Monday, July 06, 2009

Steven S. Sin on Korean Education

Steven S. Sin
Cartoon Fencer . . .
. . . Ancient Astronaut?
(Image from Saber Fencer)

Today's blog is a follow-up to my entry on corporal punishment in Korean schools from the perspective of my 12-year-old daughter, Sa-Rah, which I posted on June 29th. I'm 'plagiarizing' comments posted by Saber Fencer, privately known as Steven S. Sin, who has given me permission to 'plagiarize' if I write a follow-up:
Well, if you do write a follow-up article, please feel free to 'plagiarize.' :)
With that permission, here follows my follow-up, in Steve's own words, originally posted as comments to my blog. Steve begins by noting my daughter's report of being forbidden on pain of physical punishment to ask "Why?" -- and quickly moves into a discussion of some intellectual consequences of this:
Watching and reading about this [experience of your daughter Sa-Rah] took me back to my elementary and middle school days . . . when I went to school here in Seoul before moving to the US.

Although this post was about corporal punishment in Korean schools, it also brought two points forward for me: 1) asking the question "why"; and 2) shaking things up in Korea.

1) Korean school system not only tell the very young students not to ask "why," but this "culture of blind acceptance" persists all the way to the very highest level of education.

Allow me to give a specific example. My wife is a Ph.D. student at S university right now, where the professors constantly remind their students that they are the selected lucky few because they can attend this "prestigious" institution of higher learning (I hate to say it, but I think my alma mater, [i.e., University of Texas, Austin,] which is a state university, actually was ranked ahead of this school last time the top 100 universities in the world list came out -- and we know how much Koreans love to rank things). Anyway, this is what happens at that school when a graduate student asks the professors "why." The answer is usually either 1) Ah, that is because you do not understand correctly the subject of *fill in the blank*. You would know that what I said is true and would not have asked that question if you understood it correctly in the first place; or 2) You didn't understand what I said because you did not go to this school for your bachelor's degree. If you had, you would not be asking such an idiotic question.

What any of these really have anything to do with the original question of "why?" Simple . . . the professors have no idea themselves, but they reply using personal attacks so that other students would not ask the same question. Who can blame them[, i.e., the students]? I, for one, would not want to be personally attacked and humiliated in public like that for actually wanting to understand things.

The other reason for these professors' reactions, I think, are simple laziness -- mentally, I mean. My experience is that the question "why" is actually the most difficult question to answer and requires a lot of thought.

Finally, I am willing to bet that a large number of these professors actually never learned to ask and think about a questions this way either. After all, they are also products of the same education system where the student who asks "why" is the abnormal one.

Of course, according to my wife, there's not a lot of students in the graduate school who actually ask "why." Two reasons -- 1) The question will not be answered; and 2) Students themselves do not know how to think, even at graduate level, to ask the question "why."

Sad . . . I thought one of the things we humans differ from other organisms living on earth is because we are the ones who could ask "why."

OK . . . before I get flayed for saying what I said about the professors above . . . I am not saying all professors in Korea are like that . . . just the majority of the ones I know at the S university in Seoul. So, I suppose that my observation and my hypothesis why this phenomenon occurs is limited to that specific school. :)
Well, that's certainly interesting -- and strongly increases my motivation on taking my daughter (and then my son) out of the Korean school system and letting them benefit from homeschooling. I would never punish my children for asking "Why?" As Steve notes, concern with the question "Why?" sets homo sapiens apart as thinking beings.

Be that as it may, Steve followed this comment with a remark on what happens when one tries to shake things up in Korea -- a suggestion proposed by John Hugens in response to my report of the physical abuse used by one particular teacher on students in my daughter's seventh-grade class -- and here is what Steve reported:
Moving on to 2) making waves in Korea.

Interesting thing . . . in the US, if you make waves and point out something that is wrong in the school or the university (especially about a faculty member), usually the faculty member is either asked to leave or gets reassigned. In Korea, usually it is the student that gets asked (sometimes not so nicely) to leave the school.

Again . . . my examples goes back to the famed S university. A faculty member there published a paper in the journal in his name. A student protested, and showed the school authorities a paper that he wrote for a class (and the paper was graded and everything). Although the student's paper was written much earlier than the paper the faculty member submitted to the journal (and upon comparison, the two papers were exactly the same . . . word for word), the student is no longer a student at the university. What happened to the faculty member? he's still teaching at the university. Oh, if you want to know why the student is no longer at the university . . . it is because other faculty members of the department refused to allow the student to register for their classes following this incident. Since this meant that the student could not take core classes required for his degree, he had to seek other options . . . actually, only one practical option for him . . . leave the university.

So, with this kind of mentality, who would want to make waves? I suspect that the parents of Jeffery's daughter's friend are not saying anything precisely because of this reason. They don't want their kid to be the one that gets ostracized because they stood up for something that is right and just.

As I tell my wife all the time:
I look at South Korea as a country and I see that it has all the right conditions and the ingredients to become a regional leader and one of the global leaders. Somehow, however, South Korea always falls short of its potential (almost at all things). South Koreans usually blame the external factors (or the other political party) for falling short. I would like to offer another view point . . . first try fixing the things like the ones I mentioned above before blaming everyone else for your problems.
Well, that's my two cents worth of rambling . . . sorry if I just rambled on, Jeff.
I certainly don't think that Steve rambled. He speaks from experience and intelligent reflection. I'm still unsure of what to do on this second point. John Hugens has spoken from the heart about the courageous thing to do -- as also has Hathor, who remarked:
I think I would try to do something about that social studies teacher, his actions might seriously injure or kill a student one day. I think you could find legal documentation of incidents that have caused harm.

