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Two Disconcerting Trends: Korean Kids, School Systems, and Parental Appraisal

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series The Bloom Effect

When we are contacted with inquiries as to our tutoring services, we always hold a preliminary “interview” before agreeing to start lessons. In fact, it’s not any kind of an organized interview: whoever is being requested as a teacher sits down with the student or students in question, and we chat for about half an hour. We sort of try to get to know one another, and along the way try to figure out of the kid is right for the way we teach, among other things.

When it comes to kids, normally the parents come along, and it becomes necessary to separate the parents from the kids during the “interview” because the parents seem to think it’s necessary to answer the questions on behalf of the kid. In cases like that, we usually split them up, and the potential teacher chats with the kids while the other one of us runs interference, basically chatting with the parents, or taking them out for a walk around the complex or for a coffee or whatever.

Half an hour of chit-chat sounds like a very short time to form a sense of a person, and it would be, if you didn’t know what you were looking for. We, however, know exactly what we’re looking for. We ask questions about school, hobbies, interests, and so on, but what we’re really trying to find out is this kind of stuff:

(And, yes, if there’s a kid we feel is too far gone for us to help, we usually recommend he or she–usually he–be sent to a hakwon, because frankly we think hakwons are the last resort of the overschooled… useful for kids who cannot learn any other way than memorize-and-regurgitate, though they’re toxic to any other kind of child.)

Anyway, in the course of these interviews, and chatting with parents, we’ve discovered two trends that, however anecdotal they are, have been consistent in almost every case we’ve had so far. (We can think of exactly one exception.) This is more notable since, within the circles we’re getting recommended through, the parents are specifically mentioning us as “innovative” or “unusual” in our methods.

(Which is pretty sad, really: our methods basically aim and undoing the damage done by schooling by making learning English fun, and by using English to help the kids explore what interests them–in other words, using English as a “Language of Instruction” rather than focusing on studying English grammar, the way most Korean-preferred instructors do. Which, incidentally, is why we get results. It doesn’t take much. In the land of the rote-memorization-and-regurgitate instructor, the one-iota-of-humanity teacher is king. Or, well, able to have a little fiefdom.)

But anyway, I mentioned two trends we’ve noticed, which ought to give anyone pause: 

Trend 1: School System and Mentality

The first trend is, I think, pretty telling. Yes, yes, it needs to be caveated all up the wazoo: we have a limited sample size, there’s cultural bias–though we’re a bicultural couple–and so on. Still: it’s been consistent without fail in our experience so far, and not just consistent: it’s basically been impossible not to notice.

There are three groups of kids: homeschooled, International-schooled, and Korean-schooled. (That is, kids that are homeschooled here in Saigon; kids who attend cosmopolitan international schools; kids who attend the Korean-only schools, which are misleadingly called “Korean International Schools” when they are not.)

All I can say is: it’s pretty hard to tell apart the homeschooled kids and the International-schooled kids. (There are little differences, but they’re less than relevant to this discussion.) However, the difference between the Homeschooled/International-schooled kids and the Korean-International-schooled kids is like night and day.

I’m talking about kids who have parents of the same (approximate) age and socioeconomic background, of the same approximate cultural background, and all that.

The Homeschooled kids and the International Schooled kids seem… well, like how you’d expect a healthy teenager to be in most places. They’re inquisitive, and thoughtful, and have hobbies, and play sports, or do art or music, or have ideas about what they’d like to be when they grow up. (Concert violinist, astronaut, dentist, and film soundtrack editor are examples of answers we’ve heard.) They’re usually allowed a certain amount of play time, and they seem to be generally happy. This is true even though, as we later discover, physical or psychological abuse is no less widespread among their homes than it is the other kids’. Somehow, they deal with it better, though. They’re most definitely not constantly sullen, or resentful, or demotivated. They seem to have some kind of interest in learning something, at least when the thing is something they’re interested in.

Meanwhile, the Korean-schooled kids are… well, the best I can say is, most of them seem seriously (and I do mean, clinically) depressed. To a one, they’re less interested in books and learning, and more resentful of being asked to read or do homework, however minor… and when they do it, unlike their International-schooled and Homeschooled peers, they tend to do the absolute bare minimum. Almost none of them have interests or hobbies, and tend to be very excessively pressured to study, and to be allowed much less (and in some cases, that means little or no) time to play or have fun outside of school. They to be uptight, over-serious, almost universally socially awkard even with other Korean kids of the same age, and unable to sustain a conversation–even in Korean, with a native Korean speaker like my wife.

