develop language ability and civic morality needed to live in society; to increase the spirit of cooperation; to foster basic arithmetic skills and scientific observation skills; and, to promote the understanding of healthy life and the harmonious development of body and mind."2

Upon completion of primary school, youngsters advance to middle school for grades seven through nine. The curriculum consists of 12 basic or required subjects, electives, and extracurricular activities.

High schools are divided into academic and vocational schools. As of 1995, some 62 percent of students were enrolled in academic high schools, and 38 percent in vocational high schools. A small number of students attended specialized high schools concentrating in science, the arts, foreign languages, and other specialized fields.

The aims of education at the high school level are: "to foster each student's personality and ability needed to preserve and strengthen the backbone of the nation; to develop students' knowledge and skills to prepare them for jobs needed in the society; to promote each student's autonomy, emotional development, and critical thinking abilities to be used in and out of school; and, to improve physical strength and to foster a sound mind."3

The School Calendar and School Days
The school calendar has two semesters, the first extending from March through July, and the second from September through February. There are summer and winter breaks, but 10 optional half-days before and after each break-which are attended by practically all students-reduce these biennial "vacations" to the remaining 10 days.
A typical schedule finds high schoolers studying before school begins at approximately 8:00 a.m. Classes run for 50 minutes each, with a morning break and a 50-minute lunch period. The afternoon session resumes at about 1:00 p.m., and classes continue until about 4:00 or 4:30 p.m., followed by cleaning the classroom. Students may then take a short break to return home for dinner, or they may have dinner at school.

Students return to the school library-essentially a place to study-or attend private schools or tutoring sessions until between 10:00 p.m. and midnight. They return home where they may have a snack, listen to music, or watch television before going to bed. Elementary and middle school students have similar but somewhat less rigorous days with shorter hours and more recreational activities.

Attendance requirements call for a minimum of 220 days at all three levels. The curriculum is prescribed by law, as are the criteria for the development of textbooks and instructional materials. There have been periodic curriculum revisions, most recently in 1995, and the trend is definitely toward decentralization in determining, diversifying, and implementing the curriculum.

The well educated person-according to the curriculum, and perhaps shedding further light on what is valued in Korean society-is a person who is healthy, independent, creative, and morally right.

Visiting High Schools
The high schools that we saw were large and rather barren both inside and out. Invariably, a large grassless area is located at the front of the school to serve as the playing field and a place for schoolwide assemblies and other meetings. Inside, classrooms line the straight and sparse halls, and are typically filled with 50 or 60 uniformed students and their instructor.
Most instruction we saw consisted of teacher lectures, with only a rare interruption by a question. If students had questions, they might speak to the teacher after class. There is considerable interest in using computers, although we saw few. The one computer laboratory we entered was equipped with about 50 computers for 3,000 students, but at the time only teachers were in the room.

As observed by us, discipline problems were infrequent, and great respect for teachers was evident. Students bowed, as is the custom, to teachers when passing in the halls, and appeared hesitant to enter faculty offices. We learned that discipline cases are generally referred to the student's homeroom teacher, who then talks with the student and his or her family. In addition to administering discipline, which may infrequently include corporal punishment, homeroom teachers offer counseling, help students with college applications, and maintain contact with parents.

In years past, we were told, when teachers informed parents of students who were discipline problems, parents responded by sending the teacher either a small amount of rice to pardon their child's inappropriate behavior, or a switch for the teacher to help raise the child properly. Today, there is apparently little contact between classroom teachers and parents.

One Teacher's Day
One of the teachers we met at Sang Mun High School was a Korean-American from Maryland who teaches conversational English. As he explained, students are rarely assigned written work either in class or as homework. His regular workload consists of five classes that meet four times each week, with an additional 20 classes that meet once a week. With a typical class size of 50 or more students, this teacher would have 1,000 papers to review weekly. He, of course, could not correct them and handle all his other responsibilities.
This teacher's work day extends from 7:30 a.m. to about five in the afternoon, with an additional half-day on Saturday. Although a relatively long day by American standards, it leaves the teacher with considerable free time and few responsibilities other than teaching. While he reported that teachers' salaries are relatively high for Korean society, we learned that over the past year or two, teachers throughout the country have expressed dissatisfaction with their pay.

