Wresting homework away from Koreans

It's easy to wonder who has it worse: Woo-young, who spends hours memorizing facts for the college entrance exam he'll take this fall; or his mom, who cleans houses to pay for her son's cram-school lessons.

This typical South Korean family, who requested their last name not be used, is doing everything to help Woo-young in his battle for a high test score. The all-important exam weighs heavily in university admissions decisions, and a school's reputation sets the career potential of its graduates.

To the government, it's bad enough that what everyone here calls "exam hell" dictates so much of a young person's future while it devours family energy and income. But the intensive rote learning in high school, followed by lax standards in university, also fails to nurture the kind of creative thinkers Korea needs in a dynamic global market, officials say. The economic crisis that began here in November 1997 has injected new urgency into the matter, and education reforms that began five years ago are now getting extra attention.

To help usher in a new way of thinking and deemphasize the exam, Seoul National University (SNU), considered Korea's No. 1, has begun interviewing applicants to judge their "morals and reasoning ability," says Seo Ho Jin, an assistant dean of academic affairs. "What if you want to wear American-made blue jeans but your father protests. What will you do?" students were asked. Such a question can create dilemmas in this patriarchal, nationalistic society. Mr. Seo chuckles as he recalls how students got stumped when asked to plan a three-day vacation. "Most applicants ... spend [all] their time studying. They don't think about going on a trip," he says.

The national exam currently counts for 56 percent in SNU's admissions tallying. By 2002, factors like extracurricular activities, high school recommendations, and grade-point averages will play a larger role.

Among other reforms, President Kim Dae Jung has implored Koreans to judge people on ability rather than how they look on paper. To encourage students to explore diverse career goals, universities will soon allow two years of liberal arts classes before students must declare a major. As it is, students often fall into departments based on exam scores.

But changing what goes on inside the classroom is the biggest challenge, acknowledges Lee Sung Ho, dean of the department of education at Yonsei University in Seoul. "Japan, Taiwan, and Korea are notorious for 'closed' systems" that emphasize certain canonical subjects while pushing students with homework and exams, says Mr. Lee. Change will come slowly. "They hang new mottoes on the school gate, but [teachers] do not really know how [new techniques] must be implemented in the classroom."

ONE urgent issue entails training engineering students for the practical needs of industry, not the theoretical pursuits of professors. High-tech companies often complain of having to spend six months retraining graduates. "The engineering education community realizes that their customer is industry and they have to do a better job producing students," says Kwon Hee Min, senior vice president at Samsung Electronics. As part of an expert panel, Mr. Kwon is helping to establish a school accreditation system for engineers modeled on the American system.

Meanwhile, the government-sponsored Research University Project aims to encourage regional schools to specialize in a particular science field. Education Ministry officials point to the well-funded programs as evidence of the new energy in education reform.

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