Monday, September 13, 2010

Ask a Korean! News: Are Korean Students Like American Students of 100 Years Ago?

Mitch Albom of Tuesdays with Morrie fame apparently thinks so. A sample:
South Koreans treat school like a full-time job plus a full-time marriage. They put in day hours and night hours, followed by weekend hours. It is not uncommon to see children in school uniforms walking home late at night. It is not uncommon to see them studying through weekends. There is private English education on top of the public education. Families split apart to improve a child's training. You hear stories about schooling that runs from sunrise past sunset, with breakfast, lunch and dinner being served in the building.

What you don't hear is cheerleading squads. What you don't hear is spring break trips to Cancún. What you don't hear is classes to boost self-esteem, to celebrate an ethnic group, to explore the arts. What you don't hear is "Glee" or "High School Musical" or other coolness-driven entertainment fantasies about high school fashion, sex, talent or jockdom.


There is an obsession with getting ahead here that begins with the classroom and permeates the adult workplace, where rigid hours and meager vacation days are the norm. The attitude mimics one you heard among American immigrants in the early 20th Century: "If you don't do well in school, you won't get to college, if you don't get to college you won't get a god job, and if you don't get a good job, you'll be a loser."

There is no shame in that lecture here. It is not viewed as corny or clichéd. It is part of the national pride, if not the national obsession.

How are American kids going to copy that? We're not disciplined enough, we're not hungry enough, and, most importantly, either parents don't say it enough, or if they do, kids ignore them.

Which, by the way, doesn't mean Korean kids are happier. It may be quite the opposite. Everywhere I went, I encountered teenagers in love with my book "Tuesdays With Morrie," because the teacher in it showed compassion and encouraged humanity, not just grades. Many kids told me, "I wish in my life I would meet a Morrie."

Our kids laugh more, play more sports, express themselves more openly. The kids here are serious beyond compare, and they are driven to succeed. I'm not sure which system I'd prefer, but I know they are apples and oranges, and the length of a school year is only a tiny difference.
Korea's kids just like ours, 100 years ago [Detroit Free Press, via Marmot's Hole]

It is very easy to find many, many faults to Albom's column. Albom's self-professed expertise in Korea amounts to all of one week visit to Korea. Accordingly, in the course of making this point, Albom filled the column with trite charcterizations of Korean culture. ("Gee whiz, Korean language has honorifics! How exotic!") The biggest fault is the headline. The column's headline is provocative, but the column itself makes no attempt to actually make the connection between Korea's students and America's students of 100 years ago. In fact, the Korean has to wonder why that headline was even necessary, given that the headline, standing alone, seems to suggest that Korea of today holds something good that America used to hold. But one of Albom's points is that Korea and the U.S. are apples and oranges, and America's attempt to emulate Korean educational system piecemeal is naive.

But the Korean does think that Albom's true main point, although poorly articulated, is worth considering:  that fixing America's educational system cannot be limited to nibbling around the margins of the system. Instead, it will take a holistic look at the major forces that fuel and animate the system, and direct such forces to the way we want them to go.

In fact, that is a point similar to the one that Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson makes:
"Reforms" have disappointed for two reasons. ... The larger cause of failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation. Students, after all, have to do the work. If they aren't motivated, even capable teachers may fail.

Motivation comes from many sources: curiosity and ambition; parental expectations; the desire to get into a "good" college; inspiring or intimidating teachers; peer pressure. The unstated assumption of much school "reform" is that if students aren't motivated, it's mainly the fault of schools and teachers. The reality is that, as high schools have become more inclusive (in 1950, 40 percent of 17-year-olds had dropped out, compared with about 25 percent today) and adolescent culture has strengthened, the authority of teachers and schools has eroded. That applies more to high schools than to elementary schools, helping explain why early achievement gains evaporate.

