Korean Culture From An American Perspective: Education

There's a lot to say about the Korean educational system. In this post, I'll try to focus on one particular aspect: the goals of education as perceived by the student. This post is about my experience with helping my wife to succeed at an American college while seeking a Bachelor's degree. I'm not a typical American, and my wife is not a typical Korean, so keep that in mind.

My experience with public education in America

I think students should think their goal is to learn something. They should perceive each assignment as an opportunity to gain knowledge or improve a skill. Some assignments allow a student to practice a skill. Math homework where a student solves various problems involving the multiplication of fractions is a good example of that. Other assignments require that a student learn to use the resources available to them to build an argument. By doing so, they should practice the skill of finding reliable resources and interpreting the information contained within them. Writing research papers is a good example of this.

Of course, some assignments given in school are total garbage. In Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life, Diane Tavenner gives the example of the California Mission Assignment, an assignment to build a model of a California Mission given across the state of California in response to a statewide curriculum requirement. This assignment is garbage because, to the student, there is no practical benefit to completing the assignment. In the student's eyes, it's another requirement thrust upon him/her by an authority he/she probably doesn't even know exists.

Shifting focus when given bad assignments

As a student, I was given many assignments like this. The more memorable ones were papers where I had to analyze a book or play and it had become clear that the teacher believed there was One True Analysis for the subject. Analyzing the subject in my own way would clearly result in a poor grade; any deviation from the prescribed analysis hinted at in class would result in a penalty to my grade regardless of what the rubric said. (Grading English papers is so subjective! It's very easy to knock two points off for a spelling/grammar mistake instead of one when the teacher isn't happy with a paper's content!)

In cases like these, I'd do what a lot of other kids would do: complain. My parents were often sympathetic. They'd agree that the assignment wasn't great. My parents would then do something that I suspect is not very common. They'd tell me to shift my focus from the assignment as stated and the given rubric to the assignment as implied and the teacher who gave it. (They used different words, obviously.) This idea completely changed how I approached assignments like these.

Instead of doing what I thought was right and trying to match my essay to the rubric, I put my teacher at the center of my essay. Regardless of who my teacher said my audience was supposed to be for my paper, I knew my teacher would be the real audience. If I were tasked with writing a children's story, I couldn't just write a story that I thought children would like. I had to write a story that I thought my teacher would think children would like.

Identifying learning outcomes that are different than initially expected

This shift in thinking made me reevaluate every assignment I was given. To get the best grades possible in school, I didn't have to give all the right answers. I had to give what my teachers thought were the right answers. To give what my teachers thought were the right answers, I had to think about who my teachers were, what they valued, why they assigned the work they assigned, and what did they think a perfect submission looked like.

For garbage assignments, this way of thinking was very helpful for me. The garbage assignment was no longer a garbage assignment. Instead, it was an opportunity for me to practice reading people and figuring out how to give them the thing they wanted regardless of what they actually asked for. Once I had identified an assignment as garbage, completing it became a game. I knew there was no skill or knowledge to be gained from working hard on the assignment, so I strived to spend as little time on it as possible. I thought about how I could get the most points with the least effort, and then I put my plan into action.

Benefits of identifying learning outcomes independently

Students enjoy learning when what they're learning has obvious applications, and for me, garbage assignments suddenly became an opportunity to learn how to deal with people that I didn't particularly like and who had an impact on my future.

With this change in thinking, I was able to realize that the goal of education is always to learn something new (knowledge, skills, behaviors, etc.) and that the things I'd learn were not always what my teacher said that I was supposed to learn.

My wife's experience with education in Korea

In this section, I'll be writing about my wife's experience with education in South Korea. I can only write about what she's related to me, and these things are probably not true generally in South Korea.

My wife's current educational goals

My wife is pursuing a bachelor's degree in computer science. She's currently attending classes at Georgia State University. English is her second language, after Korean, and she first started learning it a little over six years ago. (Can you imagine a six-year old taking college classes? Crazy!) So she struggles with some of the terms and cultural references used in her classes. Because of this, I spend a lot of time helping my wife with her classes.

