Paved with good intentionsFive years ago, Lee Myung-bak’s presidential transition team’s plan to strengthen English lessons in public education created a large stir. The idea was to focus our English programs on real-life communication.
Despite the good intentions, the plan caused a range of adverse effects. Many questioned its feasibility and the private tutoring market was shaken. Five years have passed since then, and a critical evaluation is needed to review the plan’s effectiveness.
The Park Geun-hye administration, which launched on Feb. 25, has pledged to provide “happy education to nurture students’ dreams and talents.” Instead of the overheated competition and intense focus on college admission, the government wants to take the nation’s education system in a direction that inspires students and finds their talents.
The most talked-about pledge has been the “free semester” system, which is intended to give middle school students an opportunity to explore their career options. Instead of lectures in class rooms followed by exams, students are to be given opportunities for debate and field trips.
The idea is to shift the focus of our education system away from college admission toward careers. The intentions are good; our children should be able to discover their dreams as they go to school.
But good intentions aside, concerns are growing at schools. First, teachers are worried about a lack of continuity in the curriculum when the kids spend an entire semester solely on career exploration. Furthermore, students should be exploring their career options while they are studying within the curriculum.
Secondly, the schools will be forced to go through the difficult process of adapting the curriculum and the number of lessons, which could cause fatigue at among the students.
Starting with the students who entered middle school last year, their performance in their first year will count when they apply to high school. Therefore, the free semester could trigger a fairness debate. Because the students won’t be given midterm exams, the scope of the final exams will be vast, potentially increasing the burden on the children.
Thirdly, the free semester may just end up being abused to pursue more private tutoring. There are also many concerns that the vocational education infrastructure is still lacking, so the career exploration may not proceed properly. Many also worry that it will be hard to manage the students outside the classroom.
The Irish transition year system, introduced in 1974, can be a good model. The free semester should be given in the final semesters of the sixth grade in elementary school, and of the third grade of middle and high school.
Today, classes don’t continue to run smoothly in the period after students finish their final exams and before they enter the next level of their education. Instead of trying to keep the students in the classrooms, the period should be used to provide career experience. That will lesson the burden on the schools and increase the satisfaction of the students and their parents.
Furthermore, it will guarantee the continuity of vocational education throughout the school years rather than providing the opportunity for just one semester during middle school.
I hope the free semester system can be pushed forward as a Korean version of the transition year instead of repeating the failures of past campaigns to promote independent studies and field trips.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
* The author is president of the Korea Federation of Teachers’ Association and a professor at Seoul National University of Education.
by Ahn Yang-ok