A little room to breatheThe “free semester” system is one of President Park Geun-hye’s key education pledges.
“It will be a semester for students to nurture their creativity and explore their career options through diverse field trips and educational opportunities such as reading, sports, arts and vocational lessons without exams,” Park has explained.
But since the pledge was first announced, it has created much hand-wringing and opposition. The critics admit to the need for such a system. But they hold that schools and the current social infrastructure are not ready to accommodate it. They also worry that students will lose some of their ability to learn during the time off, or just abuse the period to pursue more private tutoring.
Their concerns are realistic but only if the free semester system were to be suddenly introduced to all middle school students in the same grade nationwide at once.
But a precondition of the plan is that the free semester will be only provided to the students who want to do it. It’s modeled after the transition year system in Ireland. That country has suffered similar problems associated with overheated competition for college admission, so in 1974 it introduced the transition program between the final grade of middle school and the beginning of high school. Only the schools and students who desire to participate need to.
In the system’s first year, only three schools around the country introduced it, but the number steadily increased. After a decade, 20 schools had adopted the system and today, 40 years after its launch, 75 percent of schools and 53 percent of students nationwide participate. During that time, the public perception of the program has improved, schools and teachers have become better prepared to deal with it, and the social infrastructure has been reinforced.
It’s irresponsible to oppose such a program as if it will be given to all students at all schools at the same time, ignoring the fact that the intention is to only provide it to those who wish to participate and to introduce it gradually.
More dangerously, the system is being rejected because of the critical public opinion before it even starts. Moon Yong-lin, the Seoul education chief known as the architect of the free semester pledge, promised to scrap exams for kids in their first year of middle school in line with the free semester system. As concerns grew, Moon announced that mid-term exams would be scrapped, and only final exam and performance evaluations will be applied in the first year, while vocational education will be strengthened. Although I welcome his desire to strengthen career exploration for students, that was just too far afield from the initial free semester pledge.
Today, many students at middle and high schools exhaust themselves preparing to get into college and fail to form an identity and discover their dreams. Many of them need to spend a semester or a year free from classes and exams to explore their lives and find their paths. Without changing our education curriculum or college admission system, there are many ways to help them find their way. Fortunately, Park recently renewed her promise to introduce the free semester system at any cost to turn our education system into one that produces happy people. Expectations are high for Park to follow through with the pledge.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
* The author is head of the Good Teacher Movement.
by Jeong Byeong-oh