Sunday, May 22, 2011

Can We Make A Difference?

At a get-together a few nights ago, one of my fellow English teachers here in Korea was feeling frustrated: after nearly three years of teaching here, he has not been able to really make a difference in the way his school works; by extension, we foreigners will never be able to make positive change in the Korean educational system.

I feel his pain. After three years, I still can't get my co-teachers to speak English in my presence at English Department meetings--well, at least not until sam-cha (third round), when the libations have loosened lips somewhat. Each new department head has asked me for my opinion on what the school can do to improve my effectiveness. My answer is: 1) give me smaller classes; or 2) more class hours per week with my students; or 3) at least stream the classes by English ability levels; and 4) periodic, regular meetings with my co-teachers. So far, none of those things has been implemented.

The Korean educational system, not unlike education bureaucracies anywhere, seems particularly entrenched. Although one can trace numerous attempts by national administration after administration to decrease the reliance on after-school academies (hakwons), to change the memorization-based, rote-learning culture of instruction, to encourage creativity, and to raise the level of education for the poor and middle class, most who follow education policy here would agree that nothing has really gotten better.

An article in the JoongAng Daily a few days ago illustrates this point, with a a story titled The widening educational divide. Acceptance rates to Korea's most prestigious universities is proportionally much higher for so-called autonomous or special-purpose schools than for "ordinary" high schools. Of course, that's one of the goals of the autonomous school idea. Key grafs:
A closer look at the numbers shows that the overall number of students accepted by the best universities in the country from normal high schools started to decline beginning in 1974 - when the standardization of high schools began. One school in Seoul that sent 67 students to Seoul National University in 1981, had only six successful applicants last year.
The standardization of high schools was implemented by the government in an attempt to narrow the gap in the quality of education received by the rich and the rest, and root out memorization-based education methods. This meant getting rid of all entrance exams that high schools utilized prior to 1974 and assigning students to random schools.
But what was meant to broaden the quality of education, ended up having the opposite effect. Indeed, the Korean education system has never been more polarized, and a memorization-based approach to learning prevails throughout Korean schools.
If the Korean government can't fix it over a period of thirty-five years, I don't think a few thousand foreign English teachers will do it within our typical two to five years tenure.

But can we make a difference in our little realm? After all, many of us are given minimal guidance on our curriculum and classroom activities--what we may see as an annoyance can be an opportunity to make a difference. Think outside the box, focus less on grammar and more on communication; have students move and act rather than sit passively; create a scene or a stir (in a good way, of course), let the powers-that-be know you're here and you're serious about teaching.

My friend has done just this at his school: he reads storybooks at lunchtime; he teaches an afterschool science class; and so on. In fact, his school recently won an award from the city for its outstanding English program! I think it's fair to say he has made a difference. Alas, the presentation of the award, and some great perks, were lavished on the Korean faculty members, and he was completely ignored. Such thoughtlessness is inexcusable, of course, so I won't try to excuse it--still, this isn't the first time a foreigner has been slighted in this way, and it won't be the last. Hurts your feelings, naturally, but it doesn't decrease your impact.

Teaching in Korea can be frustrating; cultural differences like han and nunchi cause us to stumble and misunderstand things, to create rifts of which we are unaware, and to offend or be offended where no offense is meant. Open criticism is not something familiar to Korean, or indeed Asian, culture, at least on a one-to-one basis. When my lesson has not gone well, my co-teachers will not critique it for me; lacking a meeting protocol where they would be comfortable in critiquing me, I have had to figure out ways to ask for their input whereby I am not directly on the line. When I need them to change their ways, I approach them with I am having trouble with so-and-so; what do you think it is? Perhaps you can help me by doing such-and-such.

I would guess most foreign teachers would point to the testing culture as the biggest problem with Korean education--a student's entire future seems to boil down to one nine hour period on a Thursday in November of their senior year, the Korean SAT, or 수능 suneung. In order to get into prestigious universities, Korean students must forego sports, dating, and fun to attend cram schools, spend untold hours in "self-study rooms" and, in too many cases, contemplate suicide.

But so would Korean teachers. They are just as frustrated with their inability to change the system as we are. Well, much more.

Despite all the English grammar and vocabulary they are taught, the average high schooler has great difficulty putting together a simple English sentence expressing their own thoughts.

So I no longer worry about the "average high schooler"--I confine myself to my own, the ones at my school. Through practice and repetition, by giving them need and means, I will make it easier and easier for them to express a simple thought well in English. Then a slightly more complex one. And so on.

Of course, it's neither simple or easy. And I'll never change the system. But the occasional success is reward enough to keep me going, and the paycheck doesn't hurt, either.


Chris said...

"The Korean educational system, not unlike education bureaucracies anywhere, seems particularly entrenched"

We can further simplify that sentence, I think: "All bureaucracies anywhere are entrenched". Snails come to mind.

You might suggest that the departments meetings happen AFTER the libations have loosened lips (sa-cha?), but then again, your suggestion might be ignored...

George Bailey Sees The World! said...

Thanks, man - I think I needed to read this blog tonight. Thanks for writing it.

Tanner Brown said...

You're missing the point. The solution to any education issue is three simple words: Add er all.

Ever spoken a broken foreign language on kiddie speed? It's the bee's knees.