Doduk Kyoyuk Moral Education in South Korea and Georgia 

Hang-In Kim

Children’s moral learning, always a concern among educators, has again become a hot topic in the popular press.1 Parents, politicians, and the public are wondering about children’s values, morality, and character development following outbreaks of school violence and other problems in modern post-industrial nations such as South Korea and the United States. Many parents and teachers are asking whether schools have over-emphasized the competitive acquisition of knowledge at the expense of nurturing more caring, cooperative attitudes and the civic tolerance and understanding that lie at the heart of a healthy society.

In this article, I describe South Korea’s centralized, national approach to character education (doduk kyoyuk in Korean) in elementary school and compare it with that of the U.S. state of Georgia, which has a legislatively mandated character education initiative. (I look specifically at one school, Friendship Elementary School, in Hall County, Georgia.) I highlight similarities and differences in the methods and content of these programs and conclude with some tentative recommendations for the future of this important area of the curriculum.


Centralized versus Decentralized Educational Systems

South Korea has a centralized educational system that gives officials and national politicians great control over many facets of K-12 schooling. The Ministry of Education has responsibility over all educational policies and school funds. The ministry decides the budget for education and distributes it to local authorities, which then disburse funds to the individual schools. Textbooks are developed by the ministry, and national exams are correlated to the nationally mandated curriculum.

Conversely, the United States’ educational system is decentralized, and individual states have primary control over educational policy. The federal government plays only a limited role in areas such as supporting educational research, collecting education statistics, and ensuring that all citizens have an opportunity to be educated. Federal funds, such as Title I, are usually a minor part of a school district’s budget. State boards of education function in coordination with state legislatures to implement a comprehensive curriculum, establish testing requirements, distribute state and federal funds, and regulate the teaching profession. State boards of education (with members that are elected by the public in most states) exercise varying levels of management and control over different aspects of schooling, from the building of new schools to the administration of teachers’ retirement programs. Local school districts often exercise a large amount of discretion in the provision of education. However, when the state legislature passes laws that mandate particular programs, such as a character education curriculum, then local school boards follow that mandate.


Character Education in South Korea

In the Republic of South Korea, there is a specific moral education curriculum strand or subject area. In the 1st through the 10th grade, students are obligated to study Right Life and Moral Education. The implementation of this curriculum is carried out through the government’s publication of moral education textbooks. The textbooks Right Life (for 1st and 2nd graders) and Moral Education (for students in the 3rd through the 6th grade) are supplemented by a work book, The Guide of Life, a book of stories with morals, which is used mostly with parents at home.2 Most teachers use only the two textbooks in the class. First and 2nd grade students study Right Life for two hours a week while 3rd and 6th grade students study Moral Education for one hour a week.

The history of Korean moral education is a long one, spanning more than 5,000 years. Moral education usually involves imitating the virtues and behavior of a role model, hearing stories told by senior citizens, and practicing sincere self-discipline. In 1954, the Korean Ministry of Education enacted moral education as a distinct school subject, and the curriculum has changed seven times since then. In the 1980s, a cognitive developmental approach was adopted that used discussions structured on Lawrence Kohlberg’s moral dilemmas concepts.3 Recently, however, the character education movement (which teaches personal virtues) has been highlighted in Korean moral education. The current Korean elementary moral education curriculum draws on both approaches; it attempts to integrate cognitive, affective, and behavioral aspects of moral education.

Generally speaking, Korean elementary teachers use two main teaching strategies: moral socialization and moral discussion. For lower grade students, teachers provide a moral socialization approach that emphasizes basic moral habits, courtesy, and the practice of moral norms through storytelling and modeling. For upper grade students, teachers also use moral discussion and role playing (up to about 25% of the time).


Character Education in Georgia

The character education curriculum of the state of Georgia was initiated in 1991 with the passage of a state law that established a set of broad core values and authorized local school districts to offer instruction on those values. Although the original law did not delineate specific curriculum or evaluation, it was assumed that schools would integrate the teaching of these core values into the entire school day. Follow-up legislation in 1998 restated these goals, but again refrained from voicing specifics. Some schools have adopted mandatory character education programs that include evaluation.

An example of a character education program that uses moral socialization is that of Friendship Elementary School in Hall County, Georgia. The goal of its program is to introduce students to basic positive character qualities that enhance character development and to reinforce values that are often being taught in the home. The character education program emphasizes 36 values and features one every week. For example, “Respect for Adults” is taught to students during the fourth week in August, with four lessons specified:

1. Teachers write the character quality and definition on the board. Students write it down as part of journal time or morning handwriting time. Before the first period, they read it aloud and discuss its meaning.

2. Students discuss the way classmates and school personnel have demonstrated this quality. They also discuss the ways their family members may have demonstrated this quality. Teachers have students generate a list of how they can demonstrate this character at home and school.

3. Students read a story, prepared ahead of time, which relates this quality to a person (teacher, student, or staff member) in the school. Using prepared questions, teachers lead a discussion about the story.

4. Teachers read a trade book related to the character trait, and students answer questions and discuss related issues.

The character education manual, developed by the school counselor and teachers, provides an interdisciplinary curriculum that includes related books and activities for applying the character trait in math, science, social studies, reading /literature, writing, and other subject area classes. There is a “character education word” for every week of the year (table 1).


Similarities and Differences

There are similarities in government policies about moral education in South Korea and Georgia. For example, both the South Korea Ministry of Education4 and the Georgia State Board of Education5 have adopted core values for character education (table 2).

