Sunday, January 04, 2015

the hagweon charlatan

[I'm as much a slave of my site-traffic data as the next blogger, and I couldn't help noticing that this post is receiving a hell of a lot more attention than most of my posts do. Is it because a David has risen up to challenge a Goliath? Is it because I finally wrote about something of relevance to a large fraction of the expat EFL-teaching community (which makes no sense, as I've written plenty about EFL teaching before now)? I have no clue. In any event, I wanted to say "Thank you" to all you good folks who are visiting, whether you agree or disagree with my post. Don't be shy: feel free to leave a comment, but please follow the comment-policy directives posted above the comment window.

NB: I've stuck a rather substantial addendum to the end of this post to address a few questions that came at me from Twitter.

For several weeks, on my Twitter feed, one particular Wall Street Journal article from 2013, about a "rock-star teacher" named Kim Ki-hoon, kept popping up. According to the article, Kim (whom I'd never heard of until the Twitter burblings) is one of the most famous hagweon (cram-school) teachers in South Korea. He works 60 hours a week, publishes a pile of books, produces a mass of videos, and rakes in about $4 million a year—an income that the article likens to the salary of an American professional athlete (a lower-tier pro athlete, it should be said). Most of Kim's videos are unavailable to the general public: they're pay-per-view, which is one reason why the man is so rich.

I got curious about Kim after hearing about him, so I hunted around on YouTube for some of his free-to-the-public videos. Among the Kim-related vids I found is this one, from a CBS News broadcast, which was given the YouTube title "Millionaire South Korean Teacher Makes Surprising Admission." The "admission" in question is that Kim professes not to be proud of his success. When asked why, he offers a revealing response: "The other side of coin [sic] is the inefficiency of Korean education."

Kim is, in my not-so-humble opinion, part of the inefficiency problem. On some level, perhaps, he recognizes his complicity in a system that, while seemingly built on a strongly capitalistic model and providing a quality product (I can only assume this is why the conservative-leaning Wall Street Journal praises Kim and offers up the Korean system as an example for the US to imitate), is actually geared toward generating income for those best at marketing themselves as they tout ersatz "methods" for learning English. The above-linked CBS video quotes one of Kim's students, who says he was "inspired" by Kim's lectures. Kim's on-camera personality does seem fairly affable, if a tad too nerdy and buttoned-down for American tastes, but I suspect that the student in question was already one with high aptitude (his English was quite good), who would have been just as inspired by other teachers.*

It's hard to see what, exactly, makes Kim Ki-hoon so special. As with most Koreans who "teach" English, Kim's lectures are at least 95% in Korean: he's teaching about English without bothering to get his students speaking in English. Because his presentations are lectures (which I don't really consider a form of teaching), he is doing nothing to check his thousands of students' progress. He is, at heart, a one-man publishing house, churning out content in a less interactive, for-profit version of the Khan Academy. Ultimately, there is nothing revolutionary about what Kim is doing. His celebrity is the product of a natural ratcheting effect thanks to early effective marketing leading to word of mouth, and word of mouth propelling later marketing. His fame arises from a feedback loop, and at some point it would be nice for someone to point out—as I'm feebly trying to do—that the emperor has no clothes.

Kim's a funny guy, and without a doubt he's a very hard worker. I have no questions at all about the man's industriousness, nor do I begrudge him his millions of dollars, which are the fruit of his hard work. But the "hard work" in question has little to nothing to do with actual English education, and I fail to see how Kim, or the hagweon infrastructure of which he is a part, is providing anything other than the pedagogical equivalent of snake oil to the easily duped Korean masses. I'd love to take a closer look at Kim's students. How many actually improve under his impersonal tutelage?

I noticed something else while watching the CBS video: Kim's English really isn't that great. The Western interviewer must have sensed this, because he spoke very slowly and carefully to Kim. At no point do we see Kim speaking English at length, and I have a feeling that Kim probably hasn't spent much time writing at length in English, either. If he does have something out in English, some textbook or research paper, it's a good bet that that literature underwent a gauntlet of proofreading and editing by a stable of native English-speakers before it ever saw the light of day as a published work. I'd be curious to see what sort of essay Kim could produce in an actual testing environment. You may have noticed that, in the CBS video, he made the classic rookie Korean mistake of dropping a definite article ("the other side of coin"), and in the photograph at the top of this blog post, you can see that, on Kim's blackboard, the word "sentence" is spelled incorrectly: an embarrassing gaffe that's easily caught by anyone with any real competence in English, but which will go largely unnoticed by Kim's gullible target audience.

