Friday, April 27, 2018

stupid, useless, time-wasting tests... but Oh So Korean

Our office, this company's R&D department, is essentially a glass-walled aquarium on a floor with five other similarly glass-walled aquariums. Including our boss, the R&D staff numbers eight people, all expats except for one Korean graphic designer. Not long after we all moved into this space, the higher-ups decided to dump four extra teachers on us because there was no office space for them anywhere else. Over time, those teachers have become a fixture here, but in general, there's very little direct interaction between R&D and these native-speaker instructors (or just "native instructors," in our parlance). The composition of the teaching staff has changed, during the past year, as people have been shunted out and transferred in. Only one teacher has been here the entire time; otherwise, it's a rotating cast of characters.

The above is merely background for an interesting exchange I had with one of the native instructors, a bright-eyed half-Korean young'n from my home town of Alexandria. She and her coworker have been working on testing hundreds, if not thousands, of students at our institute for the past month. Testing will be over this week, but it will start up again in the summer, and there will be even more students to test then. I asked the teacher how the testing had been going; she rolled her eyes and sighed, which told me much. She said that testing was tiring because it involved listening to the same thing, over and over, hundreds of times. I got curious and asked her what, exactly, the testing involved, and this is when things got interesting.

The native instructor said that the Korean teachers of English* had given the students chunks of text in English; it was the students' job to memorize the text, approach a native instructor, and recite the text perfectly. My interlocutor also noted that each student had a Korean translation of the text so that he or she could understand the text's meaning. If a student failed to recite the text perfectly in front of the native instructor, he or she would have to go to the back of the queue and try again in a few minutes. Some students apparently fail several times before they can finally go home, which is why some students stay until after 10PM.

I was flabbergasted for a microsecond before my cynicism reasserted itself: in reality, this sort of testing isn't—shouldn't be—a surprise, for this is the essence of education in East Asia: it's all about memorization, not actual thinking. Putting students in a creative, unpredictable social context, like a real conversation with a teacher, would be unfathomable from the Korean point of view, possibly because such testing would expose the students' linguistic incompetence, which wouldn't be the students' fault, to be sure, but the fault of the gimpy, retarded education system in which the students are all trapped. I shake my head every time I see an article in an American magazine that praises the Asian education system.

Since olden times, and thanks to widespread Chinese influence in the region, the style of testing in East Asia has long been of the "memorize a ton of information" variety. The prime example of this is the old Chinese civil-service exam, which evolved over the centuries after Confucius into a test that focused on a demonstration of one's ability to memorize long tracts of the Chinese classics. The exam, at some points in history, had an interview component, which might have represented a creative or spontaneous element, but over the years, the style and structure of the exam became much more rigid and standardized, to the point where some blamed the exam for creating a national culture that was so stultified it was vulnerable to attack by foreign powers. What's the price you pay when you corral everyone into thinking and acting the same way through ruthless standardization?

Anyway, echoes of that lockstep mentality reverberate strongly in modern Korean culture. Thanks to laziness and mental inertia, Korean educators are generally unwilling to move beyond the old ways to embrace an actual twenty-first-century, forward-thinking mentality.** It was sad to hear the native instructor tell her tale of woe, and it was sad to hear that the students she had been asked to rate were being given an absolutely garbage test. But there we are: a lot of effort is being expended on an exam that seems to test nothing more than whether a student is capable of imitating an actor who has to memorize lines in a foreign language. Such a test has no pedagogical value; it's not testing for any actual, practical linguistic skills. I'm reminded of the non-Arab Muslims who go to their madrassa to learn Koranic verses about whose meaning they have no clue because the scriptures are in classical Arabic. In such countries, there's a belief that the holy Word contains an inherent, occult power, and that this power is sufficient unto the day. Can the same be said for a snatch of text in modern English?

*In many Korean hagweons ("cram"-style extracurricular schools) devoted to teaching English, native-speaker (expat) teachers are often paired with native-Korean instructors. Kids move from the foreigner's class to the Korean instructor's class and back again, and the style of education between the two sets of teachers is utterly different. The foreign instructors generally encourage students to talk and think in the target language, but the Korean teachers, having never evolved beyond the 1950s, basically lecture the students about English, but 90% in Korean—a pedagogical strategy that I find utterly useless. Koreans still cling to this method in part because they can't bring themselves to trust the foreign teachers to handle things independently. There may also be a question of honor and face: handing English education over to foreigners who are more competent, pedagogically speaking, would be an admission of failure or inferiority (but at the same time, and in fairness, we need to keep in mind that there are plenty of incompetent foreigners teaching English in Korea as well).

**There are notable exceptions, like KAIST (Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology), the university where students learn engineering and robotics. As I've mentioned before, it was a KAIST team that won the DARPA robotics challenge a few years back, along with a $2 million prize. I can't think of a better example of out-of-the-box creativity. Now if only something of that mentality could radiate outward to other areas in Korean academe...


Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Regarding these words, which I expose:

"We need to keep in mind that tHere are plenty of incOmpetent [neeDless] foreiGnErS teaching English in Korea as well."

I see what you did, Kevin! You leave me out of this! I'm only a little bit incompetent!

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

Kevin Kim said...

Damn. I didn't expect you to figure it out so quickly.