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Five (or Six) Principles of Educational Reform For Korea’s Future

This week’s F5 question comes from the inimitable Dan:

A train leaves Chicago at 3pm travelling south towards New York at 80 pounds per hour. Meanwhile, a car leaves London on Tuesday, heading towards Los Angeles at 3.5 meters per sterling pound. When the two meet, a hapless high school student will realize he’s never going to get into college. Before that happens, suggest five ways in which your local school system could be improved to better prepare students for either college or the real world or both. (Bonus points for someone who can tell me when the train and car will meet.)

Uh, no. No to the word problem, that is. The ocean’s in the way and the car will never get across, and the velocities aren’t measured in normal amounts, and it’s all a big trick, motherf*#$er!

Now, as to how my “local” school system could be improved to better prepare students for either college or the real world or both. I must first state a caveat about all that will follow, which is this:

I’m living in a foreign country, a country in which I have no experienced life in the secondary school system except in very short glimpses as a teacher, and absolutely never as a student. I am basing what will follow on discussions with large groups of Korean college students, on my experiences in many college (and some high school) classrooms in Korea, and on discussions with a small circle of close Korean friends and acquaintances. One last thing to consider is that I am teaching at a private university. Not to speak disparagingly of my employer, but it’s a small University in what’s considered nationwide one of the poorer, more backward provinces in the country. Everybody knows that the big National Universities in Seoul and the smaller National Universities in other provinces cater to the students who, at least according to official evaluations, are the educational elite. Unlike in the US, private Universities tend not to cater to the uber-elite, but rather to those students whose grades were not quite good enough to get into a National School. This is fine, but it should be taken into account that I’m not teaching at a National University. Then again, I’ve heard that even at those schools, in the undegrad stage, things aren’t so vastly different from what I’ve seen in my own classrooms. So in any case, take it with a grain of salt that I’m working at a private “countryside” (ie. not in Seoul) university attended by students who by and large are not the academic elite of the nation or even the region.

That said, it’s not that I don’t have dealings with students who just got out of high school, or with people who have gone through the system. In fact, some very interesting discussions in class this semester have involved the (mostly quite intelligent and quite interesting) advanced English students discussing this very topic, which was fascinating… doubly so because the Social Welfare majors—people wanting someday to specialize in Social Work and Counseling and things like that—were chock full of ideas about how to “fix” the Korean education system, which everyone seems to agree is deeply, deeply broken; meanwhile, the Education majors seemed eager to praise the Korean public school system and only reticently got into talking about what could be improved, after they seemed comfortable establishing that things are in fact pretty good.

Which, in my somewhat uninformed opinion, is a problematic claim, but anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself.

EDIT: My second caveat, which I’m adding after some thought, is that you consider that, yes, while I’m a foreigner in Korea, I do care about issues and problems in Korea. To suggest that I’m criticizing merely for the sake of complaining is smallminded and dismissive. Frankly, I thought about a lot of this when considering the possibility that I could possibly be raising a child in Korea at some point in the future. The problems I pinpoint are problems that came to mind which I wouldn’t want imposed on my own offspring. And to think that someone cannot care about the place where he lives and the fate of those he lives among, simply because he is not a native to that place, is not just simpleminded but also contrary to the experience of many, many people who do connect with the place they’re in and the people around them, and do honestly care about the both enough to wish their future lot could be better. Let it not be forgotten that my criticisms, however mistaken they may be, are all made with any eye to how the improvement of education here could be achieved.

So I welcome criticism as to my facts, assumptions, intepreptations, and conclusions. Criticism as to my motivations, or my background, or my right (or lack thereof) as a foreigner to make these criticisms are neither welcome nor worth posting.

Now, on with the show.

The Korean public secondary education system is, on the surface, reminiscent of the kind of high school life my father and mother talked about: segregated by sex, full of kids in uniforms, full of long hours everyday, and cursed with some pretty uninspiring, hostile, and even violent teachers. Not all teachers are violent, of course: most every student I asked agreed that too many teachers are violent, but most also had fond memories of at least a few of their past teachers, who were described in terms of adjectives like “kind”, “polite”, “gentle”, and “patient”.