There are also similarities in the implementation of character education. For example, the Friendship Elementary character education program includes a coupon system: teachers can give “good character tickets” to students who demonstrate good behavior. The South Korean moral education program also has a similar sticker system for 1st and 2nd grade students. If a student shows caring or kindness to other students, the student can detach a sticker from the textbook and place it on his or her character chart in the classroom. Another similarity is the integration of character education across the curriculum. At Friendship Elementary School, lessons are suggested for and trade book are used across the subject areas. In South Korea, the Moral Education curriculum emphasizes that it is important to consider the school as the moral community and to adopt school values, make democratic rules, and have a student association participate in decisions about school rules.

There are interesting differences in the lists of core values. Values unique to the curriculum in South Korea include filial piety, sense of community, and sense of national security. A partial explanation for this difference is that Korean social values have their roots in Confucian teachings, which emphasize civic duty and respect of elders. Also, Korea maintains, in many regions, a traditional agricultural family culture that emphasizes filial piety. Emphasizing a “sense of national security” may arise out of the military tension between South Korea and North Korea that has existed since the country was divided in 1945.

In contrast core values in the Georgian curriculum include liberty, equality, and freedom. These values are reflections of the 1776 Declaration of Independence (Georgia was one of the original thirteen states in rebellion) as well as the goals of the civil rights struggle of the 20th century (which were a source of protest and conflict in Georgia). These values are similar to the concern for “justice” emphasized by Kohlberg.

The greatest difference between Korea and the United States is at the level of national policy and administration. In South Korea, Moral Education is a formal subject and South Koreans generally agree on the core values for their children. In the United States, there is no formal national character education curriculum, and schools are left to their own devices to include character education in the schooling day. Educators in many places often seem reluctant to teach specific values to their students. In American schools, teaching “values” as a separate subject can be criticized as a “covert” attempt to teach a particular religious view. Nickell and Field have described the history of the character education debate in America—who should teach values and morals to the nation’s children, when they should be taught, and what should be taught.6 It makes sense that character education might be a sensitive issue in a multicultural society that places an emphasis on freedom of belief. Still, as A. G. Larkins stated, “Given that children often spend more of their waking hours with teachers than with parents, it is important that character education initiated in the home be reinforced in the school.”7


Cultural Exchange?

To be sure, the character education programs of South Korea and Georgia both have the same mission: to assist parents in raising “good children” and to produce responsible citizens. In my opinion, each program could borrow something from the other at two
levels. First, in terms of content, South Korean moral education could include more democratic values, like equality and freedom, to help ensure the development of a more democratic and humanistic society. Georgia could benefit by adding more affective values like love for school and sense of community, which are featured in South Korea curriculum. This might help counter the excessive individualism that some scholars believe lies at the root of many American social problems.

Second, in the implementation of character education, South Korea could adopt a more interdisciplinary approach, which could relate character teaching to other subjects. Such a change might help values permeate throughout a students’ life. However, this interdisciplinary approach need not replace the existing moral education curriculum of South Korea; it could be an enhancement.8 Georgia might consider implementing special classes for character or moral education. This might address a problem described by Cunningham, who says that “making the teaching of values every teacher’s business has the danger of making it no teacher’s business.”9 Such courses could be rigorously evaluated and heavily researched by scholars of character and moral education. Through such concerted efforts, the United States might progress toward more cohesive character education.



1. To get a sense of the scholarly effort on this topic, I performed a word search on the ERIC database. Between 1980 and 1999, there were 203 articles that had “moral education” in the title or abstract, and 322 articles that had “character education” in the title or abstract. There was probably some overlap in these two groups. (

2. Right Life (Seoul, South Korea: Ministry of Education of South Korea, 1999). See also Moral Education and The Guide of Life.

3. Lawrence Kohlberg, The Philosophy of Moral Development (New York: Harper & Row, 1981).

4. National Curriculum for Elementary Schools (Seoul, South Korea: Ministry of Education of South Korea, 1999). See also Teacher’s Guide on First Grade Moral Education.

5. List of Core Values (Atlanta, GA: Georgia State Board of Education, 1991). See also Friendship Elementary Kids with Character (Athens, GA: Friendship Elementary School, 1991).

6. Pat Nickell and Sherry Field, Character Education and Schools: Lessons Learned from the Past (Montreal, Canada: Society for the Study of Curriculum History, 1999).

7. A. G. Larkins, “Should We Teach Values? Which Ones? How?” Social Studies & the Young Learner 10, no. 1 (September/October 1997): 30-32.

8. Kwang-Sam Jung, Nan-Sim Cho, Woo-Gyu Cha, Byung-Yul Yu, Kwyun-Sang Ryu, and Hang-In Kim, The Explanation of National Curriculum for Elementary Schools (Seoul, South Korea: Ministry of Education of South Korea, 1999); Hang-In Kim et al., Moral Education in the World (Seoul, South Korea: Education & Science Publishing Company, 1998).

9. Craig A. Cunningham, “A Certain and Reasoned Art: The Rise and Fall of Character. Education in America.” Thesis, University of Chicago (1992). Available online at

10. I wish to thank Dr. John D. Hoge and Dr. Sherry L. Field for their guidance and assistance in this research.

About the Author

Hang-In Kim is a doctoral student in the Department of Social Science Education at the University of Georgia. He was an elementary teacher in Seoul, South Korea. He has taken part in the Korean National Curriculum Project and in writing a textbook and teacher’s guide book for elementary moral education. He is a co-author of Moral Education in the World (Seoul, South Korea: Education & Science Publishing Company, 1998, in Korean).