A responsibility to educate

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A responsibility to educate


Ahn Yang-ok

Policies that buttress universal values of democracy, freedom, happiness and human rights cannot easily be criticized or challenged regardless of their downsides. The critic could be accused of opposing basic human values. Those who oppose free school meals or students’ rights are scorned as old-school, inconsiderate conservatives. It is equally difficult to argue against the idea of allowing growing teenagers more sleep and time to have breakfast by pushing back school starting times. Who can say no to a healthier lifestyle for students? But an educator who sincerely cares for his or her pupils and wishes to defend the foundation of education should be able to speak out against the Gyeonggi superintendent and his new school starting-hour policy.

First of all, the policy should not have been rushed through without a broader consensus on a national and social level. A change in school hours not only influences the lives of school participants, but all of society. Different morning and afternoon hours were enforced depending on the grade or gender in elementary, middle and high schools in the early 1970s because classrooms were too full, with more than 80 students in class at a time due to a dire shortage of schools. The 9 a.m. start should have taken into account the average family’s schedule, morning traffic, students’ life patterns and other factors beyond just education. Amid controversy, President Park Geun-hye ordered the Education Ministry to come up with an official new direction on school hours. The new school hours in Gyeonggi could spread to other cities and districts. The Education Ministry must gauge reactions to come with a broad agreement on school hours. Schools were previously given liberty to decide when to start and finish within the daily school-hour period. But a regional school superintendent disrupted the established system by enforcing a starting hour without seeking schools’ approval.

The new starting time undermines the foundation of education and schools. Anyone would prefer extra time in bed. But a school is responsible for helping students better prepare for their futures. School exists for students, but not necessarily to please them all the time. It must not only help students increase their knowledge and intelligence, but also compassion, patience and honesty. Students cannot grow up to be decent without education in character and values. This new policy could end up doing more harm than good down the road. We have seen the disastrous fallout from policies allowing students to go to university if they excel in just one area. Old habits die hard. Schools must endeavor to help students develop good habits that can last a lifetime.

I also cannot agree that later school hours will help improve the health of students and that it has the backing of a majority of students. Gyeonggi education chief Lee Jae-jeong said that every student he met liked the idea of going to school at 9 a.m. But would the answer be the same if they had known that they then eat lunch and go home later than before? About 75 percent of students who came to school without eating breakfast said that they preferred not to eat in the morning because they had no appetite. How can the education chief be sure that students will now be having breakfast because they can go to school later? Teenagers lack sleep mostly because they watch TV, play computer games and spend time on their smartphones, according to a survey by the National Youth Policy Institute. Students will now be tempted to stay awake later at night because they can wake up later. The new school hours will then do little to alleviate the health hazards of sleep deficiency and skipping breakfast. Some would like to believe that students will fall asleep less during classes and concentrate better because they do not hurry to school in the morning. But there is also research that shows sleeping and waking up early can improve mental and physical health.

At any rate, a revision in school hours requires a social consensus. A superintendent leaves his or her office four years later, but students, parents and educators are stuck with the aftermath of half-baked policies.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

*The author is the president of the Korean Federation of Teachers’ Associations and a professor at Seoul National University of Education.

BY Ahn Yang-ok

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