But a closer look shows that the Korean school system is only sort-of like the school system my parents went through, and some of the bad aspects of my parents’ education also have been adapted into the Korean system. Furthermore, some older models of education in pan-Asian culture seem to have been admitted into high school life in modern Korea, which at least in part leads to some extremely negative things.

First, to the parallels with my parents’ education: it seems that the old model of education as indoctrination is especially strong here. Sharp teachers begin to get a sense of that not long after arriving here, because with amazing regularity students come out with the most preposterous claims, mainly about Korea. Some examples are:

All of these things are patently, demonstrably false, but then people in all cultures tend to believe things that are patently, demonstrably false. Many people in America believe the Earth is less than 10,000 years old. Low intelligence aside, the reason they believe this is because they have been, from a very young age, indoctrinated into believing it, and ideologically inoculated against any form of proof that contradicts their “beliefs”. And it’s not very surprising that one of the battlegrounds between the fundamentalists and the rest of their secular society is whether such inoculation should be opposed or supported by the public school system. The fact that they fear the teaching of evolution, and hate it, and oppose it mightily, just goes to show you how clearly they understand that it is reasonable, intelligent proof, and that it could (and does) sway people who aren’t fully indoctrinated into dogma.

The difference, though, is that in Korea, the dogma is not religious in nature: it’s nationalist, and to date it’s never been a major issue that nationalist dogma—dependent on fantasization of the past, fetishization of homogeneity, racial exclusivism, anti-Japanese sentiments, and outright lies about Korea—is pumped into students in schools, as well as in all kinds of other contexts like at home and in media. (The fact that these ideas are taught in schools is something students have attested to me time and time again.) If the majority of the country is composed of people whose identity was shaped by this kind of ideology, who consider themselves straightforwardly “Korean-blooded” people and believe this myth of one-bloodedness in the face of a more complex history, who would object to such a myth being everpresent in education? Aside perhaps from a few well-traveled or “intellectual” parents, almost nobody would.

Likewise most people, having been fed the same dogma, would probably appreciate the shared beliefs that their children would be developing: after all, the difference in my understanding of the British Empire as a young Canadian living half a century after its collapse, and that of my father’s, as a man educated in a colonial school in Malawi in the shadow of African decolonization, was massive. Not only that: it was the source of some very definite tensions between us, at points in our relationship. Since a certain amount of being Korean is, in the school system, depicted in certain ways, with an accent on homogeneity and avoidance of distinction—a dangerous thing in a culture that represents itself as highly homogenous—it seems to me that a certain buying-into of (or paying lip service to) the dogmas of Korean nationalism is required to have a social experience of belonging, which I take it from certain of my friends to be deeply involved in one’s personal sense of Koreanness.

Now, I’m not sure how clear that idea of “sense of Koreanness” can be to someone who’s never lived abroad, or never lived, say, as a first or even second generation immigrant somewhere. This is difficult for me to articulate, and it’s a hunch based in part on a number of people I’ve known who, having traveled abroad, or dated foreigners, or otherwise experienced differing worldviews and cultures, often tend to have a great deal of trouble with Korean society, and seem incapable of building identities much less centered on “Koreanness” than people whose experience is more highly limited and mediated by their education. I do know, however, that when I use the term “Canadian”, I apply it to myself only conflictedly, in a way that kids of people who grew up in Canada don’t seem compelled to do. Because in a lot of ways, while I grasp Canadian culture, my upbringing and personal experience as a child of parents from another culture (French-Canadian, where my “Canadian” means anglo-Canadian, or prairie-Anglo-Canadian specifically) also gives me a sense of not really being a part of it. I don’t accept a lot of the myths Canada tells itself about what it means to be Canadian, I guess.

