Whose Fault Is It?

Chris in South Korea calls Korea’s English education system psychotic, and his post here ends with some very sensible ideas on what needs to happen for it to become not-psychotic:

  • Make English tests related to actual speaking and comprehension ability, not the ‘ability’ to pass a test. These are the hardest things to test, admittedly, but there are ways to test via a neutral third-party. Someone with no connection to either student or school – perhaps a third-party test center that connects to a call-center of trained native English proctors / testers.

Indeed, a real step forward would be to get rid of modular, non-holistic testing. But that would require moving beyond multiple-guess tests, would require moving toward really testing actual abilities. In many schools, that would require the sudden presence of someone who can actually tell how well someone is communicating in English. Some teachers can do this… from the experience I had in teacher training a few years back, I’d guess lots still can’t.

  • Give teachers – both Korean and foreign – the flexibility and autonomy they need to do their job. Tell the parents to back off and let the teachers do what they’re paid to do. If the parents can’t trust a full-time working person to do their job, ask them if they think they can do better.

At the university level, department professors often have a great deal of leeway, actually. But this leeway also is provided with a certain expectation: nobody will criticize one anothers’ approach to teaching. Which makes it pretty hard to address department-wide problems, like the fact that Korean students are not being given formal training in academic writing at the university level in their mother tongue. They’re supposed to learn to write college-level essays in English, without ever having really learned in a formal sense how to do it in their mother tongue. But it’s something hard to change, since the very leeway professors have — and the very resistance to any kind of radical change — makes it impossible to implement something like an “Academic Writing in Korean” course for students in a language program.

(Note: students do have a basic “study skills course” provided in their freshman year. I have no idea if they just coast through it, or learn it only to forget it in sophomore year, or what. But it’s funny because many times I’ve commented that students just need to get taught the basics on how to study, express themselves, and otherwise engage in academic work. I get funny looks and get told they already know how, there’s a course. Um… there may be a course, but many seem to learn not much in it.

  • De-emphasize the English language as an educational gold standard. Yes, I did just say that. Take the pressure off of the entire population to learn a language only a fraction will actually need. How many store clerks need the vocabulary of a college scholar to sell a Coke?

Bingo! Of course, it’s also that English language ability is used to filter people. Filtration is necessary because, instead of pursuing jobs according to their natural inclination and interests, the vast majority of people pursue the same few sorts of jobs. This happens because most children have little time to develop interests of their own, and whatever interests they do develop are often crushed by parents who want their kids to be practical. (Because fighting your way into the saturated market of salarymen is way more rational than, say, doing something you love and are therefore more likely to do with passion that can drive you to success.) Why do kids have no time to develop their own interests and inclinations? Over-schooling. Bingo!

  • Sponsor / support new and innovative programs – especially those started by English teachers trying to improve educational levels and standards.

Which is, of course, damned near impossible when interactions are dominated by who gets credit for the good changes and gets in trouble for the “mistakes.” Risk aversion is understandable and natural, but risk aversion that holds you in place when your ship is under water and the brine is up to your knees is just plain silly.

And I agree: it’s a major overhaul needed. Which is scary. But still needed: the wasting of millions of hours of Koreans’ lives in pursuit of higher English test scores, the wasting of billions or trillions of their won on English schooling.

If you ask me, Korean adults are carpet-bombing the natural order of  childhood personality development through the hyper-over-schooling that happens here. Even the government — a government that has said they wish to privatize water and who talked about transitioning to an almost-all-English education system — has at least come out in favor of curfew limits on hakwons, but parents don’t seem to get it.

And if you ask me, it seems natural that all of this stress, pressure, and wasting of time is not lost on those who are trapped in the infernal machine. If you ask me, it’s quite easy to see how this is all contributing to the problems that seem to baffle society here: the high suicide rate may not result from TEFL directly, but it seems reasonable to say that EFL stress is a component of the more generalized stresses that most Koreans on the job market seem to experience.

Certainly having a more reasonable sense of how English fits into both education and the job market will lessen this pain, stress, and frustration. There will still be a ton of factors, but educators could actually lead the way.

If they cared enough about kids, and about their society, to bother doing so, that is.

6 thoughts on “Whose Fault Is It?

  1. The title (“Who’s”) is tongue-in-cheek, ja? Just making sure.

    I’m in favor of the ideas covered in your post. Multiple-choice testing is absolutely the worst way to test… well, anything. I do wonder, though, how feasible it might be to farm testing out to third-party facilities, since there’s the question of money, time, and convenience. There’s also the question of what metrics will be used to assess student performance. How objective can such metrics be, the more holistic the tests are?

    Sookmyung Women’s University had an interesting test called MATE (multimedia-assisted test of English), which required all students to produce verbal and written responses. We teachers often took turns as test raters after undergoing initial training and periodic refresher workshops. The idea was to take something nebulous and subjective, i.e., evaluating minimally-directed student output, and make it into as objective and standardized an activity as possible.

    MATE raters normally receive batches of student tests to rate, and two teachers will rate the same batch. Ideally, both teachers, rating separately, will arrive at the same ratings for each piece of student output. Often, however, the raters will find themselves in the same ballpark but will be at odds over the minutiae, resulting in slightly different ratings. Unfortunately, even a minuscule difference is enough to kick-start the arbitration process, which involves a third rater.

