Probably you have heard about the so-called East Asian “tiger moms”, who push their children, make them pursue their goals, and don’t recognize “I can’t” as a valid response. In the case of South Korea, the system is not warm-and-fuzzy when it comes to education, as is the case in more flexible Finland, with whom this tiger country shares the top spot. There is certainly no universal educational system which works for every culture and mentality. However, thanks to PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results we can observe that these two diametrically opposite systems have something in common: persistence and hard work, which got them both out of potential crises.
Although widely viewed by outsiders as too strict, South Korean education proves to be one of the most successful every year, especially thanks to its literacy rate of nearly 100% and continuous high international achievement scores. Since education is highly regarded in Korean culture and is perceived as the means to climb up the socio-economic ladder, the South Korean government has allocated 19.8% of its central government budget to education. Technology literacy is equally important. Advanced gadgetry can be seen in almost every classroom: tablets, LCD screens – anything “tech-smart” that goes with the flow of modern times and can be used for educational purposes.
Kindergarten is optional, but beginning at the age of six all children must move on to six years of compulsory chodeung-hakgyo elementary education. There they learn various subjects like English, Fine Arts, Korean, Math, Music, Physical Education, Science, Social Studies, etc. The transition to three years of middle school can be difficult, because studies are taken far more seriously at the middle school level. Besides, regular middle school education offers optional programs like Art, Ethics, Math, History, Music, Physical Education, Technology, and Hanja Chinese Characters. In order to meet expectations of early excellence, children study both in-school and with tutors.
Finally, the last three years of formal education take place in high schools. The great majority of Korean high school students take a college scholastic ability test with the aim of taking their education to the next level. Standards are high, and some students start preparing themselves at quite an early age. The pressure might also come from the fact that starting with high school, education is no longer free. Therefore, the financial burden becomes more intense as students advance to higher levels.
The South Korean examination system plays an important role in determining a child’s future. Life in the country is completely responsive to the examination atmosphere. Parents pray for their children’s success, and airplanes are not allowed to fly above any place where testing is being conducted.
Students also encounter the completely new and challenging standards of excellence anticipated by university life. Being under enormous, unrelenting pressure to perform in this case triggers further investing in personal skills and knowledge. However, at the same time, South Korean young people are encouraged to be open-minded and even change their field of study at any time. Given an original idea for a project, they can work as interns and support themselves financially. A 27-year-old Korean who is preparing himself or herself for an entrance exam is not a rarity. In the end, it’s not about graduating as early as possible and getting just any job. Being the best in South Korea has to do with a working environment that advocates hard work and diligence above all, where talent is not considered as an important factor and therefore there is no excuse for failure.
Success comes at a price. For Koreans, however, the time spent studying, researching, and pursuing greatness at all costs is a price worth paying. Like it or not, the “sink-or-swim” mindset has contributed to what South Korea has become – a living proof of the power of a knowledge-based economy and outstanding people.
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