Such stupid mistakes in spelling and grammar suck the legitimacy out of Kim as an authority on English. If two mistakes of this sort are so easy to find, there are doubtless thousands more such mistakes blighting his entire career as a "teacher" of English. Conclusion: the man is a fake—a charlatan, an impostor. Oh, sure, he works very hard, and his income is the result of his labor... but what he's producing is of very little use to students who might one day find themselves in an actual anglophone environment.

Kim does nothing but lecture; he demands nothing of his students except their passivity. In this respect, his style is perfectly Korean, and perfectly incarnates everything that is wrong with the Korean approach to foreign language. I haven't seen a single video yet in which Kim brings a set of low-level students in front of the camera and gets them to try to say anything in English. His teaching method (if "method" is the right word for what Kim does) is the antithesis of the doctrine I've been preaching on this blog for a long time: a student-centered, task-oriented approach to language that gets the students engaged in speaking and writing right away, with little to no reliance on the mother tongue.

The inefficiencies that Kim hinted at won't go away until people like Kim and his hagweon cohort unyoke themselves from the current teacher-centered, passivity-driven paradigm and actually push their students to perform linguistically in pressure situations. Of course, this also requires a fundamental change in Korean culture: the culture itself is premised upon a trickle-down social hierarchy that makes the sort of free interaction I'm talking about nearly impossible to implement. Change might eventually come; when it does, it will likely be the result of a completely unexpected catalyst (e.g., a popular Korean movie that highlights crucial flaws in Korean culture). Meanwhile, those of us who resist the system from within can only grit our teeth at the existence of the Kim Ki-hoons of the world and labor quietly to improve the pedagogical situation—lesson by lesson, and student by student.


ADDENDUM: On Twitter, David Harbinson retweeted my announcement of this post, but also remarked: "[A]n interesting post, although I'm not sure criticizing the man's English is constructive." My response: Why not? Am I somehow insulting Kim by observing that he's not a fully competent English speaker? I'm simply stating a fact, and one that's relevant to the question of whether Kim has the competence to pass himself off as an authority in EFL.

When we speak of destructive critiques, we're usually implying that such critiques add an unnecessarily negative emotional component to an otherwise detached assessment. In other words, destructive critiques are destructive because they hurt without providing any positive solutions. I would disagree that that's what I've done in this case. Kim's competence as an English teacher is relevant to the question of whether he's the best teacher to be teaching my child. After all, if I'm going to have my child tutored in math or French or whatever, I'm going to try to find the best tutor possible, am I not?

Before we go any further, we should parse the question of what "best tutor" actually means. Does it mean, in the case of, say, an English or math teacher, that the teacher must be an absolute expert in all areas of the subject in question? The answer to this is: obviously not. A couple jobs ago, I myself taught math up to geometry to students ranging in age from grade school through high school, despite remembering almost no math beyond geometry. I didn't need to know the minutiae of calculus to be able to teach either "2 + 2" or the basics of negative numbers competently.

By the same logic, I freely grant that a language teacher doesn't have to have total mastery of the language s/he is teaching in order to be able to teach it well. Mastery of the language and mastery of pedagogical skills are two different, and only distantly related, animals—although a person's incompetence in the subject matter should be automatic grounds for questioning that person's competence as a teacher. For example—and I don't mean to be insulting—I wouldn't want most Korean elementary-school-level English teachers to teach my kids proper English pronunciation: too few of those English teachers speak with native accents. (Kim Ki-hoon also has a rather strong Korean accent.)

But let's look at this problem from a somewhat different angle. Let's say that I have to choose between English Tutor A and English Tutor B, both of whom are equally good, pedagogically speaking, but one of whom is significantly better in terms of her mastery of English. The choice here should be obvious even to an idiot: if I want the best tutoring my money can buy, I'm going to go with the tutor whose English is better. Kim fails this metric: it's evident, from the state of his English, that more competent English teachers exist. I don't see that Kim gets a pass either in terms of his English abilities or in terms of his abilities as a teacher, given the unrepentantly Korean methods he employs (and which I addressed above).