This teacher confessed that he did not know if his students were learning English or not. There are no failing grades, but there are remedial classes, and students may attend "supplemental education centers" if they or their parents feel there is a need. Students find out about their progress when they take achievement tests for entering college.

Regarding instructional methods, this teacher has tried small group and other non-traditional approaches to teaching, but felt his students did not respond well, being unfamiliar with such methods and uncertain about how they were expected to perform. He therefore returned to lecturing, which he does attempt to break up with frequent questions.

His many students seem amazingly cooperative, good natured, and enthusiastic. A lively question and answer session took place during our visit. As one might expect, students were most aware of international sports and celebrity figures. However, when asked what came to mind first when they thought of the United States, many answered "freedom" or "the Statue of Liberty." But they also asked about drugs, and if it was true that police patrolled in American high schools.

Visiting an Elementary School
We also visited an elementary school with 700 students in grades one through six. Located in Chuncheon, a "smalquot; city of 200,000 northeast of Seoul, the school had the familiar large bare playground and meeting space, along with typical class sizes of approximately 50 students.
In contrast to the high schools we saw, this school's halls were decorated with bulletin board displays, banners, photographs, trophy cases, historical exhibits, and examples of student work. Similarly, the classrooms in this worn but well-kept building were covered with displays of children's work. The school is famous for its speed skaters, and many graduates who have gained prominence in sports have given their trophies to the school to encourage achievement by today's students.

This school's music room has more than 50 violins set out for student use in a challenging classical music program. Another room is devoted to traditional Korean music, and is stocked with stringed and percussion instruments. Laboratory sciences begin in the second grade, and the school's science laboratory has several student work stations. A large computer lab is available for classes, and new computers with Pentiumª processors had just arrived to replace the current machines.

The school library, according to the principal, needs more books, given the size of the student body. He suggested, however, that this school was fairly representative of Korean elementary schools, except for its well-equipped television studio, which students use to produce school programs.

School tradition and achievement is very important to the principal here and in other schools. One high school represented its goals with a large stone marker engraved with the motto "Diligence and Wisdom." Here, two prominent statues adorn the school grounds. One portrays a young student standing and looking intently into the eyes of a seated female teacher. The other is of Admiral Sun-shin Yi, the heroic 16th century warrior who designed and built a fleet of iron-plated "turtle boats" used to defeat a Japanese invasion. In the principal's office, one wall has photographs and statements noting the qualifications of the school staff. The entrance to the school is lined with pictures of past principals, and the large motto, "Teachers create the future."

Social Studies and the Curriculum
Social studies education begins in grades one and two with a course combined with science and titled "Intelligent Life." During their 34 weeks of schooling, grade one students receive 120 hours, and grade two students 136 hours, of this instruction. In grades three and four, students receive 102 hours of social studies instruction, and in grades five and six, 136 hours. At the middle school level, grade seven students have 102 hours, and eighth and ninth graders 136 hours, of social studies instruction.
In high school, first year students take a program of required courses. By their second year, students can select among three tracks: humanities and social sciences, a natural science track, and a vocational track. However, this is currently undergoing review and is likely to change. The social studies track includes courses in Korean history, politics, economics, society and culture, world history, world geography, and social studies.

Korea has a national curriculum developed and monitored by the Ministry of Education. The curriculum is revised in five to ten year intervals, and implementation of the sixth national curriculum began in 1995. This curriculum seeks to develop democratic citizens with strong moral and civic thinking.

Humanity Education
Recent reform proposals note that Korean schools have focused on intellectual development in such a way that students could not develop the attitudes and abilities needed to become responsible citizens. To solve this problem, a practice-based approach to humanity education has been recommended, with the goals of cultivating etiquette, public order, and democratic citizenship through participation in experiential activities.
Elements of this proposed curriculum will be introduced throughout the school program. The focus in kindergarten through third grade will be on etiquette, attitudes toward observing social rules, and developing a sense of community. In fourth through ninth grade, the focus will be on democratic citizenship, including rules, processes, and reasonable decision making. At the high school level, attention will be on global citizenship, including understanding other cultures and peace education.