Motivation is weak because more students (of all races and economic classes, let it be added) don't like school, don't work hard and don't do well. In a 2008 survey of public high school teachers, 21 percent judged student absenteeism a serious problem; 29 percent cited "student apathy."
School reform's meager results [Washington Post]

The Korean does think that there are many tangible things of Korean educational system from that American educational system can emulate, including longer school hours. (To be sure, this is not an exhortation that American education system to become exactly like Korean educational system, which has plenty of faults of its own.) But as Albom and Samuelson point out, ultimately it will take a change of attitude to truly achieve reform. The Korean thinks such change is possible, but only over a long period of time following a series of reforms toward a consistent direction. But that's a topic for another day.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. I hate this idea that just because Koreans work longer, they're somehow higher achievers than other cultures. In some cases, the opposite is true. Yes, many of my middle school students are in school from sunup to sundown. However, the whole time they're in school, they're goofing off, running around, sleeping, playing video games and generally shirking any duties they actually do have.

    And I've got to tell you, the idea that Korean students have more respect for their teachers than their American counterparts is just patently false in my opinion. Of course my perspective is only limited to my experience, but Korean students can be just as snotty, disrespectful, and rebellious as the kids in my middle school were. I've had students "야!" me.

    Obviously I've only been talking about the negatives; there are huge benefits to being a teacher here vs. in the States, and my courteous students are the loves of my life. So this shouldn't be taken as Korea-bashing at all...I just hate the constant parade of articles that make it seem like Asian students are all disciplined and fastidious, because that is NOT always the case.

    1. I definitely agree with you. I'm a high school student here in Korea, and yes, we go to school by 8 in the morning and go home past 9 o' clock, more than 13 hours at school. People think Korean students are smart and that they spend most of their time studying. Well, yes and no. Some are very, very smart, and we do spend a lot of time studying. A lot of students go to academies and come home past midnight, but most of them hate studying because of the pressure of it. Most students use swear words, are rude to teachers, and even to each other. Except for some nerds(I'm not using this word to be mean, but I hope you know what I mean), nobody likes studying. Yeah, like you, I've been talking about the bad stuff, but it's a fact. I wish people would stop saying that the Korean educational system is the best, and that we should extend study time like them, and stuff like that, because it's NOT the best system.

  2. The easiest thing to do would be to require students even in public schools to wear uniforms. It's certainly not a fix all solution, but certainly less time will be spent by kids trying to procure money so that they can show off the latest fashion trends, when everyone has to wear the same thing.

    If youd have run the idea by me in High School i'd have thrown a huge fit, but now I think in retrospect, I wish I'd had a uniform.

  3. The students are serious beyond compare? Really?

    My students are exactly like fourteen/fifteen/sixteen year old boys in the US. Exactly. Give or take a few akward behaviors in regards to having been isolated from the female form. They run around, wrestle, throw things, sniff things, pull each other's pants down, laugh at stupid shit almost constantly, obsess over anything digsusting.....

    There's this prevailing idea with Americans that "Asian" students are always serious, quiet and dedicated. What Americans don't realize is that coming, as Asian students often do, from a completely different language and culture, you usually end up being pretty quiet just so you don't draw attention to yourself and your differences. At least at first. Also, your parents' culture is different, and they direct your behavior in different ways.

    In Korea, they're all "Asian" students. And that doesn't equate to 40 quiet, timid faces staring back at me in the classroom. I don't know what students she encountered during her week here, but they clearly weren't mine.

  4. Right you are, Tiffani and I'm No Picasso. For the same reason, the Korean thinks that the criticism that Korean education "does not let children be children" is unwarranted. Korean children are children just as much as anywhere else -- the idea that they have to be running around outside like American children do to "be children" is silly.

  5. "But the Korean does think that Albom's true main point, although poorly articulated, is worth considering: that fixing America's educational system cannot be limited to nibbling around the margins of the system. Instead, it will take a holistic look at the major forces that fuel and animate the system, and direct such forces to the way we want them to go."

