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.

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