When Rote Learning Fails Against the Test of Global Economy

South Korea's economic crisis has forced a rethink of Confucian-style education with 'test-aholic' students.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Shim Jai-ok is well aware of the havoc the Asian financial crisis is playing on South Korean students.

Ms. Shim, deputy director of the Korean-American Educational Commission in Seoul, helps students get into US colleges and universities. The halls outside her office are no longer packed with students filling out forms to study overseas. But she still hears of their difficulties, and her own niece had to give up studying in the United States after it became too costly.

Despite this, Shim thinks some good may come out of the situation. "Korean high schools are like factories. Only the scores on your exams matter, and the only way to get into university is to pay for after-school tutoring, six days a week until 11 o'clock at night," says Shim, whose two sons started being tutored in the sixth grade.

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She and other education experts hope the economic crisis may finally shift the emphasis to where it should be: providing a well-rounded education, rather than cramming for a standardized university entrance exam.

Rote learning in a global economy

Korea's Confucian tradition - with its sterile emphasis on rote memorization of facts - has promoted an education system focused on passing standardized, multiple-choice tests and qualifying exams. Critics say this "facts only" education leaves little opportunity for students to develop creative talents or critical problem-solving skills, and has contributed to the country's recent economic crisis.

"I worry about the future of Korea not because of the [financial] crisis, but for the lack of vision in educating Koreans," says Yonsei University philosophy Prof. Kim Hyung-chul, a former adviser to the minister of education. "Our system is increasingly unable to compete with other developed countries."

Education experts say this realization may rally the political will to build the "open education society" ministry officials have been talking about for years. Education reforms would give individuals greater freedom for original thought, and offer students a wider range of classes. And adults who need retraining for new jobs could take more courses or pursue degrees.

If universities and colleges become more "customer driven," experts say they will become more diverse, competitive, and responsive to the changing needs. Of particular concern has been dismantling the so-called "examination hell."

Since university acceptance has been based almost entirely on an applicant's score on a standardized national exam, teenagers toil for years in after-school tutoring programs, while their parents toil even longer to pay for these programs. The average family is thought to spend nearly half its income on tutors, tuition, and other education-related costs.

"We're a society obsessed with education," says Lee Hyun-chong of the Research Institute for Higher Education. "Children are 'test-aholics' and parents are 'tutor-aholics.' "

A child's whole future may depend on the university entrance exam. "Confucianism holds that education is what makes the human being, building and completing one's character," says political scientist Hahm Chai-bong of Yonsei University. "That's still the standard by which people are judged in Korea, and why people invest so heavily in it."

"The lives of high school students have been extremely abnormal and unhealthy, with enormous physical hardship for the whole family," he says. "If we hear that a family has a child in high school we express our condolences. And if that person is a relative,they are automatically excused from family gatherings."

For years Korean policymakers have been trying to change this and other aspects of the education system. Private tutoring was forbidden a decade ago, but the system thrived underground. Last year, examinations were made easier. And universities have been encouraged to shift emphasis to grades and other merits of applicants.

But the recent financial crisis has also forced a major change. Fear of job losses and a 40 percent loss in the value of the Korean currency have punched the bottom out of the tutoring market.

University officials report that students who previously earned large sums of money as tutors are signing up for on-campus jobs; few families can afford to hire them.

The higher education system is also under scrutiny. Many countries would envy South Korea's system. With 150 four-year universities and colleges and 155 junior colleges for just 45 million people, it's one of the world's largest higher education systems on a per capita basis. The country also ranks third in terms of the per-capita number of college-age students enrolled in higher education, trailing only the United States and Canada.

Today's jobs need different skills

But size isn't everything. Today, there are far more university graduates than the job market can accommodate. A shortage of quality professional and graduate degree programs forced many to pursue studies abroad. Employers complain that they can't find people with the skills they need to compete in the global economy.

Universities remain extremely rigid. Prospective students must apply to a specific university department, and have no opportunity to change their discipline after enrollment. The number of places available in a given discipline is an inflexible figure set for private and public universities alike by ministry officials in Seoul. Rote memorization is the key to success in many university courses.

In recent months, however, the education ministry has been giving greater autonomy to colleges and universities, some of which are teetering under large debts due to the economic crisis. They are under unprecedented political and budgetary pressure to reform and diversify their programs in order to compete with rivals.

The education crisis may have prompted many voters to elect opposition leader Kim Dae Jung as the country's new president last year. Mr. Kim made reform of the country's education system one of the main themes of his inaugural address in February, promising to achieve it "at all costs." He promised major changes in the university entrance exam and to help "forge a society where ability counts."

The economic crisis, says Professor Kim, "may be our best window of opportunity to put our education system on the right track."

How S.Korea wants to fix education

South Korean government officials have been drawing up plans to overhaul the education system for several years. Below are some of the central ideas put forward by South Korea's Presidential Commission on Education Reform since it was founded in 1994:

* A new school curriculum that gives students and schools greater choice in selecting courses, introduces foreign language study at an earlier age, and allows schools to tailor special programs for gifted or special-needs students.

* The introduction of civic education programs to confront a perceived increase in juvenile crime, dishonesty, and disciplinary problems.

* The creation of PTA-style school councils to involve parents and local community leaders in their schools.

* Allowing schools to hold after-hours adult-education classes or elective courses as an alternative to private tutoring.

* Modernized school facilities to relieve overcrowded classrooms.

* New computers to allow access to the Internet.

* Giving universities and colleges greater autonomy, especially in developing programs and setting enrollment levels.

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