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Education in South Korea
After the Korean War, South Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world with a GDP per capita of $79. Today, it is home to many innovative technology companies and has a GDP of $1.619 trillion. This massive progress is largely due to the high standards of education in South Korea. With a strong cultural emphasis on education, the country was able to develop a flourishing economy and facilitate poverty reduction.

The Principles of Education

Education has always been important for Koreans. In the 18th century Korea, neo-Confucianist ideals and a stringent class system framed the Korean social order. Many considered education essential to slowly eliminate social stratification and offer equal opportunities. In fact, King Sejong the Great, the fourth king of the Joseon dynasty, created the Korean alphabet Hangul for that specific purpose. He wanted all of his people to be able to read and write, not just those of higher social class.

During the Japanese colonization of Korea, which lasted from 1910 until 1945, Japanese became the official language and Hangul was completely banned. Despite Japan’s imposed restraints on potential educational opportunities for Koreans during this time, the desire for education persisted. It was so tremendous that after Korea gained independence, the Korean people overwhelmingly demanded more opportunities for education. It evolved into a standard of economic and social mobility, or the fairest way to move up the socio-economic ladder. The industrialization process began through this principle, subsequently making education essential for employment.

South Korea’s Rise to the Top

In 1945, around the end of Japanese colonization, South Korea’s literacy rate was 22%, among the lowest in the world. To eradicate illiteracy, South Korea launched campaigns that aimed to educate those who did not have primary education. Additionally, in the 1950s, the government made elementary school obligatory by law. As a result, South Korea’s literacy rate rose to 96% by 1958.

The policies used to increase literacy rates also contributed to the rise in post-secondary education. South Korea ranks as the number one most educated country, where almost 70% of individuals between the ages of 25 and 34 have completed college, university or any other form of higher education.

Along with education in South Korea, the country’s economy transformed tremendously. Many consider South Korea’s economy to the most innovative economy regarding technology and has ranked number one in innovation for several years, raising its GDP to $1.619 trillion. Its ratio of research and development program spending to GDP is the highest in the world. South Korea has one of the most intricate and interconnected economies, leading in exports of information and communications technology as well as automobiles. It is also the first country to introduce 5G internet services for mobile carriers.

Education, Labor and Technology

The South Korean government believed that economic development on a national scale required high learning abilities and cognitive skills. By investing in education, students would develop skills and knowledge that would help in becoming excellent workers. The economy then flourishes and begins to invest back into education. The government also made sure to provide vocational or technical training which, alongside education in South Korea, has contributed to the low unemployment of 3.7%.

The emphasis on education in South Korea extends beyond national economic improvement. Technological companies such as Samsung encourage corporate-academic collaborations with universities like Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in Daejeon where they collaborate on research in electrochemistry and the development of new energy sources. Samsung has also provided technology to classrooms in an attempt to reduce the education gap.

Reduction of Poverty

The international community has long-since known that education alleviates poverty. There is a strong correlation between education, economic empowerment and low unemployment. Education helps economies grow and infrastructures develop. In South Korea, it was government policy that made education the biggest portion of the budget, next to defense. Government policy also used land reform to boost education. Land reform redistributed land which significantly reduced land ownership inequality. It thereby changed social policy, reduced poverty and aided in bringing educational levels to an all-time high. Rural populations with higher levels of education in South Korea produced a large workforce of well-educated individuals that served as a catalyst for industrialization and reduction of poverty. Today, although South Korea still battles poverty and an education gap between the rich and the poor, the country and its economy have greatly transformed since 1945.

Nada Abuasi
Photo: Unsplash

Education in South Korea

South Korea has long led the pack in terms of academic benchmarks. However, when addressing academic performance, analysts explain that emphasis should be placed on the achievements of individual students rather than giving credit to a loosely-defined education system that valorizes bureaucracy rather than pupils. In the end, South Korean scholars practice extreme self-discipline and must cope with acute stress to maximize their academic performance and to carry South Korea to the forefront of global education rankings. These eight facts about education in South Korea catch a glimpse into the life of students and the rigorous curriculum.