And when they do start talking, usually have nothing to say but complaints. Not that they have nothing to complain about: they tend to take violence both at home and at school for granted as normal to a degree the International Schooled kids don’t, and over tiny things. (Like the difference of between 94% and 95% on a mathematics exam, to take one example from earlier this week.)

All of that is one thing when you’re in Korea, and most kids live out their lives within that system, and the alternatives are very limited. It’s still a very serious thing there, of course: one look at the child suicide statistics in Korea suggests that it’s so serious as to deserve the status of an epidemic.

But what’s more terrifying is seeing the night-and-day difference between the kids in one system, and the kids in the other. It’s not that every kid would be a brilliant, happy genius if transferred to the International system, or that every kid would be completely destroyed by the Korean system. It’s just that, when you take a bunch of average kids, the effects of each system are very, very clear. One kid is inquisitive, tries to talk to chat with the other, and ends up looking funny at the other because that other kid is barely able to respond to his or her questions, and finally rebuffs the first kid.

Which is… well, it’s just sad to behold. And it would be a clear argument against Korean-schooling for expat families, except for one thing: most families would probably opt to school their kids in the International-school system but for one factor. That factor, of course, is the cost. International schools are very expensive–normally rather significantly more expensive than the Korean-International schools, which (I’m told) are subsidized by the Korean government.

(The decision of which system to send a kid into, by the way, isn’t always based on socioeconomic class. I’ve worked with several kids whose families prefer the Korean school believing that it’s stricter, or because they will have less trouble talking to the teachers. And one trend that’s difficult to ignore is the pattern of mothers choosing to enroll their sons in the International system, but send their daughters into the Korean-International System… a situation rather similar to who Mrs. Jiwaku’s mom forced her elder brothers to attend a rigmarole of hakwons, but allowed Mrs. Jiwaku to pick and choose whatever courses appealed to her, if any. In Mrs. Jiwaku’s case, a lack of force-fed hakwonization was an unintended positive side-effect of sexism; but for the female students we know studying in the Korean-International schools, this is much less the case.)

That said, it’s pretty profound that the kids who experience less of an adjustment- and culture-shock–the kids who move relatively seamlessly from Korean public schools to Korean schools abroad–are the less-well-adjusted ones, while the kids who move from an all-Korean school to an all-English one, seem to be on the whole healthier and more mentally balanced and happier. This is true even of their interactions with other Korean kids or adults in our presence: the Korean-system kids are pretty much universally distrustful, dubious, negative, and relatively anti-social with strangers (even Korean-speaking strangers, whether children or adults); the International-system kids are talkative, open, polite, and relatively much more socially adept with strangers (both with kids of their own age and adults, regardless of whether they’re Korean or not).

What I can’t help but feel is, that this is an argument against the Korean government subsidizing all-Korean schools overseas, when it could be funding schools that are more hybrid, mixed, and cosmopolitan… or, at least, that are more bilingual. (Fluent English-speaking kids is, after all, one of the holy grails of Korean public education.) Optimally, though, I think they could probably turn a decent profit if they set up properly accredited international schools at a lower rate for Korean nationals, and with a support system that would help new arrivals in Korea make the transition… with the clear goal of helping them actually achieve that transition, and helping their parents continue to interface with teachers in such an environment.

Such schools would enjoy higher and more cosmopolitan enrollment, would help the Korean kids who go through it to be more fluent with intercultural communication and with English, and at least from the differences in the kids we’ve worked with, the kids would be happier and healthier too.

Trend #2: Inverted Parental Appraisal

This trend is more bizarre. Now, I’m used to explaining to Koreans that Anglophone Westerners and mainstream Koreans sometimes see the world in very inverted ways.

(For example, on the use of “Maybe.” It sounds like a polite answer to a request, in Korea; in the English-speaking world, though, it reads as aggravatingly noncomittal. Or, for example, the issue of directness: Koreans are frustratingly direct with personal stuff, and frustratingly indirect or noncimmunicative about professional stuff. Uninvited criticism of one’s haircut and weight is okay, but straightforward discussion of serious workplace issues is nigh impossible to make happen… frustratingly the opposite of the norms in the parts of the English-speaking world where I’ve lived.)

The trend I’m talking is like that: it amounts to a profound disconnect between the way we perceive the kids, and the way the parents do. Basically, it’s just as inverse as my example above.

Some disconnect is inevitable, of course: we’re not emotionally attached to the kids (at first) and we don’t have a history with them. Which, yes, lets us see things as they are, rather than having all kinds of baggage and hopes and fears attached. We don’t have background, so we cannot explain what we see right away, but we usually see the same things in kids we’ve just met, and see them very quickly. 

(In fact, a quick game of Dixit–just a  few hands–is often sufficient to figure out a lot about a person, kids included.)

