[Viewpoint]Lessons in life

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[Viewpoint]Lessons in life

As Korea further globalizes and with increased migration, the calls and need for educational reform grow more imperative. Periodically, there are some voices raised, often during the first few months of a new administration.

University professors such as myself despair about the lack of independent, critical thinking and poor research skills seen in some incoming freshmen. Parents complain about the high cost of hagwon and the uneven efficacy of public schools. Students fret about the constant test-taking and never-ending rote memorization. Everybody knows the system is broken, yet good intentions alone won’t translate into improved school programs.

Lee Myung-bak’s initiatives to increase English-speaking teachers and classes are a case in point. He would like to hire thousands of native speakers or ensure that enough English-fluent Korean instructors are ready to conduct all English classes in English, as opposed to Korean, in public schools.

This is a laudable goal, but completely unrealistic. Not only is the transition period far too short, the means to the end have not been spelled out in any detail. The specific roles of native-speaking and Korean English teachers must be decided, and short-term objectives and long-range goals need to be mapped out. There is very little indication, so far, that the Lee administration has a firm handle on the situation.

Although Koreans can be justifiably proud of the math and science abilities displayed by many of their tech-savvy youngsters, evidence still abounds of trouble in this country’s public high schools.

Forcing teenagers to study for 12 to 14 hours through their adolescent years is borderline child abuse.

Despite five to six years of English-language study, most Korean kids do not get near fluency. Parents often spend hundreds of thousands of won per month at hagwon in the vain hope that such institutes can provide at least some edge to language acquisition, with mixed results. Of course the very wealthy can send their children to international schools.

A more drastic step is sending the children and mother away to an English-speaking country while the father stays in Korea, living alone and furnishing a financial lifeline to his family overseas: the “Goose daddy” phenomenon. This kind of choice is enormously expensive and disruptive to parent-child and husband-wife relationships.

So why do Korean parents resort to such desperate measures? Part of it, no doubt, is due to the genuine devotion that Korean fathers and mothers have for their children.

However, another aspect results from Korea being a fiercely competitive society and the need “to keep up with the Joneses.” As a result, they tend to focus intently on the quantifiable ? that is, the primacy of test scores and grades.

We should remember though that learning involves much more than just schooling. Moreover, schooling involves much more than taking tests, doing homework, and passively listening to lectures.

Here’s a tiny list of the myriad ways humans learn: visiting an art gallery, going to a science exhibit, attending a concert, playing a musical instrument, keeping a journal or diary, demonstrating for a cause, seeing a play in a theater, volunteering, and just walking into the local public library to read. Parents need to realize that these activities should not disappear during the high school years as they apparently do for many.

We need to reorient education toward creating conditions that allow for the development of a relaxed, confident, capable, and well-rounded person.

How do we create those conditions? Since most families cannot afford to send their kids abroad or pay the tuition at international schools, the battle will have to be fought in the public schools.

The debate about changes in English language instruction has tended to obscure the bigger issue: large-scale and wide-ranging reform of schooling practices.

Following are some ideas. (1) Fewer courses taken at any given time, but with more learner-selected options. Ten courses per semester is simply too many ? maximal breadth with minimal depth; (2) Class size reduction to less than 30 students; (3) Higher salaries, less administrative paperwork and Saturdays off for teachers; (4) More varied and collaborative pedagogy concentrating on learner-centered approaches; (5) Reduced test-taking along with more diverse forms of assessment (research, independent study, portfolios, etc); (6) More cross-disciplinary curriculum, unit-building, and lesson-planning; (7) Art, music, competitive sports, and foreign language programs as options for students in all public schools; (8) Allowing and encouraging family members, relatives and others who would like to volunteer to tutor pupils or assist teachers during class time.

Parents throughout Korea must demand these changes be made.

Koreans traditionally have revered education, yet not always realized that it must engage students and make them an active part of the process.

As a teenager in America during the late 1970s, I loved high school. Friends were made, events were held, lessons were learned, and homework completed. I acted in literature class, debated issues with the teacher and other students in U.S. history, played trombone in a band, ran in competitive track, got good grades, and still managed to balance my time for study, fun, and reflection.

When the average Korean teenager can savor instead of dread a regular day in high school, we will know that substantial progress has been made.

*The writer is a professor at the Graduate School of International Studies, Hanyang University.

by Joseph Schouweiler
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