(Note: Further I am not saying all people who’ve lived abroad or dated a foreigner become maladjusted non-Koreans: I’m saying that their sense of what it means to be Korean broadens and becomes more vague than those whose experience is limited to mainstream Korean life. Though I’m not by any means a fan of Freud, I do think his idea is correct that we can learn something about a general population by looking at the people deviating most strongly from the norm.)

Now, that said, it must be pointed out that dogmas about nation and nationalism, exclusivism, fantasy about culture, racial fetish, and the like cannot be good for a country that is (a) increasingly relying on imported labour, and in which mixed-race marriages (and resultant children) are on the rise, and (b) trying to get ahead in a much more cosmopolitan global society in which some understanding of other cultures and ability to set aside assumptions and nationalism can benefit nation, organization, and individual.

Let me offer an example from my past. When I was living in Quebec, I worked for a company that I eventually discovered was dying. The reasons why it died were complex, but basically boiled down to two things: firstly,they didn’t bother doing proper market research and analysis, and secondly, there were nationalistic francophone Quebecois making the crucial decisions. Now, my complaint is not that they hired mainly francophone staff, since in all honesty a staff with a common language makes for a better development team. (I was a [mild] communications bottleneck for a lot of the time I was there.) But the company insisted on producing translations of all of its products into French because, as the CEO said one fine afternoon during a lunch meeting, “We’re a Quebec company, so we must!”

Hold on a second there, I thought to myself. There’s no consideration of the bottom line. There’s no analysis of the figures involved in sales of French-language products. There’s in fact no obvious reason to produce the French versions of all those nice programs, except nationalistic sentimentality. I fully understand the desire to produce the translations, but it doesn’t mean it makes good business sense. And while I don’t think good business sense should dictate everything, a company shouldn’t engage in charity work when it cannot even generate enough funds to pay its salaried employees.

Unsurprisingly, and despite a vigorous attempt at market research that I did during lunch breaks (and which I was repudiated for having done until it came out I’d done it in my spare time) the company announced an hours cut just a few weeks before Christmas. It went bankrupt a few months later, but having seen that coming a mile away, I was long gone by the time it happened.

The lesson here is that nationalism, dogma, indoctrination can be very harmful to people who have to make decisions. The woman I’m talking about wasn’t even all that nationalistic, in general; she was herself a 1st generation Quebecois, who had immigrated from France as a child! And of course, as you all know, South Korea is a country with a democratic electoral system. While even Korean commentators have said that the average Korean on the street doesn’t quite get what all this democracy business is all about, having lived for so long under authoritarian rule, Koreans are nonetheless empowered to the point where as a group they choose their leader, they have political parties and such.

That means that every person in the country is potentially a co-CEO of the nation: someone who can make an informed decision based on realistic values and benefits, or someone who can make a decision that will hurt them and the nation overall based on sentiments, rhetoric, and hot air. This is true of all electoral democracies in a sense, but the tragedy in Korea is that, given the strong socially reinforced impulse to blend and fit in, to be “normal”, the lowest common denominator of response to a politician using jingoism to rouse support is not a mixture of opinions expressed publicly, but rather a unified response in the media, by the loudest members of any classroom or club, and so on. People who disagree, who might criticize if given the right chance, often just seem to stay silent, or at best quietly register agreement with someone bold enough to criticize.

This is because the expression of dissent, disagreement, or of outrage is generally frowned upon. Foreigners, Korean supervisors sometimes assert, always complain when they are asked to do something they feel they shouldn’t have to do, because of course this is something we consider fully within our rights to do. Koreans, on the other hand, either grin and bear it, saying, “Okay, I’ll do it,” or if they really want to get out of the task, or cannot perform it, they offer an excuse that trumps the supervisor’s demand. This goes to the point where some people actually hand in their resignation in order to protest some unacceptable situation. Normally, the resignation is not accepted and the situation is settled in one way or another, and it sometimes seems as if nobody expected the resignation to be accepted in the first place.