The exchange on Twitter between me and David Harbinson went thus:

DAVID: [A]n interesting post, although I'm not sure criticizing the man's English is constructive.

ME: Maybe so, but I wouldn't want my daughter learning math from a teacher who hadn't mastered it.

DAVID: ...which means that only those who have mastered the language have the right to teach it?

ME: Only those who have mastered the language have the right to pass themselves off as having done so, yes.

DAVID: I wasn't aware that's what he was doing. Does he claim to speak 'perfect' English and that's why students should go to him?

As I hope I made clear above, I haven't committed the Kenobi fallacy: I wasn't speaking in absolutes, like a Sith, and I'm open to the possibility of a linguistically less-competent person being a perfectly competent tutor. But this wasn't my point. My point is that Kim Ki-hoon has set himself up as an authority with the competence to teach students very high-level English skills, up to and including the skills needed to whip the TOEIC exam (see here if you doubt me). As a [hypothetical] parent looking to get the best possible tutoring for my child, I'm going to want a teacher whose English is fluent enough to handle a test that demands a fairly high level of fluency if one is to do well on it. Kim has set himself up as just such an authority, and he obviously isn't turning students away because he's been publicly modest about his own English abilities. You don't drive business to yourself by being modest: you do it by marketing yourself as the best alternative out there—by marketing yourself as an authority on English. That, I think, is where Kim defrauds himself.

Does Kim actually have the skills to help a student get, say, a 5 on a TOEFL Independent Writing essay? I honestly question whether Kim himself could turn in 5-level work. What a lot of these celebrity instructors do, in Korea, is casually conflate test-taking competence with linguistic competence, a point recently made by commenter James on Twitter. I've seen Korean TOEFL manuals that, instead of teaching students the basics of writing five-paragraph essays the Western way, concentrate instead on prepping students to give parroted answers to the 50 topics most likely to appear on any given TOEFL exam. Instead of teaching students how to think in a language, these "teachers" teach students how to memorize strings of words and ideas in the hopes that this formula will lead to high scores.

From my perch as a former ETS TOEFL essay rater, I can say with assurance that most East Asian students fail to game the test, so if gaming the test is what Kim is trying to do (and I don't know that he is), then he's going to have to work harder. One can sense almost immediately, within the first sentence or two, whether the essay-writer is from East Asia or from Western Europe. In almost every case, the Western European writers are more competent, probably because they have a native advantage, given the similarities (cultural, linguistic, idiomatic, etc.) that bind European languages together. This advantage may be unfair from a certain perspective, but that issue is beyond the scope of this blog post.

Slight digression: East Asians who take the TOEFL rarely score above a 3, which indicates minimal competence in writing. A 5 is earned when one's English is nearly perfect, i.e., nearly native-fluent. In a 300-word essay, there should be almost no errors at the 5 level. Thoughts flow rationally and are connected smoothly; the argument, if there is one, should progress logically, without too many hidden assumptions bogging the train of thought down. A 4 is very close to a 5, and we raters were trained to be stingy about giving 5s. The difference between a 4 and a 5 is the presence of a few more errors—enough to cause the rater a twinge when reading the essay, but not enough to distract the reader's attention from the essay's overall flow. A 3 indicates that an argument, or some sort of logic or narrative, is visible, but that the reader is tripping up over poor grammar, ideas that are connected awkwardly, and other issues that have begun to affect both one's appreciation and one's ability to comprehend the writer's intentions. A 2 is awarded to writing that is even more difficult to comprehend, and a 1 goes to absolutely incomprehensible gibberish. Surprisingly, there were few 1s in my experience: most writers were in the 2 to 4 range. (A zero is given only to writers who have written literally nothing, or almost nothing, in the blank provided for their essays.)

Would I trust Kim Ki-hoon to give my kid the best possible English tutoring? No, I'm afraid I wouldn't. I don't see that his own English is good enough to take my child up to the highest levels of testing or conversational competence (although he might be good at teaching "tricks" for getting a slightly better score on the TOEFL or TOEIC); I don't see that his teaching methods actually give kids the opportunity to learn English through actually using English, and this makes me question whether he's actually teaching anything.

