Ah Korean high schools.. where to begin?

Students in Korea probably spend more time in school than any other country in the world. Obama has pointed to Korean schools multiple times when trying to give an example of a country whose students study hard. He is, of course, correct, except that the amount of hours one studies doesn’t necessarily equal the most progress made in learning.

Attempting to answer the question ‘What’s the difference between Korean and United States high schools?’ is sort of like trying to figure out and solve the last digit in pi; the answer could go on and on and on..

There are certainly pros and cons to both systems, because anyone familiar with the high school system in the U.S. knows that it is far from perfect. We have a much higher drop out rate than S. Korea, we have more inner city poverty than Korea, and a wider range of curriculum that focuses more on regional education than a national standard that covers all people. In categories like this, Korea excels.

Korea also offers education for everyone, even through high school. The U.S. does this as well, but not as efficiently. More kids in high school these days in America tend to be dropping out than in Korea, and this is due to a wide range of factors. Something like 98 or 99% of students in Korea end up graduating from high school. This is certainly an admirable characteristic not to be ignored or even snuffed at, but a closer look at what’s happening in education in Korea does tell quite a different story.

Where Korea seems still to be faltering (mostly due to its strict cultural hierarchy) is inside the classroom where the most ‘real’ learning needs to take place. In the U.S. these days, there is a two part focus in high school laid down directly from national standards: a focus on literacy, and a focus on student engagement in the classroom. Korea has mastered literacy (nearly 100% of Korean are literate, possibly the highest literacy rate of any country in the world), but lacks serious effort in student engagement in the classroom. Korea has a very serious top down approach to education, as well as most aspects of Korean life. In other words, the eldest person is in charge, and the younger people must respect that person no matter what.

In some ways, this respect characteristic of Korean culture is a noble one. But it causes people mostly just to follow whatever the top person is saying, and not to ever question them. In North America, Europe, etc. we do a lot of questioning these days. Many of us, especially in a classroom, are not afraid to ask our teacher questions when we don’t understand something, or to just clarify some information. In Korean high schools this simply does not happen. Both Richard and I have heard multiple cases where students have tried to ask questions in during class in high school, and the teacher told them not to do that. For some of us that grew up in a western-style education system, this is insane thinking. But, somehow it still goes on like this in Korea, and it must be working for them or they would change….. or at least the conventional thinking would go.

There really are a ton of differences between western and eastern philosophy regarding education, really too many to name or try to cover in a single blog post. Entire books have been written (and very well may I add!) about Korean education alone. The other big difference for us is what Korean students are studying in high school in order to enter university. Many of them spend their entire 3 years of high school focused on preparing for the Su-neung: Korea’s University Entrance Exam. Taking this test is literally (almost) the only way to get into college or university. And because the name of the university you attended does very much assist to determine the course of the rest of your life, students take entering university ie. taking this exam very seriously. They take it so seriously that the one day per year that everyone throughout the country takes it is dubbed ‘examination hell’.

Feel free to ask us more questions about education or whatever in the comments below and we’ll do our best to answer them! ☺

  • Almia Ramos

    It’s really a big difference in the learning-teaching process. Be unable to asking, discuss or contribute experiences in a class … in our western culture is …. unthinkable.

    By the way I want to ask you something that confuses me in Asian dramas. It’s about engagements ceremonies. It seems more of as a wedding with the formality of a marriage. Could you please explain something about that topic.

    Thank you for your blog and all your effort. I’m your fan and of course Richard too. =).