Thursday, April 23, 2015


One of the interview questions that I asked my lowest-level students today, as part of their midterm, was "What do you think of Korean education?"

Not a single positive response. The complaints basically came down to these:

• We learn a lot of facts, not how to think about them or discuss them or apply them.
• We're not supposed to question the teacher, even though we often want to.
• We spend so much time memorizing material that this causes stress.
• Most of what we learn is useless.

As a teacher, I would probably dispute the final claim. I don't know the Korean curriculum that well—for any subject—but within that huge jumble of facts that the kids are tasked with absorbing, I'm sure there are plenty of useful ones.

The notion that Korean students want to ask questions is also a bit iffy, at first blush, but I think my students could be on to something: curiosity, they're saying, isn't dead in the young Korean heart. Not all Korean students are so ruthless as to see education merely as a stepping stone to getting a job. Some students may actually want to be wowed and fascinated; they may actually want to engage in discussion and dialogue. There may be some Korean students who view education the way the idealists among us view it: as a way of enriching us, of creating a whole person. Confucius himself saw life as a sphere of person-making.

Perhaps the apparent lack of curiosity that we expat teachers often perceive in our dull-eyed charges isn't due to an inherent lack of curiosity in Korean students, but is instead due to the relentless beating-down of that curiosity. Little mammals of all species tend to be curious when they're young: their brains are wiring themselves at a furious rate; experiences are being absorbed, catalogued, and processed. Why would Koreans be any different from anyone else? So maybe there really is something to this claim, made by my students, that they have questions and crave answers.

Meanwhile, it's sad to see the unanimous negativity with which Korean students view their own education system. At the same time, it's good to know the students are aware enough of their educational system to feel this way. The next step is resisting the status quo; the step after that is actively reforming it.



TheBigHenry said...

"..., but is instead due to the relentless beating-down of that curiosity."

I strongly concur with your observation. It has been my experience online that any breach beyond superficial knowledge is frequently met with dismissiveness, which I believe is largely due to a lack of curiosity.

Kevin Kim said...

Thanks, Henry. My friend Jeff Hodges runs an excellent blog called Gypsy Scholar; I highly recommend going there and typing the phrase "culture of discussion" in the search window at the top of his blog. This will bring up a slew of excellent critiques that Jeff has written regarding Korea's general lack of a culture of discussion—a lack that does much to damage, suppress, or eliminate any spirit of inquiry, dissent, or challenge.

Anne in Rockwall, TX said...

Is it a Korean thing, or more widespread throughout Asia, or just certain cultures?

Kevin Kim said...


Good question. It's not uniquely Korean, for sure, but Korea's a particularly egregious example of a lack of a culture of discussion.