Complaint, dissent, disagreement… people here tend to express in a somewhat coded manner, partly I think because confrontation is not just discourteous (as in Western culture) but also because confrontation is often hopeless given the way hierarchy mediates all interactions. So people express dissent through actions or inactions that don’t require direct confrontation. Otherwise, these things would make one different, remove one from the ostensible (and somewhat unreal) idea of the homogenous group, be it the nation, the organization, or just the “Korean way”. As you may imagine, this seriously slows down reforms, hampers social criticism, and helps the dominant class (older wealthy males) maintain their general hold on vast amounts of the society’s resources and freedoms. This impacts on peoples’ work lives, their housing situations, their politics, on family life, and just about everything.

This brings me to two major changes that I think ought to be made in the Korean public school system:

1. Nationalist indoctrination needs to be toned down to a much lower level, while people need to have a better appreciation of difference, of emergent heterogeneity within their nation, an appreciation of its benefits, and a stronger introduction to pragmatism that overrides such values as would be learned in the home regarding these issues.

2. All of the things that enforce a valuation of homogeneity-at-all-costs need to be lessened. After all, innovators are very rarely conformists, but conformity is one of the major tenets in the dogma of Koreanness that seems to be taught (directly and indirectly) in Korean schools. The value of dissent to wrongful authority should be taught to children, and the leadership of those who choose to speak truth to power ought to be rewarded.

It may seem like a frivilous demand, bt I believe it’s important that the uniform needs to be gotten rid of. Co-education, without gender segregation, should be instituted throughout the educational process. Pressures to conform among teaching staff—such as the Korean English teachers who repudiated a fellow teacher who happens to be a friend of mine for “showing off her English ability and thinking herself more important than them” for enrolling in a Language Institute conversation course at a nearby college—need to be cut off with as much force as necessary.

Of course, these things won’t get changed until people agitate for change—until they challenge the conventional wisdom of teachers, and try to take the learning process of their children into their own hands, and encourage their children to do the same. And this is one of the biggest problems with the Korean education system: while everyone is convinced that a serious problem exists, very few people are actively agitating for reforms. The vicious cycle is that agitating is dissent, and dissent, everyone has learned, is to be avoided.

Now, the problem is not just that this places barriers to reforms, because barriers to reforms always exist. The problem is that the conception of teacher-as-expert, and teacher-as-pilor, does a profound disservice to learners. The truth is that classtime cannot offer all that is worth knowing, or cover all the bases. Classtime alone cannot feasibly equip all students with that they need to know in their lives, and the answer to this problem is the not one that most Korean families have turned to—through the use of afterschool institute courses, the simple extension of classhours.

The solution to the problem is a somewhat unusual one, in fact, because it’s essentially a de-authoritarianizing solution: it requires that students take into their own hands the responsibility for learning what is valuable to them. Teachers serve as guides, assistants to the learning process, and as mentors, but they should not be continually directing and regimenting students’ learning process. Time and time again in classes I and my co-workers have remarked about how students need to make whatever they are learning their own, but in general they are more concerned about performing well in the presence of the designated authority. The result is a very shallow, boring, and oppressive educational experience, which is of course the perfect preparation for bowing down to authority, but a rather poor preparation for being a citizen wielding the power of a vote in a democracy.

Another thing about education being learner-directed is that it also results in people having a wider variety of skills, and a much deeper investment in what they are doing. People do what they’re good at, and care more about what they do, in other words. High school students I’ve known have had extremely limited freedom in choosing courses and areas of study in high school. Now, I am not proposing people should not be required to get some general education, a liberal education including science, art, history, languages, and so forth. But I do think a little more freedom would serve students well. For my part, at times I found physics the most fascinating class ever, but at other times it was my music and drama classes that made high school bearable. I’ve always regretted my choice not to study Japanese, as well as my choice not to take Psychology in my senior year, though I am well aware that these were my own choices, and I appreciate the freedom of having had them available to me if I’d wanted to take them. And there is even an educative function in the freedom to make small, relatively unimportant mistakes: it teaches one the value of a carefully-made decision. This, too, is educative, and it is quite clear from the behaviour of many of the freshman and sophomore students I’ve known that they are utterly unused to making any kind of decision at all within the confines of a classroom. Now, it’s not that I think high school kids should be calling all the shots, but they should increasingly learn some responsibility for their own development as human beings. This, I feel, is the central duty of education: to teach you how to figure out how to learn and grow on your own. By the time you’re out of high school, you should be most of the way there.