In any case, whenever the moms give us the breakdown on their kids, they almost always describe them in comparative terms. I mean that two siblings will inevitably get compared in terms of intelligence, maturity, and behaviour… and the parents’ description of the kids is inevitably precisely the opposite of what we feel when we work with them.

The simplest way to explain this trend is:

Many Korean moms consistently mistake obedience for self-discipline and studiousness.

In our experience, the disobedient kids are actually the ones with a greater capacity for self-discipline, and a greater capacity for learning. They’re more defiant, disobedient, and so on, because they’re smarter. Smart kids resist, they push back, and they’re bright enough to see when their parents are being unreasonable, illogical, and so on. Getting such kids to work thus requires more effort from the parent or teacher: it takes explaining consequences, and it takes giving the kid a little freedom so they can develop (or redevelop) that intrinsic motivation to learn. An intelligent kid within the Korean cultural system–the same system that produces the results we see within Trend #1, above–is very likely to resist, to rebel, to push back against everything that seeks to cram their square-peg minds into round holes.

And of course, what moms see when they look at a kid like this, is incorrigible unstudiousness. They see a problem kid, someone who isn’t disciplined, someone whom they fear may have less potential.

Whereas, the kids whom moms praise as “studious” or “hard-working” or “obedient” usually look much more like a lost cause to us. They’re usually less capable of things like critical thinking or creative thinking; they’re always less confident, and the worst-acquainted with the idea of their own agency. They’re also almost always the kids whose motivation and life plan are really just what their parents have laid out for them like clothes for the first day of school. (Invariably, their hopes for the future center on achieving something “well-paying,” period.) They’re more passive, more resentful, and almost to a one, they’re not intrinsically motivated in books or reading or even learning. They do it only because they’re told to, or required to, or get in trouble if they don’t… and they realize that resistance is futile, or they realize that resistance is the hard way, while humoring their parents and then doing what they want when their parents aren’t looking is the easy way. They’re slackers, just slackers constrained by the need to do the bare minimum to get the authorities off their backs.

(In a couple of cases, the kids we work with are “obedient” because they simply can’t conceive of doing anything but obeying… that is, they’re actually cognitively hampered. There’s a couple of kids we know like that, and one in particular whom we strongly suspect has some kind of learning disability; we suspect this from, well, all kinds of little things she says… it’s sort of like talking to someone with a scrambled logic circuit.)

These kids are the ones Korean moms tend, overwhelmingly often, to hold up as “studious” but, well, we find that we can’t do as much with them… or, rather, that it takes exponentially more effort to get results with them. They’re more used to sitting when told, or shutting up when told… but getting them to ask a question on their own, or develop self-motivation or self-discipline (or do more than the bare minimum) is often a lot like pulling teeth, and it’s evident our energies are usually better spent on kids who are more receptive, and who we can help a lot more for the same amount of energy. It’s always hard to do it, but we sometimes end up having to resort to telling the parent that our style of teaching isn’t suited to every kid, and that maybe their “studious” child would be better off at a hakwon. (Because they’re more willing to hear that than, “Your kid is too far gone and it’s too energy-consuming to undo all the bad intellectual and emotional habits and associations s/he has developed over the years.”

But what’s mind blowing is how, every time the mom points out what she thinks is a worse-behaved, lazier, more hopeless kid, we always find someone bright, eager to learn (when learn means learn, not memorize), and just in need of being assured of one simple truth. That simple truth is that they’re not lazy, they’re not hopeless, and they’re not stupid: that it’s the system that’s screwed up, and that their parents’ expectations are kinda nuts, and that there’s nothing wrong with–or crazy about–being smart enough to see that.

The tragedy being that the parents usually feel the kid who is more “studious” ought to go to the International School, and the less-studious one maybe would be better off in the Korean-International school. To us, it seems pretty much the opposite, because the International system rewards precisely the traits that the kids seen as “less studious” seem to have in spades, and meanwhile the “more studious” kids are so heavily adapted to the Korean schooling system that adjusting to the International system is more difficult for them. (But also, because it seems apparent to us the former group will get more out of a school system that doesn’t expect them to be “broken” in the way the latter group are, or indeed expects them not to be “broken” in that way.)

Next time, I’ll post about what happens when we tell kids that. It’s pretty amazing, not just because of the (very surprising) way that these kids’ parents are reacting to it…

(And, by the way, I realize I’ve broken a promise I made in my last post, about talking about agency in Korean fiction. I’ll get back to this. I just don’t know how to talk about all of that, without talking about all of this.)

Series NavigationThe Bloom Effect, Part 1: Context, Context, and More Context >>
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