Monday, February 6, 2012

Is Perfect Too Much Pressure?

Korean elementary students study more than I did in college. They go to school all day and then get bused around all afternoon to various private schools called "academies." I have one student who attends two different English academies, piano academy, gumdo (Korean traditional fencing) academy, Chinese academy, history academy, math academy, and study academy (a quiet study room). He gets home about 9 or 10pm every night, only to eat dinner, do his homework, and go to bed.

Can you imagine the look on an American child's face at the thought of all that learning?? It's literally unheard of back home...and academies aren't like tutoring in America, where kids get help with their homework from public school. Academies have their own lessons, homework, and expectations. Kids often have multiple backpacks, one for school and one for each academy. 

Even though it seems unimaginable to most of us, some kids actually like going to academies. Of course, some don't like to go, but their parents make them go anyway. The student whose schedule I outlined above, loves to go to academies. He likes to learn and study, especially English and sports. Not every kid studies as much as he does; some kids only go to one or two academies.

One thing that is standard for pretty much all kids, is that their parents expect them to get perfect scores on everything, especially on standardized public school tests. The Korean education system doesn't use the A, B, C, D, and F grading scale. They use a ranking system where all the kids in the class are ranked against each other and every kid is expected to be number one. There might be 10 kids ranked number one in each class, if ten kids all got perfect scores on everything.

You could get 95% on every test and still be ranked 14th in the class. Competition is fierce.

The pressure these kids are under can be quite a burden and it only increases as they get older. There is an enormous amount of pressure in Korean middle schools to get into good high schools and even more pressure in high school to get into a good university. Some kids even break down  so badly that they commit suicide.

The statistics are sobering and the numbers are only increasing each year. Suicide is the leading cause of death in South Korea for those under 40. In 2009, 202 college students committed suicide, an increase of 49% from the previous year and the numbers are still growing.

Emphasis on education and hard work is nothing new in Korea. If anything, it's a custom passed down from an older generation. The generation who watched their country get taken over from the Japanese, freed from their grasp only to be thrown into a civil war, and eventually divided at the 38th parallel. In about 60 years, Korea has come from a country in turmoil to a first world country. The grandmothers and grandfathers of today were the ones who brought this country to what it is today by working hard, gaining higher education, and expecting only the best from themselves and their children.

There's no doubt that South Korea's progress has been substantial. The pressure from parents and the tough Korean educational system has helped this country achieve success on a global scale...but how much is too much?


  1. It is too much....the Korean school tests don't focus on independent thinking, but rather on just passing multiple choice tests that the students are trained to do.

    They should just let kids be kids. There are calls in Korea now for people to have more vacation time at their jobs, too, rather than the standard 10 days.

    Education is important, but so is childhood. The average nine year old that I would teach who had already been at school for seven hours during the day wasn't always too enthusiastic to then be learning English for another two hours.

    Korea needs to switch the emphasis from quantity to quantity. The suicide rates should speak for themselves - they're among the highest in the entire world.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Tom, and I completely agree. Kids need more time to be kids. I feel so badly for them. One student told me yesterday that she stayed up until 2am doing homework and woke up at 7am to go to school. She's only 9 years old! It's good that she wants to do well but staying up until 2am doing homework is going too far. That should not be expected of her.