As I've argued on this blog, I'm not completely against the use of the student's native language in certain cases. I've used Korean in class before, and will likely use it again. But I don't lecture in Korean (partly because my Korean simply isn't good enough for me to speak at length), nor do I spend all day translating English into Korean, nor do I waste time talking about English instead of talking in English, and I certainly don't give presentations about English that are over 95% in Korean.** Do I think Kim's English ability is relevant to the discussion? Yes, I do: he purports to teach kids mastery of high-level skills for difficult exams like TOEFL and TOEIC, so his English had better be spot-on. From what I've seen, it isn't.

Let's go back to the math example I'd mentioned earlier. If my child needs help in algebra, I don't need a tutor who's a whiz in calculus: I need someone who's both competent in algebra and a good teacher, i.e., someone able to communicate concepts and skills. But what if my college kid needs help in calculus because he's studying physics? The question of how competent a potential tutor is in high-level math suddenly becomes quite relevant. If Kim Ki-hoon were confining himself to teaching elementary-school English, then I'd agree with David Harbinson's implication that Kim's own mastery of English isn't relevant. This is most decidedly not what Kim is doing, however: far from confining himself to elementary-level English, he's passing himself off as a TOEIC-level authority. I therefore disagree that my criticism of Kim's English skill is somehow destructive.

I admit, too, that I'm also a bit confused as to why Mr. Harbinson focused on this rather minor aspect of my critique. Certainly there were other, much more provocative, things that I had said that could be interpreted as destructive: I called Kim a fake and a charlatan and an impostor, for example, but I did so because I think I have good reason to. The man is making his money by selling what seems to be the road to English competence, but which is, in fact, nothing more than the usual Korean-style, teacher-centered, passivity-driven methodology that has repeatedly failed to work in the past. The only reassurance I can take from all this is that people like Kim are not forever: they come and they go, like fads. Meanwhile, Korean students will still be stuck at the 3 level on the TOEFL. Kim's own English might net him a 4 on the TOEFL, but if he's capable of a 5, I'll eat my hat.

A CHALLENGE: go on YouTube and find any video of Kim Ki-hoon speaking only in unscripted English for more than three minutes straight. Failing that, find video on YouTube of Kim asking a pair or group of students to come in front of the camera and practice English—nothing but English—for more than three minutes straight (with no Korean-language coaching from Kim). Failing that, find video of interviewed students who say more than that they were "inspired by" Kim or were "satisfied with" his instruction, i.e., videos in which students talk substantively and specifically about what they actually learned during one or more of Kim's lessons (e.g., "I learned about tense control with if-conditional sentences," or "I learned about grammar related to the subjunctive mood," etc.). I bet you won't find any such videos.

*One of the issues that dog me, as a teacher, is the question of how much influence I actually have over the lives of my kids. The super-motivated, super-talented kids who occasionally appear in my classes will get "A"s no matter who their teacher is or how well that teacher teaches because they're predisposed to avidly sucking information out of the class, right down to the marrow. Such kids will always come away inspired or engaged, because that's their natural tendency: it's how they approach life. Meanwhile, the shiftless, lazy, and/or stupid students who populate the far end of the bell curve in my classes will get "F"s no matter who their teacher is, because it's in their nature to be losers in life, despite whatever romantic fantasies we teachers might harbor regarding our ability to inspire all kids to greatness.

So over whom do I have any real influence? At best, it would seem that the only students I can help are the B-C-D kids in the fat part of the bell curve, and it takes a herculean effort to move such kids out of the midrange doldrums and into the "A" range. Unfortunately, because Korean universities institute grading curves, the system is rigged against the midrange kids before they even step into my classroom. The grading curve is an incarnation of Plato's Noble Lie: everyone belongs in his proper place in the hierarchy of smarts and achievement. Choices and effort don't matter. This is a depressing reality, and because I'm unlikely to change the overall system, I simply have to make my peace with it and function as though I have more influence than I actually do.

**Unfortunately, at my current and previous universities, this is something that my Korean colleagues are guilty of, including the ones with Ph.D.s in areas like British or American literature. What a shame. I've talked about this issue before, too.



John (I'm not a robot) said...

Shared this on my FB page for the benefit of my friends in the business. I'm not, but I still found it fascinating...

Kevin Kim said...

Thanks, John Not a Robot.

Some will say that I'm trying to take Kim down because I'm envious of his success. That's bullshit. I'm more concerned about the kids and parents spending all those hours, and all that money, on lessons that do little to improve overall English competence.

