Korean Pedagogy

I have another question here, and anyone who can answer from experience would be appreciated if they could give me a little information.

Can you please describe, in whatever detail you like, what the standard kinds of teaching methods are in a standard Korean classroom? I’m not especially interested in a language classroom; history, civics, art classes, and other subjects are just as important to me.

Last night I went out to dinner with the English teachers from the high school where I am teaching a few hours a week, a sideline approved by my current employer. The English staff there have been hoping to go out to dinner with me for a while now. Well, finally we went out, we talked about all kinds of things — one of the teachers is learning saxophone, another is married with some high school kids, one is a nun with a pretty prestigiously successful set of siblings, another spent time in Toronto last year, and one is just an average dude who’s working his way through life.

The food was pretty good, the conversation was alright though I had to take a lot of the initiative, which I guess is normal since they almost never engaged in conversation in English as a group; but the strange thing was, when we turned to talking about the classroom.

They asked me what kinds of teaching methods, and I told them the basics. I tend to try to get the girls doing more than just sitting and relating to the language in the abstract: physical movement corresponding to described actions, demonstrative gestures, even a little role-playing (you know, TPR stuff); task-oriented exercises like trying to get information from someone else or trying to get some kind of job done; getting students to use the sentence structures we’re working on to say what they actually think, such as, “I HATE homework!” or “I like Gord because he’s crazy!” or “I’m crazy about H.O.T. because they are good singers and dancers!”

I told them my main trick is trying to pull the Tom Sawyer trick, when he was whitewashing the fence. You know, make some kind of work look as if it were absolutely the most interesting, fun thing to do. Sometimes, this works: girls don’t get to insult their teacher or talk about boys in class everyday, after all. But the funny thing is how very intensely excited they can be about grammar, or vocabulary, and yet not realize it. We did a simple exercise involving “I like…”, “I hate…”, “I wish I had…”, and “I’m scared of…” in which girls listed and explained answers to these questions, such as, “I like ice cream because it’s cold and delicious.” The girls had a hell of a fun time working on this, figuring out answers, getting me to explain how to say this or that in English, and checking one anothers’ answers. All the while, they were practicing using a structure they all have learned by rote, but never, ever used.

Well, after I described this the teachers all seemed impressed, which embarrassed me. I mean, they have degrees in education, they have their own methodologies, surely. I’m a guy who studied music composition and creative writing and a little literature. What the hell do I know beyond what I’ve picked up in experience and read up about in spare moments? So I asked about their teaching methods.

The response surprised me. It was mostly embarrassed silence, and the youngest teacher was called on to answer my question. He said, very simply, that he spends a lot of time telling students to be quiet, to behave or they will get whacked on the hand; that he tells them to sit down and be quiet, and they work through the material. I asked how they work through the material and he didn’t seem to have much more of an answer than that.

I don’t know the reason for the coyness, but I do know that it got my curiosity up. A grad student in English Education who decided to join me at the professor’s cafeteria for a round of “Talk to the Foreign Guy” (where were these girls hiding when I was single?) explained that the majority of teaching in Korea generally relies on a rote-learning pedagogy and that people studying English Education now, at least in advanced degrees, are talking about how the pedagogy needs to be changed.

But I am wondering more about what kinds of methods are commonly used in the Korean classroom right now, about how they condition students’ expectations of learning and of classroom behaviour. I have a feeling all of that is profoundly important in shaping the kind of reception that foreign teachers with their bizarre methodologies and perhaps inscrutable approach to running a class. After all, no matter what kind of theory one learns, no matter what kind of approaches one reads about and tries on, the role of teacher and the role of student are both deeply, profoundly informed by one’s previous experiences in the classroom. I have been shaped as a teacher by my best (and worst) experiences as a student, and I often reflect that my students, for better and for worse, are the same way.

So if anyone can offer me any information on the average Korean classroom and how it’s run, I’d love it. Movie references with some degree of accuracy would even be appreciated. (I’m thinking 선생님 김봉투 is more accurate than 화산고 but correct me if I am wrong.)

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