Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Another Great Article on Education in Korea

The December 17th issue of the Economist paints an interesting picture of what high stakes testing has done to kids in South Korea in the article: “The one-shot society”.  Rather than focus on hagwon or cram factories like the Time magazine article, The Economist piece discusses the one high stakes test that determines every student’s future.  It goes on to explain how the Korean government and economy encourages this testing by their hiring practices and in so doing discourages innovation and risk taking.  Finally it covers the increasing dissatisfaction of students in South Korea with the pressure to succeed.
Korea does very well on international exams, but at what price?  The level of dissatisfaction in
South Korea is very high.  According to the article less than half of Korean workers would recommend their company as a good place to work whereas three quarters of workers in the article’s global sample would.  Women feel pressure to work and raise a family, but they veer off the advancement pathway if they take time away from work to do so.  The result has been a plummeting birthrate that threatens to leave an older generation unsupported and leave South Korea irrelevant as a global power.
If nothing else, this analysis shows that you need to be careful what you wish for.  South Korea has achieved on tests and graduates an astounding 63% of its students with college degrees but life satisfaction is low and unemployment is relatively high.  Even though South Korea grew by 6.2% last year, 40% of college graduates had not found work four months after graduation.
When you review the kinds of schools that most South Koreans attend they look very similar to the kinds of schools prevalent in the United States.  The desks are in rows, the teacher is lecturing at from the front of the room, and students are madly taking notes except for the one who are asleep.  The classroom environment is perfect for this. Those motivated to pay attention are memorizing material through their note taking.  Those who learn differently or would prefer to talk about their learning in groups aren’t doing so well.  If not asleep they are daydreaming, or drawing or taking notes ineffectually.  The high stakes test will weed these “laggards” out, but in so doing may miss the creative genius, the orator, the musician, or the next high tech entrepreneur.
This picture is too true of many schools in the United States.  Some schools in the US are more innovative than this to be sure, and there are signs of change, but we need the system to change to show the progress we say we want.  The school environment can be an important part of that change.  By creating spaces that foster collaboration, creativity, and communication we can help educators and students teach and learn in new ways.  A space that is configured for small groups but can be changed to create large spaces for gatherings or projects, or a space that allows comfortable seating in a variety of lounging and formal configurations helps change the way teaching and learning happens.  It can help wake up the sleeping kids and turn daydreaming into productive reality.

Thursday, December 1, 2011


This is a big number.  It’s over a third of the TARP bailout fund.  It’s a little over a third of what we spend on Medicare and Medicaid.  It also about 42% of what we spend on Defense.  What this number is is 2% of our Gross Domestic Product. 
This is a significant number in that it represents education spending, and is what parents in the United States would collectively need to spend if they wanted to match parents in South Korea.  But this is not the cost of education in Korea.  No, 2% of GDP is the cost Korean parents are willing to pay for after school tutoring for their children over and above what the country spends on education.  In the States we spend about $625B on K-12 education now so spending another $290B would amount to almost a 50% increase in expenditures.  This sort of increase is unimaginable and yet our educational system continues to be excoriated over the results it produces while no one is willing to spend more for better results.
Time magazine talks about this in Their December 5th issue in the article: “Teacher, Leave Those Kids Alone”,9171,2094427,00.html which paints a startling, and perhaps frightening, picture of where teaching to the test can lead.  Students and parents are so concerned about performance on high stakes testing that they spend many hours and dollars on tutoring.  It has gotten to the point that the South Korean government raids “hagwons” or cram schools that operate after 10:00 PM in an attempt to break this obsession with cramming for the test.
This obsession with achievement is telling in two ways: 
1.       South Korea is always near the top of the OECD PISA scores and
2.       South Korea is trying to break the addiction of teaching to the test in order to ensure that its students are competitive in the future
In fact South Korea and other Asian countries that are top scorers on the PISA tests are concerned that they are turning out knowledgeable but dull students.  Students who know facts but have not been taught to apply what they know in creative ways.  Believe it or not, many Asian countries are looking to US schools as an example of how to better teach creativity to their students which they know is key to success in the 21st century. 
“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted"                                                                                                    Albert Einstein

The PISA tests may be measuring knowledge but the knowledge they are measuring may not be what’s important for success in the 21st Century.  In the meantime, the United States is moving toward the Asian model and increasingly teaching to the test which has the potential to harm the acquisition of the very skills our students will need to succeed in the future. 

What’s all this got to do with school facilities?  To me it reinforces the need to create facilities that encourage both academic rigor and creativity.  When America finally wakes up from its testing obsession schools need to be able to accommodate curricula that encourage creativity and the use and analysis of knowledge.  This is likely to mean project based learning, collaborative learning, and technology rich learning.  Learning that encourages exploration and analysis, critical thinking and debate.  Facilities that accommodate these endeavors will not be desks in rows but rather agile spaces that can change as do the activities of their occupants.  Facilities that show that education is valuable and a priority.