Korean vs American Educational Philosophies

I’ve noticed some big philosophical differences in the way Koreans and Americans view education. Even basics like methods of studying are very different. Having been educated in the US system and now working as and educator in the Korean one gives me an interesting perspective. Please feel free to chime in with your educational experiences in other countries. I am focusing on Korea and the US because they’re the ones I know best.

Anonymous hagwon babies
Anonymous hagwon babies

1. It’s About the Quantity: In Korea there’s a huge focus put on the amount of hours you spend in the classroom, or studying. If your parents can afford it, then you are enrolled in at least one (usually multiple) hagwons, or after school academies. Students can end sitting in a classroom almost 12 hours a day from a young age. Some academies are for music, art, or even martial arts, but mainly students go for extra work in academic subjects (English being one of the most in demand). During public school holidays, many academies will hold extra classes so the students never have more than a few days break from classes throughout the year.

In the US, extra academic lessons are usually only for tutoring when a student is struggling with a subject. Most after school activities are geared toward fun, or to help kids become well-rounded. Students might have one or two after school activities a week, often sports teams, music lessons/school band, or dance classes. When it comes to studying, I think there’s also more of an interest in “studying smarter, not harder”– where students use varied techniques and shortcuts to study rather than spending hours at their desks.

2. Hard Work Over Talent: I asked my students once if they thought it was possible for people to just have natural talent in one area or another. 75% of the class said no– you can only be good at something if you put in the hours of practice. There seems to be a strong belief that if you spend all those hours studying something, you will eventually be good at it. It’s not talent that is emphasized. So, even if you don’t have a good ear, if you drill finger exercises over and over, you will learn to play songs on an instrument. Even if you’re not a number person, if you work through enough equations, you’ll be able to do well on a math test.

In some ways, the US emphasizes talent more (maybe too much). Students are encouraged to pursue things that they have natural talent in. They often focus on their strengths, rather than on strengthening their weaknesses.

3. Memorization Over Hands On: In Korean public schools, students are often memorizing sheaths of information. Apparently this has roots in the educational style of Confucianist scholars from hundreds of years ago. Even in the English academy I teach at, students are quizzed on complicated vocabulary that they can spell and match to Korean words, but 90% of the time are concepts they don’t understand at all. Korean schooling is very test heavy. It’s about memorizing the study guide and writing the formulaic essay.

Now, this definitely happens in the US too (a country that loves its useless standardized testing). However, more of my grades in school were based off projects and slightly more creative methods of assessment. I was extremely lucky and was accepted to a charter school for grades 9-12, so I think my personal experience was even more exemplary of this hands on, more creative learning style.

I think the Korean education system does some things very right, but other things worry me. With the emphasis on memorizing facts and getting the right answers, many Koreans can ace an English test, but panic over a casual conversation. I also wonder if with the problems of rapid expansion and modernization, Korea doesn’t need a generation of creative problem solvers more than it needs a group of people with the same answers. And I don’t wonder if the US couldn’t use a little more of Korea’s belief that if something’s difficult, you don’t give up– you just study twice as hard.

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