Tuesday, August 05, 2014

What's it like being a hagwon student?

I recently went through the process of acquiring a Korean driver's license. I learned how to drive in Canada but after missing my initial road test for scheduling reasons, I never bothered re-scheduling. Years later, to facilitate renting a car for hiking trips and out-of-town races, I decided to get a license. The process for getting a Korean license is well-documented even in English, so I won't get into it. Most Westerners who get one already knew how to drive, so they never took lessons from a driving school, which I did. I can't speak authoritatively about driving in Korea, but I learned a fair bit about how the hagwon industry works from the two weeks I spent as a hagwon student.

The hagwon industry in Korea exists to produce results, which is what students-slash-consumers want. It's not that people are ignorant of the fact that studying English at a hagwon does not make them competent at English as it's used outside of academic or test-based situations, they just don't care. Studying English to be able to appreciate literature and engage in idiomatic conversation requires time and money that they don't have. Their goal is something else, whether it's admission to a university, employment, promotion or personal satisfaction on other lines.

I can't speak for all driving hagwons, though people I spoke to told me that mine was hardly atypical, but I was taught how to become a licensed driver, not how to drive, and there is a difference, as I learned. Like English hagwons or weight loss clinics that promise a great deal in a short amount of time, Korean driving hagwons are similar. Never mind an American who already knows how to drive and just needs to get a license, someone who has never driven and knows nothing about cars can become licensed to drive a car, bus or even a truck in less than 24 hours.

Most of the schools I found online allow students to complete the safety education, written and skills test (starting a car, turning the wipers on and off, and so on) in one day and then immediately begin the mandatory six hours of road instruction. The six hours can be split into four hours on one day and two hours on the next, with the road test taken at the hagwon immediately after finishing practice. You could, in theory, show up one afternoon knowing nothing and have a license in your hand before noon the next day.

All practice is done on one of four possible driving courses that could show up on the exam. Even public test centres give out maps of the four possible test centres. In my case, I simply drove the courses over and over in three two-hour sessions, and I don't think this is at all atypical. Information that I thought was pointless was important because it was something that needed to be remembered and performed in the exact same way on the test. For example, I didn't learn to parallel park, I learned to parallel park in the exact same spot where the test would happen by counting alternating yellow-and-black blocks on the curb. Needless to say, I park very slowly anywhere else, but I parked with complete confidence in the hagwon.

Instructors told students to memorize the courses because all they would hear would be instructions from a GPS, telling them to turn right, left or make a U-turn in 300, 200, and 100 metres. There was no need to memorize the courses, at least not actively, because I remember every single one of them more than a month later, having driven each one about five times. They were also quite simple, with three courses consisting of nothing more than a couple of U-turns that made a loop, and the fourth one having no U-turns but a loop made by three immediate right turns.

In the end, I passed, despite a few mistakes. I was happy to have paid 300,000 won and gotten my license nine days after first showing up at the hagwon, which is the point. Hagwons take skills, such as English, driving, or computer programming and teach them in ways that are easy to remember and produce measurable results, such as jobs or test scores. The customer generally wins by getting what they want in a short amount of time for a relatively cheap price. The schools are in second place, struggling to balance the customers' demands of speed, efficacy and cheapness while having no shortage of competing schools. The teachers have it hardest, because they are tasked with taking people of vastly different abilities and making sure that they succeed in the promised amount of time (six hours of practice on the roads, in this case).

That hagwons teach to the test and cut corners was something I knew, but seeing it from the perspective of a student, I understand why. Like any other business in a competitive industry, they sell a product and are highly specialized in how they do it. Seeing how it got me what I wanted, I was happy with the result, though I'm cognizant of the deficiencies in my ability and I'm also cognizant of the fact that these weaknesses are result of my own choices. The only way to create positive change in the system would be to change the incentives people have for attending hagwons. In this case, a harder, less predictable test would produce more teaching instead of test practice, but it would harm consumers, particularly those who struggle to pay for lessons in the first place (be they driving or math), and impact the ability of the weakest in society to achieve their goals.

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