Elementary Moral Education and Social Studies in South Korea

Hang-In Kim, Ho-Bhum Cheong, John D. Hoge, Ronald L. VanSickle, and Young-Seok Kim

Elementary education in Korea is both tax supported and compulsory. It aims to provide a general, rudimentary education necessary for life.

The Seventh Curriculum is a national curriculum that institutes common guidelines for curriculum management in the elementary and secondary schools. The curriculum was introduced in December 1997. Textbooks have been developed based on this curriculum and have been in use since March 2000 in the first and second grade. The third and fourth graders will study new, updated textbooks starting in March 2001; the fifth and sixth graders will begin in March 2002.1

The general subjects of elementary school consist of Korean language, moral education, social studies, mathematics, science, technology and home economics, physical education, music, fine arts, and foreign languages.

The period of the national common basic education is 6 days a week, 34 school weeks each year. Korean students have more than 200 school days in a year because they go to school even on Saturday, while students in the United States have a 180-day school year. In principle, one instructional hour covers 40 minutes for elementary schools. However, the school is entitled to adjust the duration of each instructional hour depending on the weather and seasonal changes, individual school situations, the developmental level of the students, the nature of learning, and so forth.


From Unified to Separate Curriculums

This article focuses on South Korea’s Elementary Moral Education (EME) and Elementary Social Studies (ESS). In 1945, after regaining independence from Japan, South Korea was temporarily governed by the U.S. military. The U.S. military government organized “The Committee for Educational Syllabus Enactment,”2 which specified the contents of teaching. This curriculum focused on the development of basic skills. It adopted distinct subject areas and emphasized patriotism in order to grow beyond the legacy of Japanese colonialism.

Under this unified curriculum, the social studies included the characteristics of moral education in that they emphasized the relation of the individual and the nation, morality, responsibility, civic virtues, and cooperation. In 1955 and 1963, the first and the second national curriculums also integrated moral education into the social studies. In this period, the social studies followed mostly the model of the United States’ democratic citizenship education. In 1973, moral education became a separate subject in the elementary and middle school curriculum. Then, in 1974, high school students started to learn national ethics as moral education. Thus, since 1973, moral education and the social studies have been taught separately in South Korea. Until the present time, moral education has been oriented to character education, ethics education, virtue education, and civic or citizenship education, while the social studies have focused on geography, history, society and culture, and economics. In the Seventh Curriculum, moral education and the social studies are taught as courses of the national common curriculum from the third to tenth grade. For the first and second graders, “right life” as a moral education and “wise life,” an integration of social studies and science, are taught.



The Seventh Curriculum specifies the general purposes of moral education and the social studies for each grade level. Moral education in South Korea generally aims to help students have etiquette and moral norms for living desirable lives as Koreans, to develop the moral judgment needed to solve human problems, to cultivate citizenship and patriotism, and to seek global peace and co-prosperity.3 Elementary Moral Education especially focuses on the practice of basic etiquette and the internalization of moral values. According to Kohlberg’s moral development theory, third to sixth grade students generally are at the level of conventional thinking.4 Therefore, the EME seeks to help students judge moral conflicts on a basic level.

ESS aims to develop basic knowledge about social phenomena; foster inquiry into basic concepts and principles of geography, history, and other social science disciplines; develop comprehensive understanding of many different societies including Korea and other countries; foster creative and rational problem solving for contemporary social problems; and build active participation in the community life. Based on these abilities, it promotes personal development and democratic citizenship to contribute to development of the nation and human society.5 The ultimate goal of ESS is to bring up wise Korean citizens who understand the knowledge of social science and act properly in various social situations. The Seventh Curriculum provides study objectives for three content fields, including geography, history, and general social studies.



Both the EME and the ESS have adopted the ‘expanding environments sequence’ curriculum model. The scope of EME has four components: self-life, family-neighborhood-school life, social life, and national life. The scope of EME is presented in every grade level, third through sixth (Table 1). The contents of third and fourth grade EME emphasize self life and family-neighborhood-school life, while the fifth and sixth grades stress social life and national life. However, each grade level deals with all four components.

The scope of ESS is related to the three major themes of history, geography, and society. The geographic focus of ESS increases from third grade to sixth grade: in third grade, students study Life in our Community (township or county level); in fourth grade, Life in our Region (big city or state level); fifth grade, Life and Culture of our Country (nation), and sixth grade, Our People in the Global Age (Korea and other countries).

Basically, ESS attempts to integrate the contents of geography, history, and other social science disciplines in each grade level. At each grade level, the contents of three areas are equally distributed under three topics: “Human Beings and Space (Geography)”; “Human Beings and Time (History)”; and “Human Beings and Society (General Social Studies).” Study units at each grade are organized around these topics but reflect only one of the topics at a time; hence, each unit contains the separated contents of geography, history, and other social sciences. In appearance, it is integration under topics; but in reality, each field is taught with few connections to other fields.