    Mitch Albom's literary technique of saying a lot, but not really say anything meaningful, but saying it with a certain amount of eloquence is infectious.

    First, I'd like to point out that Leave No Child Left behind was passed 9 years ago, and the educational system has been scrambling ever since to try and get it right.

    Second, "This Korean-American" couldn't understand for the life of me why my parents expected me to study at all hours of the day when I could have been screwing around. Seriously - my parents were insane, and guess what, I didn't listen to them (screw Confucius).

    Lastly - Mitch Albom's attempt to whimsically cheer on education (from Detroit) reform with this arm chair puff piece is laughably absurd. There is no substance to this article, it's a rambling of musings from his personal travel diary.

  6. I'll just say that this attitude towards academic education is the same with Korean kids in the US. Having changed careers several times now and having worked independently in a wide variety of work settings, interpersonal skills far out-weigh the skills gained in English grammar or advanced Calculus classes.

    Your average millionaire is not the investment banker who went to an Ivy League school, plays violin and studied night and day to get a 1600 SAT score.

    It is Joe Blow who's pipe-fitting company just scored a major deal with Tyco or Sally, the realtor who flipped five houses last year.

    "The world is run by C+ students."

    1. I strongly believe that interpersonal skills are very valuable in many workplaces. Truly, algebraic functions or the finer details of the composition of a sonnet usually does not come into play during most work. Although my father definitely uses his engineering background as an IP attorney, he would probably say that his ability to connect with people plays a vital role in his career.

      Yet this Korean education we're talking about is what prepares children for a high-quality life, not (necessarily) a life as a millionaire. Most millionaires are people like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg who dropped out of college to start up their own businesses, or (in your example) a pipe-fitting company owner.

      However, most doctors/lawyers/engineers with successful, well-off lives are Asian-American, raised with the "Asian" attitude towards academic education. To quote Asian Nation, which The Korean used as a source in his "Tiger Mothers Are Superior" article, "Asian Americans have the highest college degree attainment rate, rates of having an advanced degree (professional or Ph.D.), median family income, being in the labor force, rate of working in a "high skill" occupation (executive, professional, technical, or upper management), and median Socioeconomic Index (SEI) score that measures occupational prestige. "

      So are most millionaires your Ivy League yuppies? No, not usually. But are most Asian-Americans pretty well-off? Yes, most of the time.

      P.S. Just to point out something...I seriously doubt that one would need to study night and day to obtain a 1600 SAT score. I mean, I'm a freshman and I scored above 1750. Unless I'm an anomaly?

    2. The maximum score for the SAT used to be 1600 up until seven years ago when it was increased to the 2400 we now have today.

  7. It's not so much American students' apathy. It's deeply cultural issue. Americans are into the hard work, but of the "trudge through the forest and claim some land and build me a log cabin" variety. There is little or no respect for learning or education. Americans think you should finish high school so you can get a job. Likewise, go to College to get a better job, as if university learning is a glorified technical school. GOD FORBID you would major in something USELESS like English literature.

    Without that change, American education will never get better.

  8. I think increasing hours in America for education would not work. More hours, more studying, more pressure cannot be the answer. My son is in kindergarten and has a full day of seven hours, on top of that the older kids have homework. This is just a public school and the neighborhood is not wealthy and the kids are not smarter than average. Finland, my home country, I have gloated about it before on your blog, has an excellent education system. It has always been really good, certainly better than most education in the US. I do not remember as a first grader having longer days than four hours and we got to play outside a lot, do crafts and such but we learned to read by the end of first grade without the assistance of kindergarten and also to do a fair bit of math and some local biology with the addition of Finnish geography. I know that now Finnish kids spend a lot of time on computer and doing the same things as American kids do.

