Learning the Korean way


KOREAN EDUCATION:OUR TOUR GROUP is walking through the Hwagyesa Temple, located at the foot of Mount Samgaksan not far from downtown Seoul, an elegant spot. We are chatting among ourselves as our guide explains some of the finer points of architecture in the temple complex.

Suddenly a door opens and a middle-aged woman comes out. Politely but very firmly, she asks us to please be quiet as people are praying inside the temple.

“They are praying for their children to go to college in an Ivy League university in the United States,” explains the cowed guide, and she points at a group of mothers, their shoes lined up outside a shrine dedicated to the task.

Never underestimate the Korean obsession with education. It is part of the reason why South Korea has gone from being one of the poorest countries in the world in the aftermath of the Korean War in 1953 to being one of the richest, a powerful regional player which exports cars, PCs and machinery all over the world.

“The Koreans take education seriously, even too seriously at times,” says Ireland’s ambassador to Korea, Eamonn McKee. “Seriously, because from early childhood they study very hard, including extra tuition at what they call hagwon. Over 80 per cent graduate from college. That commitment to education has powered Korea’s phenomenal development from post-war devastation in 1953 to being the 14th largest economy in the world.”

“Too seriously because the intensity of study can impede natural imaginative development of childhood, the kind of playful creativity that carries into scientific hypotheses, creative writing, new forms of architecture and so on in adulthood. The Korea authorities are aware of this and trying to address it. The lesson here is balance between intensity and freedom, diligence and creativity,” he says.

Korean mothers will move with their children to the United States to further their educational goals, leaving the father behind, a “lonely goose”, to earn a living. In some cases, the families will move to the more obscure states in America such as Omaha and Nebraska.

At special crammers aimed at helping students get in to Ivy League colleges, such as the Daewon Foreign Language High School, children study the usual subjects – Korean, maths and English – then study global leadership in the afternoon.

Your typical high-school student starts the day at about 6am depending on where they live, and schools tend to start at 8am during the weekdays of classes and a half-day on Saturday. Before this 8am start there are compulsory exercises in many schools, although the majority tend to do pre-class study from 7am.

There are usually about seven subjects taught a day, of 50 minutes tuition with 10 minutes changeover time between classes. Lunchtime is an hour long, and official lessons end at 4pm.

But the typical Korean student’s day is far from complete. Spending anything up to 14 hours a day in school is not unusual in South Korea, especially when college entrance exams are looming.

There are mandatory after-school classes, which run late into the evening. Then comes hagwon private tuition, which go on for hours after school, enough for the government to introduce a law forbidding after-school grinds going on beyond 10pm. Even then many study rooms avoid this rule, and it is not unusual for children to get home at midnight or 1am from hagwon.

There are also an increasing number of boarding schools in Korea, which unlike traditional Irish boarding schools are little more than a regular school with a large extension where children sleep so as to avoid the commute.

Competition is fierce. Korean families will often spend anything up to half their total income on extra private tuition, as it is seen as a springboard to success.

In the Confucian system, it is not unusual to bow to your teacher, as teachers are held in great respect in most parts of Asia, in sharp contrast to the disdain they are often held in the West. The schools are incredibly hierarchical.

Some 80 per cent of Korea’s high-school students now go on to further education. The decision to go to the US tends to be based on the fact that it is the foreign country that most Koreans know best, and the place where they generally have the best connections. Canada and Australia are also seen as providing strong opportunities, and Ireland’s work and study arrangement with Korea fills up quickly too, but the US has a powerful draw.

In the midst of all this intensive education, the Koreans not only offer competition but also opportunity for Ireland. The 2010 ELT Schools Survey showed that South Korea was Ireland’s biggest Asian market with 3,100 students on a three-year average. This is a figure that can be expected to grow – there are more than 100,000 Koreans studying at different levels in the United States.

“The South Korean education market is showing huge potential for Ireland at the moment and in terms of student numbers is potentially one of our most important Asian markets in the future. One key advantage we have is that there are no student visa restrictions from Korea to Ireland,” says McKee.

“However, this is not about numbers. As the new Education Ireland policy stresses, this is about offering a quality educational experience to foreign students in Ireland. Because in that way you are building a lifelong relationship between Ireland and that student. Good experience creates an informal ambassador for Ireland.”

Fionnán Nestor from Fáilte Ireland says awareness of Ireland as an English-language training destination is relatively low in South Korea.

“In the absence of a Tourism Ireland office on the ground, and therefore a marketing budget, to co-ordinate campaigns there we need to consider others ways of accessing the market using the resources that are in place, such as the embassies for example,” says Nestor.

Conor O’Reilly of the School of English Language and Culture at Kyung Hee University’s global campus says Ireland is a lot less well known among students than the US, Canada and Britain and believes so much more could be done to encourage Koreans to go to Ireland to study.

Top jobs in Korea now expect near fluency in English, and in fact some take foreign university education as the minimum standard.

“As far as I know only 1,500 Korean students were resident in Ireland last year,” says O’Reilly. “Korea is a very significant and wealthy player in the Asian economy and Ireland seems to have directed most of its focus on China, which is developing, as opposed to Korea which has developed and is already a very intensely competitive society where people will take exceptional steps to succeed – English is central to these achievements,” says O’Reilly.

“In terms of Irish and Korean connections, education is where we are strongest right now, both with students going to Ireland and teachers coming to Korea – of the 800-plus Irish people in Korea, around 600 are on teaching visas,” says O’Reilly.

In 20 or 30 years these people will be the decision makers in Korea.“While money is important and makes the world go round, Irish teachers are making a lasting impression on Korean students on a daily basis,” says O’Reilly.