Therefore, two more principles follow:

3. That learning should essentially be increasingly directed by the learning, toward ends that are useful and interesting to the learner, rather than by educational authorities who make all decisions in the educational process. This will result not only in more interested, motivated students but also in a superior educational experience in general.

4. The erroneous and damaging conception of extension of hours of classtime as a solution to the limits of the uses of class must be combatted in an extensive and long-term campaign of consciousness-raising. If necessary, other means could also be taken to wipe out the hakwon system (hakwons being private educational institutes, these days dominated by English and math/science subjects). Late-adolescents who know more freedom and are offered more choices, as well as free time to spend with friends, will also learn more responsibility; this is only one benefit of many that would ensure from the collapse of the hakwon industry. A more self-responsible student who will become a more self-responsible citizen.

Finally, and this one is an easy one: the College Entrance Exam System needs to be replaced by something far more sensible.

Actually, in all honesty, it’s not exactly the College Entrance Exam System that I have a problem with. I do have a problem with it, but only because it is a symtom of a deeper problem which, yes, to a degree permeates nearly all modern educational institutions around the world, but which is especially rampant in East Asia and epidemic in Korea.

What the deeper problem seems to me to be is that there is a strong continuity between older ideas of “education” and the contemporary system of education. By older systems of education, I essentially mean the bureaucratic exams that were written by the educated elite of yesteryear—the Koreanized version of the Mandarinate exams that drove poor Hong Xiuquan mad (and thus we have the extremely bloody Taiping Rebellion) and which should have no place in modern Korean society, for good or ill. (After all, China’s golden age, the T’ang Dynasty, was golden in no small part due to its Mandarins.)

But the modern Korean society is not a Mandarinate. While people still often conceive of civil servant positions as among the most stable, desirable jobs in the country, it’s ridiculous that children of 18 should therefore spend a full year of school—the whole of their senior year—preparing for a single exam that will determine (for most kids) the whole of their educational and professional futures.

And the fact that a full year of one’s life is devoted to nothing more than achieving the highest rank possible on a single examination, in direct competition with all peers, and on stakes so absolutely crucial that almost nobody can escape the fate of regretting their final outcome, only reinforces the fundamentally-understood truth about the modern educational system which was very eloquently put forth on this page as follows:

To a great extent, the educational mission of the school is undermined by the institutional obsession with success, failure and ranking. Studies too numerous to mention have shown clearly that ranking is anti-educational both because it distorts the activities of the teacher and the use of class-room time, and because it perverts the minds of the young. Ranking, then, is an unjust and pernicious misuse of time and resources. Under these conditions, the pupil who subverts, or refuses to ascribe to the prevailing practices, who, in other words, cheats, shows a clear understanding of the nature of the institution to which he and his fellows have been subjected.

This sounds all radical and idealistic, but in fact it’s a rather sensible assessment of how an educational system overly-focused on ranking affects its students’ understanding of success: my own students are often more concerned about anything that normally explicitly affects their grades, than about anything that’s effusive, vague, or difficult to pin down, even when that effusive thing is much more heavily factored into their grades.

For example, at the end of semester, it’s quite common for students to come up after class asking to see the roll sheet. Now, the fact that we take attendance in University classes is, in my mind, kind of silly, but as it’s school policy, I do it as quickly as possible and then try to forget the silliness. Consider the difference in understanding of the attendance marking between my thinking and my students’. To them, attendance is extremely important because, well, it’s being explicitly tracked and it has something to do with ranking. One of the most common ways to fail a class is to miss too many lessons, according to University policy.