    I do not think days should be made shorter or anything like that. I believe in a balance for kids. I think it is a multi-faceted problem. Separate and unequal schools for the rich and the poor. I have been to some excellent schools while here in America and also some terrible ones, depending on my neighborhood. Also parents need to take more responsibility in teaching their kids to behave in a school environment so teachers can teach them. I am also sure that attracting more of the nations best and the brightest to be teachers would help too, the low wages and pressure of teachers unions really do not facilitate that now. America's entire way of looking at educating kids needs to change. How many teachers are expected to give one on one tutoring to each and every child that needs it? When do they have the time during their colossally long school days? The students went in half as long as the teachers, the teachers stayed a full day to work with each and every struggling student individually or in small study groups. It worked for me, I am not saying the exact model needs to be enacted here but the whole system needs an overhaul, and the problem is not slacking off or not having enough work.

  9. Skeptigirl -- Well said. More of something that's shit is still just shit. Ten hours of crap education is jus three more wasted hours than seven hours of crap education.

    Last year we started the T&T program here in Korea. It was supposed to be an after school program with extra assistance for students who were struggling. Instead, it ended up being fifty students running up and down the halls for two hours after school let out, while two apathetic "teachers" sat at the desks playing with their cell phones and reading novels. Occasionally, the students would take advantage of the time to work on their homework quietly to themselves.

    Making sure every kid has access to textbooks and tutorials and different kinds of classes for different kinds of learning... these kinds of things will be what improves education both in the States and in Korea. Once you've got the quality down, then you can move on to talking quantity.

  10. I was actually impressed by how much he had absorbed in just a week... He listened to students and explained a lot of concepts they related to him to his target audience (Americans with no passing familiarity with Korean education beyond that stereotype of Asians work harder and do better on tests than we do).

    My students in Korea constantly asked me what the differences between American and Korean education were, and his point about Korean society being wholly invested in education for education's sake is one I would often point out. Sure, it's superficial, but for the time he spent there, it's money. It's more than some people I know who have been working in the Korean education system for 3-7 years after attending the American education system for 16 or so manage to absorb.

  11. All I'm gonna say is that there isn't a school in the Republic of Korea that has metal detectors... and that's saying a lot.

  12. @Edward: Guns are illegal to own or distribute here. As Chris Rock once said, if you want to cut down the murder rate, make bullets cost $10,000 each.

    Your comment gives the impression, however, that Korean students aren't violent. In the past six months, I've had one student beaten into a coma by two others and one student who had to have his balls surgically repaired after being kicked in them. Not to mention the four or five shattered windows in the hallways that occurred during those free-for-all 10 minute breaks between classes.

    Korean kids aren't as wild as kids in the States. I'm not naive enough to believe that (mostly because my mother videotaped her middle schoolers - they're much worse), but they're certainly not angels, either. The metal detectors aren't here because the kids don't have access to guns. Change the gun laws, and you'll most certainly see guns in schools.

    Second amendment in effect, baby! Woohoo USA!

  13. The Korean Writes - "Right you are, Tiffani and I'm No Picasso. For the same reason, the Korean thinks that the criticism that Korean education "does not let children be children" is unwarranted. Korean children are children just as much as anywhere else -- the idea that they have to be running around outside like American children do to "be children" is silly."

    Yes, Korean children are just like children anywhere, but within the context of Korea itself.

    I believe there is a considerable difference between "playing" inside a school (or multiple schools) for 10-12 hours a day vs having 7-9 hours outside of the school to do whatever a kid chooses (within reason). The idea of being confined in the school is where the "freedom" and balance is lost.

    There are obviously many other external considerations that come into play. Korea's logistics, economical necessities, population etc. I just don't see Korean children as having a healthy, balanced life.

    GolfAddict23's post is dead on, but it applies to the U.S. and NOT Korea, due to the external factors previously stated.

    When a Korean student is sitting in a hagwon with a pool of drool on his/her desk, what is really being accomplished? Korea's heart is in the right place, but Korea does not know when enough is enough. Korea is pushing too hard and this force comes with a hefty price tag.


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