[SEOUL LOUNGE] Turning fast followers into first movers

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[SEOUL LOUNGE] Turning fast followers into first movers

I recently noticed a slightly sarcastic article on the Web site of the Huffington Post. In it, Michael Zimmerman writes that the knowledge gap between Korean and U.S. students in the sciences may be about to narrow. From his perspective, this is of course a good thing. U.S. children lag their Korean peers in just about any area that can be subjected to quantitative testing.

What is this magic ingredient that will allow American kids to catch up? According to Mr. Zimmerman, it is the Ministry of Education’s apparent policy of toning down the teaching of evolutionary theory, in response to Christian fundamentalist pressure. In terms of science education, U.S. schools will not be stepping up, but rather, Korean schools will be following them down the path of ignorance.

As is the case with Islam, it seems to be the most aggressive Christians that set the agenda. One does not have to believe that the world was literally created around 5,000 years ago to be Christian. But for some unfortunate reason, in Korea as in the U.S., it is the ones who do that end up getting their own way.

As a theory, evolution has been questioned endlessly over the years, and yet it still stands up. The Christian fundamentalist, creationist world view depends on a literal interpretation of a single book - a book that must be accepted on pure faith, rather than reason. The former plays according to scientific rules, and the latter seeks to be above any rules. It would be ironic if Korea started taking this second route at a point when its people are starting to seek an end to the question-averse, rote-learning methods that have long characterized education here.

On that note, it barely needs saying that Korean education needs more of an emphasis on thought and creativity than it currently possesses. Giving the qualitative its rightful place alongside the quantitative will be the key to making this country into a “first mover” rather than a so-called “fast follower” in the coming years, according to business consultant Peter Underwood - a man who like me possesses blue eyes, but was born and raised here, and hails from the family that founded Yonsei University. His recent book, also entitled “First Mover,” expounds on this idea and is well-worth reading.

The challenge will no doubt be to preserve quantitative standards whilst enabling children to think more freely. In the United Kingdom, we have, to some extent, failed in this. We continue to produce great artists, musicians and designers, but at the same time, many employers complain that even the university graduates they hire cannot do simple arithmetic, or spell. I have often heard people here say that Korea needs to emulate the educational practices of places like Finland - but for exactly the opposite reason, the U.K. should also follow the same advice.

Recently, I heard about an educational program named Serotonin, which is currently being used in 20 schools around Korea. Pupils still have their ordinary lessons, in which they learn hard facts as they always did, but during Serotonin time, they are encouraged to create art, sing, interact with each other, and generally engage in activities designed to exercise their imaginations in enjoyable ways. They are also taught the importance of healthy eating, exercise, and playing games of the non-electronic kind.

It always makes me sad to see how sullen middle and high school pupils look in this country. Of course, I also hated school at the time - but looking back now, it must have been paradise compared to what Korean schoolchildren go through. I was lucky enough to go to a school that helped me do well enough academically, but also allowed me to play football or practice rock music with my friends almost every day, and read the books I wanted to read. In hindsight, I was receiving my fair share of serotonin, and I hope that in the future, Korean kids will get such an opportunity as well.

* The author is the Seoul correspondent for The Economist.

by Daniel Tudor

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