However, despite the fact that they are told in no uncertain terms that doing homework and especially participating in class will actually count for double what attendance counts for, getting the majority of those kids who so frantically check their attendance records to open their mouths in class at all is like pulling teeth. They stop practicing when I am on the other side of the room, and only start again, on the first question, when they see me approaching.

Moreover, though they’re told that the key to performing well on exams is to practice the simple and very few structures that I work through with them weekly in class, I have to say that almost no students consistently make a habit of practicing and most practice only minimally, and only when directly preparing for an exam.

The result, of course, is that while many of them end up with pretty good attendance grades, they stumble and stutter through exams, and even many of the students who pull of something passable or even very good at exam time cannot comprehensibly respond in English to a question like, “Hi, how are you?” six months after completing the required English at my school. And no, I don’t think I’m being unfair to people who are, after all, majoring in all kinds of other subjects. I mean, even little kids master, “I’m fine, thanks, and you?” after a week or two, and retain it for a long time thereafter; an a lot of these students have been exposed to English before, even if not to the work of speaking it. After 6 years of compulsory English in school, and two years in a college program, anyone who says “Yes!” as a response to “How are you?” is either an idiot, or else has been profoundly misguided in his or her understanding of what education is about. Given the number of people I’ve met who fit the description, I’m opting to go with the latter. One of the telltale signs is that these students are universally quite obsessed with their grades, but very few have much interest in what they’re supposed to be learning in the class. If students manage to get an A+ without working hard or even learning a thing, they tend to think this a grand achievement, and not just a waste of money and time. There are a few students who understand that every bit of learning they take into themselves translates into an advantage in life, a resource for their later experiences, but this is a miniscule minority of students I’ve met. On the other hand, professors who cancel classes indiscriminately and give everyone (regardless of ability) an A+ attain very popular reputations among students. This is, plain and simple, a sign of a dysfunctional value system. (Again, this is most certainly not unique to Korea, but it does seem more pronounced and more widespread where I’m teaching, anyway.)

Another symptom of this messed-up system of value in ranking and testing is that cheating is absolutely rampant. By cheating, I mean any means of completing any assigned task for class. This means not just cribbing on exams but also copying assignments and workbook answers. Freshmen students very openly cheat on exams and hand in assignments that are word-for-word identical to their friends’ homework assignments… and they seem to have little or no idea that this could even be objectionable. Now, I remember copying workbook assignments in my own life… when I was very young, and ignorant, and too lazy or distracted to do my own homework. But by the time I reached middle school, I knew it was wrong and would not benefit me. And by University I was doing unassigned workbook homework in classes just for the benefit it would do me to be intimately engaged with the course materials. I may not have been normal in that regard—I’m a bookish type, and I value learning for its own sake, which is not a popular attitude anywhere—but on the other hand, most of the students I knew did at the very least do their own homework, badly if they couldn’t do it well. Most people tried or dropped out by midterms.

Now, as the quote above suggests, the blight of testing and ranking and sorting, and the attendant blemish of cheating, is endemic to modern education, but the fact of the matter is that the structure of the Korean education system (and, for that matter, the SATs in the American system, though I think for a host of reasosn it’s to a lesser degree) exacerbates this trend to the a degree so extreme that I have difficulty imagining it pushed further without a complete transformation of the idea of a “school”.

Most of the people I know who have told me about their senior year in Korean high school have spoken about it with slightly glazed looks in their eyes. When they tell their “war stories” from high school, you can see their minds traveling back to a rather troubled time, when they sat so long at once that they got sores and infections on their backsides and when they developed calluses on their fingers from handling pens too long at once. High school students in Korea study harder than I have ever needed to study in my whole life, including grad school.

Needed, mind you, is a critical word in that last sentence. I have chosen to study that hard, on occasion and for shorter periods of time, when I felt it was worth my while, when I felt I could expand myself or learn something worth knowing or develop some skill. But then again, it was my choice, and I can also say that there were times when what learning I did was largely outside the classroom, doing things my teachers would have thought a waste of time. For example, I really, truly learned how to argue a point and construct a logical explanation of something on a science fiction mailing list (which discussed almost everything under the sun, and only rarely SF) that I joined in undegrad and to which I subscribed (and posted incessantly) for several years.

