Saturday, November 12, 2005

Cho Se-mi on the 'Korean mindset'

Thursday's edition of The Korea Herald has an interesting article (Yang Sung-mi, "Fluency of English not enough to be successful at global firms," November 10, 2005) on Cho Se-mi, "a consultant who designs strategies" for international businesses "to attract and retain top talent."

Cho has written a book, 세계는 지금 이런 인재를 원한다 (roughly translated: The World Wants Talent Like This), and has some interesting insights on the problems that the Korean 'mindset' poses for Koreans working in international firms, and since the same problems show up among my university students, I thought that I'd post some of her views here.

Koreans lack initiative:

So what's wrong with the mindset of Koreans? Cho said Koreans are hard-working and excel in what they are asked to do. But they lack a sort of independent mindset, particularly a positive drive to take the initiative.
This confirms my experience. Korean students can work hard and excel, but they show little independent initiative and wait for someone in authority to tell them what to do and how to do it.

Koreans don't pursue excellence:
"And we also lack a sense of pursuing excellence. We tend to think that this is enough, and just try to compete with colleagues in a company, rather than seek excellence," Cho said.
Cho is referring to Korean business people who don't strive to meet international standards of excellence. I can't speak for the world of business, but I see a similar problem with many of my students, who seem accustomed to a lack of rigor in their academic work. When I return to them their corrected essays, which I have marked up with rivers of red ink, they look shocked and appear surprised that anyone would care about consistency in such things as punctuation and grammar or about concern with using proper footnoting and avoiding plagiarism.

Koreans don't think:
When global firms recruit new employees, they focus on whether job applicants have leadership, drive for excellence and problem-solving skills. And many Koreans fail on the logical and creative thinking.
Koreans really do have problems here. Although my students can usually draw conclusions in clearly defined problems requiring deductive reasoning, they tend to lose this ability if they have to define a problem for themselves. They also show weaknesses in using inductive reasoning, being unable to generalize from similar cases. I think that this latter weakness stems from weakness in thinking analogically. Many students lack ability to transfer insights gained in one case to another, structurally similar but superficially different case.

Koreans are closed-minded:
An open-minded attitude also matters. In some cases, there could be many answers, but some Koreans couldn't handle such open-ended questions creatively, she said.
Again, this fits my experience. Koreans expect a question to have one well-defined answer and a problem to have one well-defined solution. This stems from the Korean pattern of training students to memorize questions and answers, which becomes the model that Koreans apply to every type of learning. No room for creativity there.

Koreans don't listen:
When it comes to problem-solving skills, Koreans -- or any other applicants for global firms -- should sharpen their listening skills. "When we interviewed top talent at major universities in the United States and Europe, some people simply didn't listen to the questions we asked at the crucial moment," she said.
Cho finds this problem not just among Koreans, but in my experience from teaching and doing research in various countries, Koreans have the poorest listening skills. Many times, I have posed a crucial question only to see Korean students miss the point or even ignore the question entirely. Partly, this stems from the lack of a "culture of discussion."

Why no culture of discussion? Because of the culture of hierarchy, I say. Even the Korean language, which should promote discussion (else what's a language for?), works against it. Professor Choi Bong-young, of Hankuk Aviation University, could probably tell us a lot about this problem.

But that's another story.


At 8:35 AM, Blogger James Brush said...

Koreans sound a lot like too many of my former high school students. I've always blamed the standardized testing that is all the rage here and saps the love of education right out of a person. Is Korea's secondary system as standardized and test-oriented as ours here in Texas?

At 8:55 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The Korean educational system in elementary, middle, and high schools puts great emphasis upon memorizing as learning and upon preparing for the big standardized exam at the end of one's high school years, upon which depends one's acceptance into university (and, therefore, one's success in life).

Thus, Korean students suffer great fear of making mistakes. This system produces narrowly educated, unimaginative students.

Reinforcing that result is a hierarchical social system in which those with more status are deferred to. Students feel morally obligated to accept what their teachers tell them.

The American school system, prior to univeristy, has its own problems, but American culture -- and Western culture generally -- tends to produce people who ask questions. If Koreans were to develop a culture of inquiry and discussion, then they'd be unstoppable.

I'm speaking, of course, in generalities.

At 12:29 AM, Blogger James Brush said...

I think that the conflict between a culture that encourages people to think differently and ask questions forcing its young people into an increasingly rigid system of test prep and training masquearading as education accounts for much of the problems in our public schools. The kids know they're being shafted, and so they become resistant to education in general because what they've learned from the system is that it's not about education. They become less inquisitive, less interested, less thoughtful. The sad thing is that many of them know it and walk out of school feeling like they've wasted their time. I've watched too many bright kids walk out early.

By the time kids reached me in 11th grade, too many were jaded, hated books, reading, writing, thinking, discussion, and had almost no creativity or willingness to take chances. It took the better part of the year trying to undo damage done by 10 years of test prep.

Like you, I'm being very general, but it's based on far too many real examples.

At 4:29 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Wooj, I've often told my wife that Koreans must be really smart because in spite of everything that the educational system and the social structure does to discourage people from thinking critically and creatively, Koreans still do really well.

A people who went from one of the world's poorest to one of the world's richest in 50 years must have something going for it.

One thing that struck me in reading about the experiences of the early Protestant missionaries to Korea was a minor point that seemed to hold larger significance. One missionary, James Gale, remarked that he had noticed that if one introduced Koreans to the game of chess, then once they had understood the rules, they could play a credible game from the first time.

I often see Korean men squatting at their board games of Janggi or Go, intent on their stategies, concentrating despite drinking soju to excess, and I think, "They must be a lot smarter than I am if they can do that."

I think that the Big Ho is right, that Korean society is changing, and the changes are putting pressure on the educational system and social hierarchy. Eventually, these will change.

I do have one concern in all of this. Once the Confucian ethic that brings order to Korean society is gone, what will replace it?

At 5:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Korea became rich in 50 years on the back of America. Yes Koreans are smart but the country they now protest so much against is the one that fought their war for them and gave them the loan to start. Just read the history books. Korea is like many countries when they need us it is help me help me but after they get what they want they spit on us.

At 5:53 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, some protest against America, some for. Still, I understand what you mean, and I try to counter those who have misconceptions.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jeff. I couild be wrong be I am guessing the ones that are rallying for us want something. I found this site out of frustration. You wrote this 4 years ago and not much has seemed to change here. I have been here 3 years and love teaching but I am feeling the life slowly be sucked out of me. I need to stop caring so much

At 8:04 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, bringing people to a broader perspective is a long, slow process. Don't expect too much too soon, and life will be easier. At least, that works for me.

Jeffery Hodges

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