[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]Bold new ideas for education

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[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]Bold new ideas for education

The 2004 school year completes the transfer to the Seventh National Curriculum that began in 2000. The National Curriculum specifies the types of classes and the number of hours and credits for each class, from elementary school through high school. It also offers guidelines on teaching methods, educational materials and methods of evaluation. On average, the National Curriculum is revised every seven years, to keep pace with social change.
The Seventh National Curriculum is revolutionary, and therefore controversial. It is revolutionary because it breaks down the barriers between different levels of education and establishes a common curriculum for the first ten years of school. The last two years of high school consist of elective courses. The first year of high school is spent on the common curriculum, which is linked to the middle school and elementary school curriculums. This type of curriculum is only possible because nearly all Korean children complete high school.
Another revolutionary component of the curriculum is large amounts of time devoted to “school-developed learning activities.” This part of the curriculum allows schools and local boards of education to develop unique learning activities. These may be integrated activities that involve members of the local community, or components of various traditional academic disciplines. They may also be traditional classes in a given subject, but taught in a unique way.
In middle school, for example, second foreign languages and Chinese characters are taught as “school-developed learning activities,” even though they are traditional academic subjects. Another purpose of the activities is to create time for remedial and advanced classes in mathematics and English. Whatever the purpose, the existence of blocks of “free time” for schools and teachers to use as they see fit marks a decided departure from the rigid curricula of the past.
One of the most controversial aspects of the Seventh National Curriculum is its treatment of mathematics and English classes. From the third grade of elementary school to the first grade of high school, these classes are supposed to be divided into levels based on student achievement. Students who fall behind are supposed to be given extra help, while those who excel are placed in advanced courses.
Promotion in elementary school is automatic, but in middle school and the first year of high school, students are expected to master the material at a given stage, which is equal to one semester, before moving on to the next stage. Those who have trouble doing so are supposed to be given extra remedial lessons or held back until they master the material.
This type of “tracking” is new to Korea, and highly controversial. Teachers and school administrators find it difficult to divide classes and to arrange schedules for extra lessons. In most parts of the country, middle and high schools have not yet adopted level-based classes.
Testing has long held great sway over Korean education. The Seventh National Curriculum is the first to address student evaluation methods in detail. For many subjects, but particularly mathematics and English, ongoing “performance assessment” is recommended over traditional “paper tests.” Though less controversial than level-based classes, this was greeted with skepticism at first, because teachers were not familiar with performance assessment. Performance assessment is gradually taking root, but the continued use of a “paper test” for university entrance contradicts the goals of performance assessment.
For teachers of any age, the Seventh National Curriculum creates an educational structure that differs radically from the one they experienced as students. Until the Sixth National Curriculum, which went into effect in 1992, the curricula were uniform and rigid. Subjects were clearly distinguished from one another and used Ministry of Education-approved materials. There was little time for learning activities that did not fit under one of the subjects, and no place for materials and teachers that had not been “approved” by the government. Students were grouped according to age, not ability, and evaluation was based mainly on paper tests. The Sixth National Curriculum broke from this tradition and paved the way for the Seventh National Curriculum.
Reflecting the influence of Japanese colonial rule, this system focused on giving all children an equal education, with the aim of turning them into loyal and obedient citizens. In practice, however, teachers often took an “inner-circle” approach to teaching that focused on the good students, while ignoring weaker students. The tension between the narrative of equality and reality of inequality comes through clearly in films such as “Friend” (Chingu) that have extensive sequences set in schools.
For all its problems, the Seventh National Curriculum offers schools a chance to become creative learning centers that put needs of children, not those of the state, at the center of education. The transition will be long and difficult, but results will be liberating.

* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan.

by Robert J. Fouser

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