During the more than two years I served as South Korea’s minister of education, science, and technology, I found myself frequently astonished by the outside world’s lavish praise for our education system. President Barack Obama has often noted in speeches the enthusiasm of Korean parents for their children’s education, the high quality of Korean teachers, the number of learning hours that Korean students spend, and the outstanding educational achievements these have produced; for example, top rankings in international academic-achievement tests, and low rates of school dropouts and juvenile delinquency. As reported, in particular, Korean students ranked first in reading, first in math, and third in science in the Program for International Student Assessment among the 30 member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that participated.
While many may look with envy at these achievements, I could not conceal my bewilderment at the fact that, within Korea, that same education system has been called the nation’s biggest problem.
The criticism has much to do with students’ quest to attend prestigious colleges and universities. The most important factor in student selection has been the College Scholastic Ability Test (Korea’s equivalent of the sat). After that come high school grades, and if a determination cannot be made on that basis, the university administers an essay-based exam or something similar and selects the students with the highest scores.
The process has led aspiring entrants and their parents to devote themselves to a style of examination preparation centered around memorization. Parents also believe that they cannot rely on public education alone to get their children into the desired colleges, leading to an enormous dependence on private education.
While Korea’s students excel at learning, they believe its purpose lies not in self-development based on personal interest or motivation, but in entrance into a highly ranked university. Students have no time to ponder the fundamental question of “What do I need to learn, and why?” They simply need to prepare for the test by learning the most-effective methods for digesting tremendous quantities of material and committing more to memory than others do.
Based on all this, the current administration of President Lee Myung-bak has focused its policy efforts on creating the type of education in which creativity is emphasized over rote learning, diversity over uniformity, and self-determined education over other-determined education.
While Korea's students excel at learning, they believe its purpose lies not in self-development based on personal interest or motivation, but in entrance into a highly ranked university."
In an effort to promote creativity, the administration has worked over the past two years to reduce the amount of material students are required to study and to reorganize educational programs so students are able to lead more-varied academic lives.
To ensure diversity in education, the administration has created “garden schools” and boarding-style high schools in agricultural communities. These are designed to encourage rural students to stay in their communities instead of moving to urban areas for educational opportunities. The president’s administration has also created a range of schools at the high school level that allow students to gain employment immediately upon graduation and enter into university later. The administration has promised to increase the number of these types of schools in the future.
Third, the government has committed to developing policies to strengthen public education to reduce Koreans’ dependency on private education. It has developed more-stringent assessments of student achievement and teacher competency. For schools that ranked low in these assessments, the Lee administration has added “honor teachers,” expanded mentoring programs for students, and provided financial support for the purchase of new educational equipment.
Finally, but most crucially, the government has instituted a college-entrance-officer system so that postsecondary admissions depend not just on the rote-learning-centered entrance exams, but also consider factors such as individual students’ talents, creativity, and growth potential. The government is working to enable this system to take root in the university community at a graduated but nonetheless rapid rate, and the University Presidents’ Association of Korea is encouraging colleges and universities to adopt this system voluntarily. I was committed to ensuring the implementation of this system from the first year of my ministerial term, and I am happy to say that it has been gaining momentum in recent years.
Our government recognizes teachers as our most valuable human resource and has dedicated massive funding to their professional development. To this end, we have opened residential teacher-training centers in school districts across Korea, where teachers can work on improving their English proficiency and refining their pedagogical skills to incorporate tasks that foster creativity and innovation among students. In addition, the government rewards teachers for pursuing graduate degrees and offers opportunities for teachers to take fully funded sabbaticals to study abroad.
These examples represent but a small portion of the educational reforms currently under way in South Korea. The common thread that runs through all of these reforms is the goal of developing an education system that values both creativity and the acquisition of necessary knowledge and skills. Between the pain of memorizing and the pleasure of creative expression, there needs to be a balance, both to develop the full potential of our students and to meet the nation’s need for a skilled workforce and a well-educated citizenry. The success of these reforms hinges, of course, on how seriously these issues are considered, how carefully educators craft their policies and practices, and how genuinely they are perceived by those directly involved in education.
This essay was adapted from a speech Byong-man Ahn gave at the Harry S. Truman Conference at the University of Missouri, in Columbia, in August 2011.