Nobody tested me on any of the things I wrote about on that mailing list. Nobody is testing me on this subject. Testing, you see, is just plain irrelevant to most learning, and actually inapplicable to plenty of very important forms of learning. It might represent the scientization of pedagogy, but only in the sense that Lysenkoism was “scientific”. Testing is a pseudoscience at best, and at worst (and often at the same time) it’s a threat to the value of learning itself. This leads me to my fifth proposed reform:

5. The Korean University Entrance Exam should be abolished, and in its place standardized departmental examinations carried out in standard academic classes, along with homework and participation ratings, ought to be applied to the final grades in courses in high school. The final grades for courses ought to be the determining factor in University Admissions. Students who wish to write an equivalency exam should be allowed to do so, but at the same time, knowing that such exams do not reflect the quality of a student in terms of class contributions, self-motivation, long-term discipline, and ability to synthesize and apply ideas to novel contexts, it is equivalency exam grades rather than course final grades which ought to be viewed with suspicion.

Now, I’m going to backtrack for one moment to a last point I’d like to address, as a followup to the above five points. That is: training for the future. Under the leadership of Kim Dae Jung, Korea introduced a goal of being a technological leader, and developed the country into one of the most wired in the world. And yet, it seems to me, most people don’t seem to know how to use the internet in ways that further their learning. Students don’t seem to be developing basic skills like how to search out information for research, or how to critically assess things they read online. Students don’t seem to have the skills to process news and information at a high volume, unless it has to do with an online game. (There is nothing wrong with online games, per se, but when one is better at gaming than at educating oneself on a topic of personal interest—or when one cannot muster interest in any topic besides online games—after 12 or more years of education, there is something deeply wrong.)

It seems obvious to me that a vast number of the skills that will be needed in the future for people to remain productive members of their society will involve working with information; jiggling it, and making mini-bits of information fall out. Finding things out quickly and easily. Processing conflicting claims about the same thing. These skills are really important, but the focus of computer-related education seems, to me, to be focused on gradable skills, like how to perform certain basic functions in Excel and Word, how to build a web page. These are, of course, useful skills, but they’re not necessarily skills everyone needs or will need. Not only that, but these skills are crucial for people who are engaged in any kind of self-education project—and bearing in mind that most of the well-educated people I know taught themselves a lot while their profs taught them only about a few small points. Certainly that was my experience in grad school, and to a smaller degree in undergrad as well.

So I propose one more reform:

6.That computer education should focus on more than just repetition of simple basic skills and tasks using software. Students probably don’t need to know how to build a Flash website, but the ability to use boolean searches or analyze postings to the internet, find urban legends online, to sort informed presentations from hokum and bunk online, reason critically about what they read, sort their findings, and organize ideas they’ve found for presentation… skills like these are not only interesting but also very useful. Using this kind of approach has the added benefit of allowing students some freedom and a chance to enage with something genuinely interesting to them. But most important, it prepares them for a life—professional, cultural, and social—in which information and interaction increasingly will be accessed via electronic means.

I guess that’s all I have to say. For some very good writing about the subject of the Korean educational experience, check out this and this and finally this point on wooj’s well-written and fascinating Blog of the Pythi Master. I hope I am not falling into the overgeneralization trap that wooj mentioned in the first of those posts linked immediately above. I can honestly say it’s true of students at both Universities I’ve worked at in Korea, and that a lot of my “observations” are backed up by, or based on, the testimony of people who passed through the system as students. But I must admit I have no first-hand knowledge of the situation, as I was educated in Canada, where the (also serious, but perhaps less pressing) problems are somewhat the same and somewhat different.

If you’d like to see what other Friday Fivers would change about their local education systems, check out the links in the Friday Five menu in the right sidebar.

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