    I’m about to start a new job as a TOEFL iBT Writing rater, and have undergone training that reminds me, in many ways, of what I went through with MATE training: as with MATE, I’m dealing with student output in essay and short-answer form, and have to reduce all the details and nuances of the student’s work to a single number from 0 to 5. Not so easy when you see so many cases that appear to straddle the ratings criteria.

    All of which is to say that people have been trying to develop an effective, standardized way of dealing with lengthy verbal and written output, but it’s not obvious to me that a foolproof method has yet been found. I realize your post covers more than just this topic, but it’s a topic that fascinates me.

  2. Kevin,

    Well, it was late at night and I was tired, but yeah, let’s call it tongue-in-cheek! :) Nah, I’ll fix it.

    The thing about this focus on testing, and testing more effectively, is that I honestly have more fundamental issues than those being addressed.

    If one argues that testing is to serve a function, what function ought it to be? Certainly, I would agree, testing could serve good functions, such as:

    1. Helping to determine whose work is most outstanding, and therefore most deserving of financial support from the institution.
    2. (Much more importantly) Helping learners to recognize their own weaknesses and strengths, to aid them in conscious, self-aware development (or teacher-assisted co-development) of strategies for shoring up the weaknesses and building on the strengths.

    However, sadly, evaluation and testing don’t usually serve these functions.They’re using just for assigning grades, which end up being the most nebulous and destructive form of feedback this side of corporal punishment of students.

    In other words, reducing students’ performance to a number from 0 to 5 is, as a general rule, the sort of thing that sets alarm bells going.

    This is not to say grades are better than no feedback. But they’re an artificial form of feedback premised on some pretty unhealthy ideas about the purpose and function of education and evaluation. If we are out to sort who will make good executives from who will make good factory workers, accountants, marketers, and other peasants, it’s ideal, of course. But if the point is ingraining a sense of how learning works, how development of the mastery of something works, then flat-rank grading is pretty useless.

    Ideally, students should be engaged in constant self-evaluation, and get training from their instructors on how to do this.

    Of course, students who are already trained to regard education, like so many other things, as a series of hoops through which to jump in the hope of finding a safe place in the monarch’s echelons in Hayang a big company in Seoul, will tend to benefit less than people who are trained from the start to expect feedback that actually helps them assess their own learning, to set realistic, clear, and helpful goals for their learning, and to recognize flat grading systems as they are.

    And finally, I’d say any system that requires the reduction of performance to a six-point scale is probably the result of a generalized over-evaluation of that skill. The reason TOEIC and TOEFL need to be so quickly and easily gradable in Korea is that far more people are taking these tests than ever should be required to.

    As an aside, the MATE process (haha!) sounds insane. Any disagreement triggers a third evaluator? What if the third evaluator disagrees with the other two? Sounds like a ton of busywork for a (grading) system that, in the end, is not so useful for learners to begin with!

    By the way, this new job: is it in Korea?

  3. Seems to me that the English language education and testing issue is just one manifestation of a more general societal trait. The same is true of the college entrance exam, the civil service exam, the bar exam, the CPA exam, … even the driver’s license exam. And the civil service exam has been the same game for many hundreds of years now. Testing and studying for testing’s sake seem, to me at least, to be a Korean (East Asian?) cultural trait. I don’t believe that the English language side of the problem could be addressed without larger scale change. And how does one go about changing a facet of culture that has been ingrained over hundreds of years?

  4. Taemin,

    You’re right. All I can say is that Koreans have gone ahead and changed other facets of their culture that were ingrained for hundreds of years, when they had the willpower to do so.

    And that’s the issue: do people have the will to do so? Of course, the question is rather what it would take for a widespread recognition that this “testing” system is problematic enough to need change, and that it actually can be changed?

    It’s worth noting that a regular commenter here, Junsok Yang, has argued the dysfunction of the education system is mostly tied to the way the job market works. I recognize there’s a link, but like you I think there’s a very important cultural factor.

    However, I don’t think cultural factors are so powerful as to make change impossible. Ha-Joon Chang’s chapter on the “culture argument” in Bad Samaritans is very amusingly convincing of how societies aren’t really chained to any one way of doing things by something as fluid and changeable as culture.

  5. Thanks for reading the original post – for the sake of posterity, that’s over at http://chrisinsouthkorea.blogspot.com/2010/10/dont-blame-foreigners-interesting-look.html.

    The paradox has been one that has plagued tests for decades – multiple-choice tests are rigidly quantitative, but coachable; open-ended-choice tests are not coachable but not perfectly quantitative. Even assuming a neutral third-party, interpretations of tests is still based on humans.

  6. Chris,

    A million apologies! I meant to include a link, obviously (“his post here ends with”) but must have forgotten. I’ve added the link, above.

    I’d say basically anything worth testing (in an educational setting) cannot be tested “objectively”… which doesn’t prevent people from pretending otherwise.

    My point is that open-ended tests at least *could* be structured to as to test actual demonstrable ability; multiple-choice mainly tests one’s skill at taking tests. Sigh.

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