My wife's study habits

While helping my wife, I've observed her study habits. Many of them were very different from mine, but I'm going to focus on only one of them today.

My wife will often ask me to check her answers on her homework. Up until recently, after I told her which answers were right and which answers were wrong, she'd immediately erase every wrong answer without even looking at it. This behavior shocked me. In some cases, her answers were pretty long and the error was only minor; she could have read through her answer, identified the error, and corrected it very easily. In other cases, her answers were completely wrong and needed to be completely erased.

Incremental improvement

As a student, when I learned that one of my answers was wrong, the first thing I'd do was read the question and my answer again. My first goal was to identify why my answer was wrong or at least identify which parts of my answer I was a little unsure about. That way I could focus my energy on fixing just the wrong part. I could find where my understanding of the material was weak or incorrect and fix it. I was always seeking to incrementally improve my knowledge and understanding.

If I were to immediately erase my answers, then all of that would be impossible. I'd have to start over from scratch. Even if part of my answer was right, I'd have to redo my entire thought process while solving the question. Yes, I might fix the mistake that I made initially, but how could I prevent myself from making new mistakes in another part of my thought process?

To use a building analogy, my goal in correcting my answers was to find the cracks in my understanding and to patch them up. My wife was razing her understanding to the ground and restarting from the foundations.

I couldn't understand why my wife would do that. She was effectively throwing away all the effort she had put into those questions. Why?

Educational goals in South Korea

When I asked her, the response that she gave was that in Korea, in her classes, the focus of education was not to learn something. The focus was to get the right answer.

From the stories my wife has told me over the years about her education in Korea, I've learned a few things. Students in her classes were routinely hit by their teachers for minor infractions even without proof that the infraction occurred. My wife was hit when she was accused of cheating on an assignment she didn't cheat on just because the teacher thought she got a better grade than she should have. (My wife tells me that hitting students is now illegal in Korea.)

Students in my wife's classes in Korea were inordinate amounts of work that they'd have to solve without thinking in order to finish in time. Many students attended private "cram schools" every day after regular school to help them keep up.

In my wife's experience as a student in South Korea, partial credit was sometimes given, but many tests were multiple choice. The focus of many tests was answering as many multiple choice questions as quickly as possible because that is the format of the Suneung, the high-stakes college entrance exam given once per year in South Korea. To do well on the Suneung, you have to answer many extremely difficult multiple choice questions correctly in an impossibly short amount of time, and there is no chance of getting partial credit. It's all or nothing.

I think she was erasing all of her wrong answers because she'd been taught that if something wasn't done exactly the way it was supposed to be done, then it was completely wrong. This jives with Korean culture in my experience. Korea is an extremely culturally-homogeneous place, and anyone who does something differently is quickly singled out.

Koreans are so used to everyone doing everything the same way that it's sometimes difficult for them to comprehend that there is another way to do things. This is a normal human reaction to novel stimuli. Many people became upset when they saw a purported photo of Justin Bieber eating a burrito from the inside out. This outrage resulted in the photo going viral. People couldn't understand that there's no wrong way to eat a burrito, and so when "Justin Bieber" did it "the wrong way", it became big news.

By growing up in a highly culturally-homogeneous society that values results over process, my wife learned that any answer that isn't perfect isn't worth a second of her time. This idea did not serve my wife well when she started taking classes at an American college, and I've been working with her to identify techniques and strategies to succeed in her current courses. Considering why her answer is wrong instead of immediately erasing it is one of the more recent strategies we've identified.

Not typical

To reiterate, my wife's experience with education in Korea is not typical, and everything I've written here about it comes from stories she's told me. I've tried not to generalize her experience because I'm sure other Koreans have had very different experiences from her. However, it's hard for me to write about this topic in an unbiased manner because I have very strong feelings about the Korean educational system based on the stories my wife has told me. My goal is not to point out what I see as the flaws of the Korean educational system but to highlight the modes of thinking that result in success in the American one. Hopefully that's how this post comes across.

Photo by Fitore F



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