I would think Koreans would know the difference between assault and corporal punishment.
I'd like to think so on this point, but I know how much power teachers have in Korean society . . . and how little power I have. I'm therefore still unsure about what to do.

By the way, since Steve Sin is in the U.S. military, I should probably add his disclaimers:
The views expressed here are not those of any other person, organization, or entity; they are mine alone. The material I post on this blog is either from open sources or unclassified information.
I think that noting this disclaimer is important because we wouldn't want anybody -- least of all Koreans -- to imagine that the American military has an official position on my daughter's education.

Of course, this means that Steve's report is merely anecdotal . . . and therefore not to be officially trusted.

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At 5:07 AM, Blogger Jae Young said...

I admit to being unsurprised by your daughter's stories of Korean education, despite the fact that I only have my parents' own experience and their own parenting/educating styles as reference. Koreans really do seem to have a cultural taste for excessive violence.

I would agree about the not asking why in Korea. I think the benefits of the Korean system though are ones that acknowledge that memorization and just grunt work is also important in education. It bewilders me how many people think mathematics is difficult in the US. It's not hard people, it just requires thinking differently. Buut I admit, I fantasize about homeschooling my kids if/when I have them. I have issues with the American system of education, albeit different ones. I think it's difficult to entrust the education and care of your children 40 hours a week to people you do not know. Even worse when you know they are beating your children for rules you don't agree with, or even worse, beating the children for their own whim.

My parents claim that Koreans do this because they believe this is life--cruel and whimsical and unfair. They also argue that explains why Koreans may not be the most optimistic of people. But they also left Korea and have not returned.

In other words, good luck with whatever you decide with your kids, but I will be rooting for the home schooling option.

At 6:28 AM, OpenID sonagi92 said...

"I look at South Korea as a country and I see that it has all the right conditions and the ingredients to become a regional leader and one of the global leaders. Somehow, however, South Korea always falls short of its potential (almost at all things)."

I have this thought often, especially when I compare US students and US education with Korean students and Korean education. Koreans get off to a great start - growing inside the body of a well-nourished woman, born into a stable household, fed a relatively healthy diet, raised in a home rich with language and learning opportunities. So many of our students in the US lack some or all of these characteristics associated with academic achievement. Koreans consistently perform at or near the top in various international assessments, and this success owes not to just memorization of facts and equations but to understanding and application of concepts and problem-solving. Most Koreans leave high school with high literacy, numeracy, and a strong foundational understanding of the sciences. Though Korea's post-war achievements are impressive, its present economic and social development do not seem to realize the full potential of its highly educated, stable population.

"South Koreans usually blame the external factors (or the other political party) for falling short. I would like to offer another view point . . . first try fixing the things like the ones I mentioned above before blaming everyone else for your problems."

I think that approach to problem-solving holds true for the US, too, and probably many other countries.

At 8:02 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Jae Young, for your views.

I have some perspective on this because from growing up in the Ozarks and beginning school in 1963, I recall very vividly the corporal punishment meted out to offenders -- though it was limited to paddlings and only on the butt . . . and not for bad grades, just for misbehavior.

(Discipline in families was also corporal.)

Plus, we still had a lot of old-style teachers who stressed rote memorization . . . but a growing contingent of younger teachers who preferred 'creative' thinking.

Such things as rote learning and corporal punishment are thus not uniquely Korean, but I think that we can do better than to use the old methods. I agree, however, that some education is grunt work and memorization. The problem with rote learning is that it is usually inefficient and often results in 'inert' knowledge.

I have actually been doing homeschooling with my kids in English on weekday evenings, so if we take them out of Korean schools, I'll simply have to expand on what we're already doing. My wife, though, will need to come up with a program to ensure that their Korean skills continue to develop.

Thanks again for your remarks and insights.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:05 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sonagi, I agree. We expats often criticize Korean failings, but we have some even worse failings in our own home countries.

Unfortunately, Korea is developing some of the social problems that we have had for a couple of generations in the States.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Off topic (of course) but thanks for adding the disclaimer. I know you don't read as many "Milblogs" as I do, but I think you must've read a few.

I would point out one thing. The disclaimer alway appears at the top of the sidebar - and far more prominently.

I suppose you've a bit more leeway due to your format. Still, I'd be cautious - Gitmo's still open.


At 1:10 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Gitmo, eh? I could use an educational vacation.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, you'll definitely not be able to ask "Why?" there.


At 11:26 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

In that case, I'll request homeschooling.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:57 PM, Blogger Carl said...

Hi Jeffery,

Stumbled across your blog while doing some research for a book I'm writing about problem-solving (see my bio below). Not a how-to manual, more a cultural critique of our obsession with the quick fix.

One of the things I'm investigating is how problem-solving is taught in schools. I'm particularly interested in South Korea, given that it came top in the world in that category in the last PISA round. I am also taking a hard look at the Finnish system, which seems very different in spirit from the Korean one yet produces similarly glowing results.

Anyway, I'm writing because I'd love to chat to you about how you see Korean education and perhaps to get some ideas of whom to approach for interviews. I'm based in London UK but will be in South Korea to give a talk in last August/early September. Would love to use the trip to do some research for my next book.

Thank you very much in advance for any help you can supply. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Carl (you can email me via the site)

A bit of background about me:

My first book, In Praise of Slowness, examines the modern compulsion to hurry and chronicles a global trend toward putting on the brakes. My second book, Under Pressure, explores the good, the bad and the ugly of modern childrearing. My books have been translated into more than 30 languages (including Korean!) and landed on bestseller lists in many countries. In Praise of Slowness was recently the inaugural choice for the Huffington Post's new book club.


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