Saturday, June 02, 2012

Koreans are people too, middle school student edition

One of the most common charges levied against students from East Asia, both here and in North America, is that they excel at memorization, regurgitation and reproduction, lacking creativity or originality. For the most part, those who say these sort of things likely don't speak an East Asian language and likely can't express their own creativity or originality when speaking an East Asian language with peers and superiors who are native speakers.

That's not to say that the charge is without truth. A great deal of the East Asian education system, to make a broad generalization when I can really only speak about Korea, relies on vast stores of memorization, perhaps too much. While memorization is important (you can't really bake a fabulous cake if you don't remember how to use the oven), there is a great deal of time wasted in the Korean education system on impressive feats of memorization, such as memorizing 20 words far above grade-level for students who might benefit from, say, reading and constructing sentences using words below grade-level.

Over the last three months at my middle school (student ages 13-15) I've been impressed by the amount of personality and originality my students squeeze into 45-minute periods of 40 students in one room, all wearing the same uniform while abstaining from things like dyed hair, earrings, or even speaking (in English, anyway). My personal favourite is each student's desk, which is really something of a personal manifesto-slash-whiteboard-slash-diary made with dry-erase black marker.

Some students write nothing but their schedule of classes along with homework and upcoming tests, others make notes from classes, but more common are tributes to musicians, lyrics from songs, and quotes from movies. The more unusual things I've seen are intense slogans ("rock will never die"), murals that cover the entire desk, and what looked like a weight-loss diary. These admittedly are students who, not really by choice, often study more in middle school than I did in university, but they're certainly not without personalities and they're certainly not identical.

I was most impressed by the results of my school's essay contest, where each student had one hour to answer the question, "why is Korea so unhappy and how can this be changed?" I read through about 60 entries from all grades, ranging from the tersely-written ones that simply suggested studying less to ones that were very thought-provoking. Keeping in mind that these are ordinary students from an ordinary neighbourhood who have, with maybe one or two exceptions, never lived or studied overseas, what they said and how they said it was quite impressive, often from students who had never so much as said a word in class that wasn't forced out of them.

The winner of the essay contest wrote:

"I can feel why Koreans including me are so unhappy. First reason is that people force others to live a certain kind of life. There are numerous ways to succeed and people's ways to live are all different. But the problem is that people force someone to live in a same way as they do. For example, many want to go to socalled 'SKY', which are well known universities."

She concluded by saying:

"Many Koreans tend to live a life in a same way as others live and are obsessed with success and money. I think that is the reason why we are so unhappy even though Korea's economy has grown. Therefore, we should do what we love to do, and accept that everyone is different and a standard of success doesn't exist."

Another student wrote:

"I think a class shouldn't be held in a classroom only. Various types of activities should take place in various places. Next, I think test-taking should change. I think grades should depend on how students do in class time, how actively they participate, how well they handled the task given, rather than sitting down and taking tests."

She added:

"I know that this can't be done overnight. It will take a long time before good education takes place. But, as you know, drops of water make the mighty ocean. We should start changing, little by little, for the greater good."

A boy writes:

"According to many surveys, North Europeans' achivement of studies are higher than Korea students, also the happiness too. Can you believe them? They mean the competition can make people tired or disfunctional. How can we solve these problems?

I think we have to act like North Europe countries, but not all same, just some.
"

Another boy writes:

"'109th happiest country in the world'. This is not the title of such undeveloped nations like Ethiopia or Zimbabwe. Unfortunately, this ithe title of Republic of Korea, one of the richest countries in the world and the members of G20. Then, why Koreans that unhappy? To answer this question, it is needed to overview the society, especially the economic and educational conditions of Korea. In addition, after the overview on these aspects, the answer to the previous question could be summarized in one statement: Koreans are one of the unhappiest people in the world because of the unequal distribution of wealth after the economic recession and the burden of high grades for teenagers and children.

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