American public school teachers often complain that their students don’t study for tests, don’t do their homework, and don’t read anything at all. I can say from first-hand experience that my students are guilty of committing these educational transgressions. As a matter of fact, I can tell you that my own sons frequently fail to put in the out-of-school time that their teachers would like to see. The only person in my classroom who learned anything from homework was me; I learned that it was less frustrating for all of us if I simply stopped assigning it. Such is the state of American education these days.
On the other side of the world, the South Korean educational system has students taking one extremely high-stakes test that determines whether or not they’ll be accepted at a college. Grades, extracurricular activities, part-time jobs, and volunteering time at a local food bank don’t count. A student’s entire future depends on the results of that one rote-memorization test.
But that educational decision has students in South Korea falling victim to “educational masochism.” That’s a euphemism for “going insane studying.” The government has decided that making its young people crazy is actually counter-productive. Their economy needs a boost from innovative ideas and creative problem solving, but the education system stomps student creativity into dust. "One-size-fits-all, government-led uniform curriculums and an education system that is locked only onto the college-entrance examination are not acceptable," President Lee Myung-bak vowed at his inauguration in 2008.
Good tutors are raking in millions of dollars a year doing after-school-hours tutoring. However, one of the educational reforms that has recently been put into place is to make it illegal for tutoring centers to be open later than 10PM. Government officials in Seoul make nightly raids on tutoring centers that operate after that time. The message to students? Stop studying and go home to bed!
South Korea views the American education system as its goal. They want their children to learn to problem-solve the way American students learn. American teachers use open-ended questions, projects, and performance assessments to teach everything from chemistry to literature analysis. It is only recently that high-stakes testing has placed an increased value on rote-memorization tasks in the classroom. The United States would like to have the test results that the South Koreans achieve; the South Koreans would like to have the problem-solving skills that American students attain.
Perhaps the problems with both educational systems lie in the nature of high-stakes testing. Both countries need to decrease the importance of rote-memorization testing and increase the importance of learning problem-solving skills. Tests are useful for assessing a student’s mastery and for helping teachers plan lessons to cover gaps in student knowledge. They are not useful when they are the sole factor in decisions to move students to the next grade level or to offer students a spot in a college.
American politicians and educators need to take note of the South Korean point of view. Do we want our students to memorize “stuff” so they can pass a test, or do we want them to be global innovators and problem-solvers? The South Koreans have chosen the latter. What are we going to do?