Standardized testing programs for EME and ESS do not exist in South Korea. However, the Korea Institute of Curriculum and Evaluation (KICE), local ministries of education, and individual researchers and teachers have developed many test instruments and items. Recently, performance assessment has become more popular because it compensates for the disadvantages of traditional paper tests. The introduction of performance assessment makes it possible to evaluate comprehensive aspects of learning, including not only the cognitive domain but also skills and the affective domain. However, this is only beginning, and many teachers reveal limited understanding of performance assessment.


Curriculum and Text Development

The major decisions about the Seventh Curriculum were made by educational experts including college professors, scholars, researchers, and some teachers. A college professor led the curriculum development committee for EME and ESS. The committee examined the draft for final consideration. The committee was comprised of Ministry of Education officers, college professors, teachers, and other moral education or social studies experts.

Most members of the elementary curriculum development committee majored in moral education and social studies education; a few social scientists, geographers, and historians were included. On the other hand, many social scientists participated in the development of the secondary social studies curriculum. This is because elementary areas of study tend to integrate contents around life problems, while the individual disciplines are emphasized in the higher grades.

The Ministry of Education has a monopoly on the publication of textbooks (except, in the fourth grade, the ESS textbook for the first semester is produced and published by local ministries of education at the city or province level). This means that there exists only one version of the EME and ESS textbook in Korea. Teachers and schools have no opportunity to select other textbooks. Textbooks are developed on the basis of guidelines specified in the national curriculum. Textbook developers are mostly college professors and teachers. They usually sit together to work on the organization of the content. Then, each member writes his or her own assigned part.


Concluding Reflections

South Korea is continuing to reform its education system. For example, most elementary classrooms are equipped with multimedia facilities including PCs, TVs, and VCRs. However, education reform has proven more difficult than expected. Today, the demands of students and parents are becoming stronger and more frequent. Teachers are asked to use more student-centered instructional methods in their classrooms. The thrust of the present efforts is aimed at respecting students’ individual differences.

Moral education and social studies are not exempted from these educational reforms. The contents of both curriculums have changed to match society’s globalization. For example, moral education now includes a focus on the development of a peaceful and prosperous global society. Social studies also addresses the need for a healthy global environment and a just global economy. Some critics believe that the expanding environmental approach needs to be changed to an issue-centered approach. Today, even first or second grade students can get in touch with a world of information on the Internet. However, the present expanding environmental scope and sequence fails to take advantage of this new technology. Moral education has also been criticized for its old-fashioned expanding environmental approach as taught by teachers and scholars.6 The issued-centered approach is viewed as an alternative that encourages students to become involved in the discussion of real world events. These reforms are made more difficult because teachers still use primarily indoctrination, reading from a textbook, inculcation, and other directive teaching methods as opposed to more constructive methods such as discussion, role-playing, and inquiry.



1. Ministry of Education, Education of South Korea (November 10, 2000). (www.moe.go.kr).

2. S. Chung, “A Reflection on the History of Moral and Ethics Education in South Korea,” Moral and Ethic Education 20 (2000): 19-41.

3. Ministry of Education, The Explanation of National Curriculum for Elementary Schools (Seoul: Ministry of Education, 1999),193.

4. L. Kohlberg, “Stages of Moral Development as a Basis for Moral Education,” in C. Beck, B. Critterdon, and E. Sullivan, eds., Moral Education (Toronto: Universtiy of Toronto Press, 1970).

5. Ministry of Education, National Curriculum for Elementary Schools (Seoul: Ministry of Education, 1998).

6. Chung, 2000.

Hang-In Kim is a doctoral candidate at the University of Georgia. Ho-Bhum Cheong is a professor at Chinju National University of Education, South Korea. John D. Hoge is an associate professor and Ronald L. VanSickle is a professor at the University of Georgia. Young-Seog Kim is an assistant professor at Gyungsang National University, South Korea.

Table 1. Contents of the Elementary Moral Education Curriculum (Grades 3 through 6). (Ministry of Education, 1999.)


Grade Focus of study as applied to that grade


Family, Neighborhood and School

Larger Society



Cleanness, Orderliness,
Responsibility, Cherishing goods

Filial piety, Brotherhood, Courtesy, Keeping promises

Observing traffic rules, Environmental preservation

Love for nation, Understanding the division of South and North Korea


Good manners, Independent
thinking and practice, Cherishing time

Pro-social behavior, Concession, Courtesy for kinship, Friendship

Etiquette in public, Fairness

Preservation of cultural inheritance, Sense of national security


Honest life,

Respect, Neighborhood

Respect for other’s rights and interests, Pursuit of the public interest, Observing democratic procedure

Cooperation for national development, Peaceful unification of South and North Korea, Exchange of valuable international culture


Diligence, Cherishing life

Love and tolerance, Cooperation for school and local development

Observing the law, Caring and service for others, Preservation of natural resources

Future picture of a unified nation, Wills for unification, Understanding and love for overseas countrymen, Peaceful global society, Human prosperity