If the Wall Street Journal had done its due diligence, it would have delved into the stats for Kim's success rates. The paper would also have interviewed students about what, exactly, they had learned in Kim's classes as opposed to asking the kids softball questions about their level of satisfaction. If I were a student in a class given by a funny, friendly lecturer who never actually pushed me to speak or write extensively in English, I'd be a happy camper, too.

There's a whole other blog post that can be written about the political motivations behind the Journal article. In a sense, the article wasn't really about Korea at all: it was about the triumph of a free-market paradigm over government-mandated, central-office solutions to problems that should instead be managed locally. I actually agree with this local-first worldview, at least in the abstract, but the Journal's approach presumed that Kim is pumping out a quality product, when in fact he's churning out crap. The facts on the ground undermine the Journal's basic point.

Korea, as a whole, is in the grip of a reality-distortion field: Kim succeeds because his kids are probably able to pass tests (although how many get the highest scores in TOEFL and TOEIC would be interesting to find out), and this makes the parents happy, but no one on the peninsula is thinking further than that: no one is thinking about the next step, i.e., what happens to Junior when he actually studies in America or Canada or Australia and discovers his English skills are basement-level? No one is asking whether Kim's methods are actually making his students competent in English.

Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

"Kim's competence as an English teacher is relevant to the question of whether he's the best teacher to be teaching my child."

So, Kevin, the truth slips out! You have a child!

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

Kevin Kim said...

My God... I have a child!!

Unknown said...

Excellent article, and I agree with everything you say about education and pedagogy. However, I think it would be more telling to buy one of Kim's videos and deconstruct it with a Korean to determine his goals (maybe he only claims to increase test scores and not actual ability), technique, and content. Then, you could make a fairer assessment of him. That being said, I know Kim himself is not at the center of your critique, but rather Korean education in general.

Excellent post!

Kevin Kim said...


Fair points. I'm still learning about Kim and his wily ways. If it turns out that his main goal is purely to aid with test prep, well... that still doesn't exonerate him, in my opinion. When I was a test-prep tutor two years ago, I was trained to use a student-centered approach to get students more engaged in how to think through exams like the SAT I or the ACT. Fortunately, this approach was consistent with my own pedagogical ideology, as I too believe in a student-centered approach to, well, just about everything.

I just watched another of Kim's videos in which he again speaks in Korean 99.99% of the time, and I really have to wonder what his audience actually comes away with. Whenever he asks his audience a question, it's almost always a simple yes/no question, and that's the extent of the audience's participation in his lecture. But look at those smiling ladies whenever the camera shows a reaction shot! God, they love him! They love the fact that Kim isn't pressuring them in any way, that he's simply spoon-feeding them information in the way they've been conditioned, for years, to receive it.

And yes, I agree with your other comment to my other post re: passive versus active macroskills. That's one of the most fundamental problems with Korean pedagogy—whether we're talking foreign-language learning or other subjects. Students aren't encouraged to think: they're encouraged to memorize and parrot—not to discuss or explore or be creative in any way. Nothing higher-cognitive is going on; no one's home.

Kevin Kim said...

By the way, in my research, I found this very enlightening PDF that ranks TOEFL test-takers in several different ways, including overall performance by country.

Korea's average total score for TOEFL, in 2013, was 85 out of a possible 120 points, which is about a 70%. Depending on your grading scale, that's either a "D" or a "C," neither grade of which is very auspicious, and it indicates exactly what I talked about in my post—Koreans have a hard time dragging themselves out of the mediocre "3" zone when it comes to a productive macroskill like writing. The same is doubtless true for speaking.

I'd love to take a look at Kim Ki-hoon's TOEFL/TOEIC data to see how well his students perform on those tests vis-à-vis the South Korean national average, and how consistently above or below the national average Kim's students have been over a ten-year period.

Smiles At Galleria said...

Unlike the public schools in Korea, all hagwons are for-profit institutions competing in an immensely over-saturated market. In 2010 there were 25,000 hagwons registered in Seoul alone, with over 6,000 in the Seoul suburb of Gangnam. Unfortunately, this means that hagwons tend to be run as businesses engaged in selling the time of their foreign employees to as many students as possible.

Kevin Kim said...


Indeed. One of the first horrible truths a person learns after a year in Korea is that hagweons are businesses first, actual education be damned.