Perspective Top

South Korean education is stress on steroids

Students in a Seoul, South Korea hagwon during a debate competition. (YJI photo)

Seoul, SOUTH KOREA – Crammed into every corner of the city, you can see hagwons and children hurrying to buildings for their classes.

Buildings are squished together, and windows reveal children who are studying.

You can see students cramped in a small room trying to learn something new so that they can improve their skills.

This is the life of a typical Korean student. 

I am truly a South Korean. I was born and raised in South Korea and have never lived anywhere else, but I think South Korea is so different from Western countries. 

Western countries are chill with childhood.

In South Korea, though, we go to hagwons starting from the age of six.

If you’ve ever set foot in South Korea, you would have at least heard the famous term “hagwon.” It refers to an academy that children go to every week or so for a particular class. It focuses on developing their skills and learning a variety of topics. 

The average class time in a hagwon is two or three hours, but students who are preparing for their critical midterms that come one after the other may stay there for up to 12 hours a day. Despite being an American expression, ‘no pain, no gain’ more closely reflects South Korean society than it does American society.

Kyonggi Elementary School in Seoul, South Korea. (Josephine Yein Lee/YJI)

Korean parents will frequently scold their children for not studying every single second of the day whereas in the U.S., they aren’t extremely stressed out about education when they are at such a young age. 

Our education system has changed a lot in the past few decades, primarily because of how impoverished South Korea was back in the 1930s when we were one of the poorest countries in the world.

That’s why past presidents, like Syngman Rhee and Park Jung Hee, tried to promote economic growth and increase the country’s development rates.

When the Stop Asian Hate protest movement took place in the U.S. amidst the height of the covid pandemic, many South Korean parents – already scared that their children might not be able to survive in the world and pushing them academically – started to have even higher expectations to rise above the newfound discrimination against Asians.

Many parents have a single-minded mentality that only intelligent or extraordinary people can attend Ivy League schools, leading them to push their children hard.

I know that all South Korean parents out there are only trying to ensure their kids a good life and stable, well paying job – stemming from a quality education.

But understanding does not necessarily mean I agree.

Coming from the perspective of a Korean student raised in this system, I don’t fully support the way students are forced to study for hours on end or have this formulaic life already set for them.

Each student is unique and has their own interests.

When I was young I went to a US-British mixed preschool in South Korea, but way before that my first language was English. Even though I was born in Korea and both of my parents are Korean, they both went to schools in the U.S. and raised me as an English speaker.

Chadwick International School in Seoul, South Korea. (Josephine Yein Lee/YJI)

Sometimes I ask my mom why she taught me English first. She says that it’s because she wanted to expose me to numerous cultures and languages. Afterwards, I had to go to a Korean elementary school, but I had just finished learning Korean at that time and I was usually confused with the language.

Chadwick International School, Seoul, South Korea. (Josephine Yein Lee/YJI)

I remember the time when I had a misunderstanding with a kid in my class in first grade. My teacher said, “I think we had a misunderstanding” in Korean.  “Misunderstanding” in Korean is 오해 (O-he) but then I thought she was saying 오레오 (Oreos.)

Just like that, I had a hard time during elementary school trying to get used to the education system.

I eventually got used to the way things worked, but deep down inside, I knew that I couldn’t continue attending a school with the Korean system all the way until high school. So halfway through sixth grade, I switched to an international school where we use a language that I am most comfortable with: English.

I still am very aware of the education system used in Korean public schools and the education system in general.

I believe that South Korea is too competitive in certain ways and may not be the best way to learn, but it did bring positive change and development to our society. 

Josephine Yein Lee is a Junior Reporter with Youth Journalism International.

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