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.