Both in South Korea and the United Kingdom, school is a massive part of every child’s life. When a twelve-year-old British student visited the SK hagwon I worked in, the children started chatting about their different school lives, and I began to realise the impact of these differences.
One of the most obvious is that of time spent in school and studying. “You go home at 3:30pm? And you don’t study at home?” asked eight-year-old Korean pupil Wendy, flabbergasted. Indeed in the UK, school begins between 8.30am to 9am, and the children go home between 3pm and 4pm. Contrastingly Korean students start their school day between 7:30am and 8am and continue working through the evening (the average Korean high school student generally has class until 9:30pm or 10pm).
Half of this time is spent in public school, and the rest in hagwon; academies for extra, specialised tuition in specific subjects. The hagwon is a huge part of childhood for all South Korean children however it’s not widespread practice in British culture to pay for extra educational assistance. It was in a hagwon that I taught English as a Foreign Language for a year. I often had 10pm English classes for high school children, and it wasn’t unusual to have an 8pm class for elementary school students either. While British school child Amy was breathing a sigh of relief at not ever having to set foot in a lesson outside of school, it could be argued that Wendy is getting a more rounded education with additional subjects and a more in-depth exploration of core school subjects.
In terms of homework, in the UK there are currently no governmental guidelines for how much should be set. Furthermore, a 2001 UK academic research review found that time spent on homework has little impact on pupils’ results at secondary school, so there isn’t a burning emphasis on it. Yet homework is seen as integral in Korea, and as an EFL hagwon teacher I was expected (by the hagwon’s principal, the parents and the students themselves) to set homework for every student every class, be they 4 years of age or a middle-aged adult. Of course, school children would have homework from their public school, and from each of the other hagwons they attended as well.
Exams and tests are another significant part of the Korean education system. As Suzy Chung reported earlier this year, Korea is the “Land of Tests”, and students are constantly undergoing gruelling exams. It all leads up to the college exam to be taken at the end of high school, the most important day of a student’s school career. Students are fully aware of the gravitas of this exam and how it can affect the rest of their life. Their parents, family members and teachers also have such a great deal invested in it. It’s no wonder, then, that they feel the pressure on this day.
In the UK, there has historically been more of a balance between exams and coursework as means of assessment, with A-Levels as the current equivalent of the college exam. However, current Education Secretary Michael Gove is ebbing towards a more exam-focused curriculum and calling for tougher tests throughout primary and secondary education. Phonics screening tests for six-year-olds have already been implemented, and reforms of modular GCSE secondary school exams as well as A-levels have been proposed. Many UK teachers have voiced concern over this and see it as a step backwards, though.
Korean teaching styles are also far more “traditional” than those encouraged in the UK. Korean classrooms will usually employ a “teacher-focused” style, with the children sitting at desks and the teacher standing, talking and instructing from the front. In the UK, it’s increasingly common for more “child-focused” styles such as learning through play and peer discussions to be used in the classroom.
It may be no wonder that differences can be seen in UK and SK students’ attitudes. As is embedded in Korean culture, Korean children treat their school building and teachers with a high level of respect; students removing their shoes before entering the building and using honorific language when speaking to the teacher are just two examples of things that you would find children in Korea doing, but not children in the UK. Many young Korean students, even elementary age, also develop a sense of independence very early on. They often have to make their own way from school to hagwon (there is no taboo or fear in them doing so as there is in the UK), to actually clean (rather than just tidy or leave) their classrooms, and to manage their own workload, all of which children in the UK may not learn to do until they are much older.
On another note, British culture and attitude is very much focused on inclusion and diversity. The UK is extremely multi-cultural, and for the most part children from very varied backgrounds sit in a classroom together. For Wendy and her Korean classmates, Amy was the first non-Asian child they had ever met, despite being almost fluent in English.
Moving out of the classroom for a minute, the prevalence of school in everyday Korean life is mirrored in its pop culture. It’s rare for a British TV programme or film to be set in a school (Grange Hill and Teachers are the only ones that spring to mind), but in Korea loads of top dramas, romances and horror movies are placed just there. Additionally, stationery is a big industry in SK, and my students would always have the coolest bags, pencil cases, erasers, pencils, you name it! With the amount of time they spend in a classroom, this makes perfect sense.
The “coolness” of school-related products in Korea doesn’t stop there. Whereas British school uniforms tend to be very simple and functional, Korean ones have a different style and an element of chic to them, especially as they are endorsed by celebs like Big Bang and APink. Again, these touches make spending so much time at school that bit more enjoyable.
Overall, the Korean education system and its teachers are seen as far stricter and more traditional than the UK system, and it’s easy for Westerners to dismiss or criticise it (and vice versa). However, there is a lot to be said for respecting cultural differences, no matter how controversial or unusual they may seem. What both UK and SK schools have in common is a commitment to their students and a desire for them to achieve and succeed in their lives. Education systems are constantly evolving and teachers are always learning. They will hopefully be able to look to other cultures for a positive influence on the school environments that they create for future generations.