Last month I lauded Nashville and Ohio’s efforts to integrate social-emotional education into their school curriculums. I appreciated their realization that leadership, responsibility, and interpersonal communication, among others, should be regarded as key aspects of a successful learning environment. That being said, let’s shift our attention to the Republic of Korea, where a very different trend in education can be observed.
In lieu of social learning, South Korea has always emphasized the traditional math, science, and English to be the core substances of higher learning. Since the 1990s, “genius” high schools for gifted students, as well as science high school and science academies, spread at an exponential rate. As of this moment, there are 19 science high schools in a country that would fit between Los Angeles and San Francisco. And as if that wasn’t enough, in the early 2000s, Seoul added the Korea Digital Media High School (KDMHS) to its growing list of specialized schools in the nation. The KDMHS was designed to prepare students in the field of computer science and engineering, with four departments including e-Business, Anti-Hacking, Web Programming, and Digital Content. But this is not news to Korea and this pursuit of STEM subjects has spearheaded the economic revitalization of the nation from the ashes of war. So far, so good. Now for the depressing part.
The One Score to Rule Them All
I recently read an article analyzing the results of a survey taken by Korean college students. It showed that about 72.7% of the college populace regretted choosing their particular majors and career paths. In a country so dedicated to academics that it ranks third amongst all Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations in terms of personal spending on education, the fact that students do not have the flexibility and passion to choose their fields of study is a disgrace. We spend so much studying with our noses buried in mountains of textbooks that our eyes, mind, and heart lose track of reality and become reduced to nothing but grades and numbers. And I’m not being dramatic here. In Korea, your score on the national college entrance examination decides which colleges and which majors in each college to apply to, which is also based on the ranking of the departments of the respective colleges. So the highest scoring individual goes to the highest ranked university in its highest ranking major, while the lowest scoring individual goes to the lowest ranked university majoring in the lowest ranking department in that school. Of course I am not the first person to realize the futility of standardized testing; in fact, some universities such as KAIST have dropped the national examination score requirement on their applications.
A Need for Change
However, there is still a lingering problem in the big picture of education in Korea. And I believe it is the lack of flexibility. A lack of flexibility not just in our classrooms, but also in our homes. Parents must increase conversations with their children regarding the future, respecting the kids’ passions, wishes, and dreams. As a society, Korea should gradually decrease the national practice of shoving bewildered children into classrooms, forcing advanced theories and equations down their throats so that they can excel on the national entrance examination for a chance to study at a top-class institution for higher learning, and finally getting them employed at their parents’ dream jobs, which they will most likely hate and regret miserably ever after.