A 1995 government report on Korean education, titled "Korea's Vision for the 21st Century," stated that education must encourage students "to be global citizens, which includes openness to diversity, broad perspectives, understanding of the various traditions and cultures of other countries, and sensitivity to environmental issues and conflicts among regions and among races. Accordingly, curriculum should put more emphasis on tolerant and open-minded attitudes toward diversity and differences."4

Looking Toward the Future: Edutopia
Along with their strong beliefs in the family and cultural traditions, Koreans value education, and are willing to make significant personal sacrifices to ensure that their children receive the best available learning opportunities. No nation has a higher degree of enthusiasm for education than Korea, and nowhere are children under more pressure to study. Evidence of significant educational accomplishments, such as diplomas from prestigious colleges and universities, strongly influence a person's acceptability in employment, marriage, and informal interpersonal relations.
According to Moo-Sub Kang, Director General of the Korean Educational Development Institute, control of education is gradually moving from the national Ministry of Education to local and individual schools. However, the issue receiving the most attention is the need for reform of the school system. Many Koreans believe that the mass education that worked in an era of industrialization will not be appropriate for an era of high technology and globalization. In practical terms, large classroom lectures to 50 or 60 students with an emphasis on rote memorization will not produce graduates who possess high levels of creativity and moral sensitivity. And, according to Dr. Kang, those are the attributes "required to sharpen the nation's competitive edge in the coming era."5

In response to a changing society, the Korean government is seeking to establish a new vision for education, which it has labeled "Edutopia." Unveiled by the Presidential Commission on Educational Reform in May 1995, this vision foresees a society of open and lifelong education that provides individuals with equal and easy access to education at any time and place. Further, the Commission feels that education suitable for the 21st century can and will be achieved through the use of technology. The long range goal of the new education system is to raise the quality of education to a level that is excellent by world standards.

Some Tentative Conclusions
Education has made some contributions to the growth of a democratic government in Korea. It has produced trained and hardworking employees who have brought about an economic miracle in the span of one generation. It has reaffirmed traditional values, while also instilling a sense of commitment to modernization, citizenship, and global involvement.
The ambitious and comprehensive reform plan proposed by the Ministry of Education appears to have widespread public and professional support. A broad spectrum of the society recognizes the need for lifelong learning. Many of the reform proposals will have a direct impact on classroom instruction. Fundamental instructional changes should occur in response to the goals of enhancing both creativity and compassion in students.

Most of all, and in contemporary fashion, South Koreans have thoughtfully examined where they are in terms of their educational system, and have decided where they want to go. Given their past achievements, it seems quite reasonable to conclude that they will get there. n

1. For further information about this organization and its programs, contact: The Korea Society, 950 Third Avenue, 8th Floor, New York, NY 10022.
2. The Korean Education System: Background Report (Tentative Draft) to the OECD. (Seoul: Ministry of Education, Korean Educational Development Institute, April 1996), 22.
3. Ibid.
4. Chang-Yoon Choi, "Korea's Vision for the 21st Century," Lecture Materials of the Korean Studies Workshop 1995 (Seoul: Korea University and The Korea Foundation), 3-16.
5. Moo-Sub Kang, "Current Status and Reform of Education in Korea," Lecture Materials of the Korean Studies Workshop '96 (Seoul: Korea University and The Korean Foundation, 1996), 225-244.

General Reference
Education in Korea, 1995-1996 (Seoul: Ministry of Education).

Richard A. Diem is Professor of Education at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Tedd Levy teaches social studies at the Nathan Hale Middle School in Norwalk, Connecticut. Ronald VanSickle is Professor of Social Science Education and Chair of the Department of Social Science Education at the University of Georgia, Athens.