8 Facts about Education in South Korea

  1. Schooling is compulsory in South Korea until the age of 15. Pupils begin their education at 6-years-old when they attend primary school. When they reach 12-years-old, they transition to a lower secondary school for three years. At 15-years-old, South Korean students decide to continue their education by completing an entrance exam and committing to an Academic Senior Secondary School or a Vocational Senior Secondary School.
  2. In 2012, South Korea offered free half-day kindergartens for children of ages 3-5. Parents also have the option of enrolling their children in tuition-based private preschools, although the former option is becoming more popular. At a rate surpassing 90 percent, enrollment in early childhood education is very high compared to the rest of the world.
  3. Before attending a university, South Korean students enrolled in secondary school must take the suneung, the extremely rigorous and fateful college entrance exam that largely governs one’s future. On the day of the suneung, flight paths are diverted around testing centers to prevent test-takers from losing focus on the exam. Months, and even years leading up to the suneung, parents will enroll their children in weekend and after-school test preparatory academies called hagwons. These are notoriously referred to as cram houses.
  4. Discipline serves as the bedrock of education in South Korea. Students are obliged to rise and bow when their teachers enter the classroom, and South Koreans generally tend to have enormous respect for their mentors. Along with principal subjects such as science, mathematics and language, civil morality is a central pillar manifested in curricula throughout the entirety of compulsory schooling.
  5. A strongly-rooted cultural emphasis on discipline becomes blurred with the stress epidemic. The typical school day in South Korea begins at 8 a.m. and ends around 5 p.m., and following a short break at home, many students return to school libraries or hagwons to study into the later hours of the evening, sometimes even until midnight.  The stresses of attaining educational achievement sometimes reap fatal outcomes; in South Korea, suicide is the leading cause of death among teenagers.
  6. South Korean students consistently perform among the best in the world, according to statistics of standardized test scores and college drop-out rates. Although the South Korean education system placed third in the world during the first quarter of 2019, it was ranked as the best in the world for four consecutive years from 2013-2017.
  7. Alongside learning subjects such as basic Korean language and mathematics, students in grades one and two take subjects that reaffirm South Korean values that emphasize happiness and discipline, such as “Good Life,” “Happy Life” and “Wise Life.”
  8. Following major reforms beginning in 1995, education in South Korea has been transitioning from focusing on optimizing standardized test results and cramming students for college entrance exams to implementing a new curriculum that incorporates the humanities and realities of a globalized world. Class lectures emphasize community and global citizenry, and teachers underscore the importance of learning about new cultures and foreign intellect.

These eight facts about education in South Korea show mixed results for students. South Korean students have incredible performance rates, yet they are also susceptible to high stress-induced suicide rates. It is worth taking a critical look at their curriculum to better understand what works and what doesn’t.

– Grayson Cox
Photo: Flickr

Strongest Education Systems
Over the last few years, major changes have occurred in the world ranking of nations’ education systems. Five countries that claim the strongest education systems have successfully implemented methods that may help countries with high poverty rates and weak education systems.

In descending order, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong and Finland claimed the top five rankings for strongest education systems in 2015. Four of the top five are Asian countries or territories.

According to MBC Times, these countries outperform others because they value engagement and accountability culturally and their education systems emphasize effort over “inherent smartness.”

Each of the top five initiated unique tactics that have increased the quality and accessibility of education:

  1. South Korea
    South Korea emerged as the number one ranked education system in 2015. With a yearly budget of just over $11 billion, South Korea spends more money on education than many countries.
    Children attend school seven days a week and are expected to work very hard from a young age. As a result, South Korea has made impressive strides in literacy rates. According to Fair Reporters, nearly 100% of the population — 99.2% of males and 96.6% of females — is literate.
  2. Japan
    Japan experienced great success in recent years by incorporating technology into its education system, providing its students with tremendous resources. In addition to demanding hard work from students, Japanese educators value extracurricular activities highly. According to Fair Reporter, students in Japan are generally expected to participate in extracurricular activities.
  3. Singapore
    Impressively, Singapore ranks third with a school system that the Singaporean government made up from scratch. Singapore’s school system values deeper education through conceptual learning over traditional schooling methods, which often encourage simple memorization and repetition. Singaporean educators focus on training students to be problem solvers and thorough thinkers.
  4. Hong Kong
    With a 94.6% literacy rate, Hong Kong has an education system similar to the United Kingdom’s. The Social Welfare Department oversees education, ensuring that each level of schooling works together to produce a fluid education experience. According to the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong has more top-200-rated universities than any other Asian country or territory.
  5. Finland
    Finland, who lead in the ranking for years, has dropped below Asian countries since 2012 but is still notable for its holistic, free education system. The Finnish education system values education outside of the classroom; school days are kept short and followed by school-sponsored educational activities. Finland’s teachers are some of the finest, most educated in the world.

Although major educational improvements have been made worldwide, many poor countries still have weak education systems that need systematic reform. Education systems like those of South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong and Finland are guiding the way forward.

Their methods, such as incorporating out-of-classroom education, requiring extracurricular activities, increasing education budgets, valuing conceptual learning, using technology and hiring well-educated teachers, could contribute to educational growth in poor countries worldwide.

Alex Fidler

Photo: Flickr