Something for the kid with a little free timeIn a nation that is obsessed with education, no amount of schoolwork is ever enough. Even children as young as 2 years old are given learning tools to work on at home. Even vacation times are little better than ordinary school weeks, sometimes even busier.
For most elementary schoolers in Korea, winter vacation is synonymous with not only sleeping late and playing with friends, but also catching up with studying. The most prevalent form of homeschooling for elementary schoolers is hakseupji, weekly study aid booklets of problems on subjects such as math, Korean and English.
When students subscribe to study aids, a tutor visits the children’s home and gives them a booklet of problems to do every week. Students are advised to work on three to five pages a day (it varies according to the study aid brand and subject); usually that amounts to about 10 to 30 minutes. The tutor also checks on the children’s progress and help solve any problems that they may be having.
For Oh Min-yeop, 7, and Oh Min-jeong, 6, the study aid books are a part of everyday life. Every Thursday afternoon their tutor, Moon Yeong-suk, comes to check on the work that they have done for the week. After marking their weekly three pages of work, Ms. Moon corrects mistakes and gives them tips on how to go about memorizing the times tables.
Their mother, Gang Mi-kyeong, 37, spends about 110,000 won ($94) per month on the study aids for her two children. “My kids spend an average of 10 minutes every day working on their study aids,” she says. “It keeps them disciplined.”
Both Min-yeop and Min-jeong have been using Daekyo’s Nunnoppi Study Aids for three and a half years now. “The first thing they do when they get home after school is work on their study aids. Because they’ve been trained to do the work before going out to play, studying has become a habit,” Ms. Gang says. She says that her children do not seem to mind working on the booklets at all. “They’ve been trained since they were 3,” she explains.
Study aid booklets first emerged in the mid-1970s when the educational publishing company Daekyo came up with Gongmun Math, a predecessor to their current Nunnoppi brand. Parents began to subscribe to the weekly booklets so that their kids would not be idle after school. Study aids come in numerous subjects and they cover an age range spanning from 16 months to 18 years old. They do not necessarily follow the same curricula that schools do, but they do focus on enhancing students’ critical thinking and memorization skills.
The total market size for all the study aids versions is estimated to be 3-4 trillion won, with the big four ― Daekyo (“Nunnoppi”), Kyowon (“Kumon”), Jaeneung (“Seuseuro”), and Woongjin (“Think Big”) ― taking in almost 90 percent of the market share, and a combined 6 million subscribers.
The biggest of the big four is Daekyo’s Nunnoppi brand, with close to 2.4 million members. Kyowon is next with 1.7 million, while Woongjin and Jaenung vie for third, with 1 million and 0.9 million members each. And those numbers should continue to climb as analysts foresee this market growing 10 percent annually for the next few years.
Woongjin has an emphasis on creativity, while Guwon’s “Red Pen” series is known for its comprehensive, cassette-based system.
Recently, small players and new entrants in the industry have introduced more specialized products. Hansol, which began more than a decade ago, has markedly increased its market presence through its “Singihan Nara” brand, which centers on infants and preschoolers. Gang Hye-ok’s 6-year-old daughter has been learning from Hansol’s Study Aids for two years now. “Hansol’s products use musical tools, and they really get my daughter hooked on learning,” Ms. Gang says. She says she switched from Daekyo because its booklets were so routine. “Even an adult would be bored stiff solving problem after problem, with no interesting methodologies.” Indeed, study aid companies are becoming savvier and more diverse with their content, emphasizing creativity rather than simple memorization of formulas.
Another issue for many parents is the high turnover rate among tutors at some study aid companies. Lee In-ja, who has two children aged 12 and 14, says, “I switched from Jae-neung to Kumon because the tutors kept on changing.”
Some parents also complain about tutors who come and go too quickly, not spending enough time with the students. “Because the tutor only stays for 10 minutes, she doesn’t give in-depth explanations to new problems, nor does she give enough feedback to the students,” says Jo Hyang-suk, 45, whose 10-year-old son has been subscribing to Woongjin’s Think Big for three and a half years.
Most of the parents who subscribe to a study aid series say they heard of the program they use through word of mouth. “In any neighborhood, if a group of kids subscribes to a certain kind of study aid series, very likely, others will follow,” Ms. Jo says. “Some mothers send their elementary school children to institutes and hire private tutors, but in most cases, study aids are a given.”
Ms. Jo says that the half-hour-per-day, six-days-per-week workload on her 10-year-old is no big matter. “It’s better than him not doing anything,” she says. “If the kids are taught at an early age that they need to get this work done, then it isn’t such a burden to them.”
But are these study aid booklets actually effective? “My kids have gotten a real feel for numbers and math,” Ms. Lee contends. Although there is no in-depth, quantitative assessment on the impact of study aids, mothers think that they do help. “I think study aid booklets helps in the way that they teach children to think quickly,” says Ms.Lee.
Nowadays, study aid companies are expanding, to other areas such as online education sites and educational institutes. Daekyo’s edupia.com is an Internet site where students can take various assessment exams and get study-related information. Use of multimedia studying tools such as CD-ROMs and listening tapes is now becoming the norm, while companies such as Woongjin have seen profit through their “study room” programs, in which 4 or 5 students get together to study each week with a tutor.
Some think this zeal for education has gone too far. Recently, the United Nations’ Committee on the Rights of the Child said that Korea’s educational system is so excessive that it is abusive, and it will be issuing a set of recommendations soon.
Only in Korea does education spending not waver in the face of economic woes. Only in Korea do parents work so many extra hours just to be able to afford that little bit of extra private tutoring. But every little bit helps, and nothing is ever enough for a Korean parent’s child ― even if that child is just 16 months old.
by Choi Jie-ho