A Day in the Life of a Korean Middle Schooler

Source: Google

Source: Google

Most people would define vacation more or less as the given definition above, give or take binge drinking, sleeping in, terrible eating habits, etc. 

The Korean definition of “vacation” would probably be more like:

1. an extended period of learning, esp. one spent away from ones usual school or classes.
    “he took a vacation from normal classes and had ‘winter camp’ classes instead”
not a vacation, maybe a little bit of a break, somewhat of a recess, kind of time                                         off but not really, school but a little bit easier I guess;  More
•  a fixed holiday period between terms in schools where kids still go to class but they call it “camp” to trick them into thinking they’re on a vacation of sorts.

There are five weeks of winter vacation at my school. My first week of vacation was spent teaching a group of five 3rd grade middle schoolers (AKA 9th graders if it were America). I was told last minute about this mini-camp (surprise, surprise) but the students were in charge of creating a schedule. They divided each period into different activities and games like “introduce our favorite book”, “make a bucket list”, “talk about New Years celebrations”, “play trumpet cards” (which, by the way, are just normal playing cards…I may or may not have taught them how to play Texas Hold ’em), and so on.

They all speak English well so it was a nice change from my 2nd and 1st graders who still can’t tell me what year it is after saying the date at the beginning of class every single week. It’s also nice when people can appreciate my sarcasm.

Anyway, one of the subjects we talked about was “hardest times in Korea”. All of their “hard times” had something to do with school. They were doing poorly in English or their math test scores were low. So we talked about how they got through these problems.

The answer was obvious: dedicate more hours to learning. One of my kids, John, had low math test scores last year so the solution to this problem was to go to hagwon, or “academy” (which is after-school classes). His weekly schedule looked something like this:

Weekly Schedule

Academies are private institutions that are widespread in Korea. Many native English teachers (ESL teachers from English-speaking countries) work at them, along with other Korean teachers. Parents spend thousands of dollars (or more like millions of Won) to get their kids spots at the best academies. A new law was formed in Seoul in recent years that prohibited academies from being open past 10pm. Raids are done to ensure that students aren’t studying past curfew (Time). Unfortunately, these laws don’t apply in Ulsan.

During “normal school” the kids learn around 7 different subjects including Chinese Characters and Ethics (along with the normal History, Math, Korean, English, Science and PE). During academy, John was taking another Math, English, Korean, History and Science class.

A few questions I asked him:

When do you sleep? Like seriously, when the HELL do you sleep?!: “I’ll get home around 12:30am-1am and sleep for a few hours before waking up to go to school the next day”

Did going to school for 70.5 hours a week help your test scores?: “No, my math scores went down even more”

Do you choose to go to academy or do your parents make you?: “I choose to go.”

Why?: “Because I had to learn more because my math scores were low.”

Do you like going to academy?: “Noooo!”

Did you learn a lot in academy?: “So-so. Not really.”

Then why did you go for an entire year if it wasn’t helping your math scores, your parents weren’t making you, you didn’t like going, and you weren’t learning a lot?: “[Laughing] That’s a good question. Why did I go?”

This year, John only went to academy for 2 hours a day during the semester and winter vacation. My other students’ schedules were more or less the same, plus a few hours on the weekends. Yes. School on the weekends. By choice.

The thing that fascinates me the most is their reasoning for going to academy. I’ve talked to dozens of my 2nd graders about academy and most of them choose to go. I always thought that parents were forcing them to go and felt so bad for them. Granted, their parents might be putting pressure on them in a different way and this in turn, forces them to go. Who knows.

It’s the logic behind it all that baffles me. More schooling = being smarter. And not even necessarily more hours learning, but more hours just inside of a school or academy. They might just sleep or play on their phones – so long as they’re at school.

None of them have hobbies. Barely any of them play sports. Most of them don’t have time to engage in any kind of recreational activity. When I ask them what they like to do for fun, most of them respond with “listen to music”, “play computer games” or “use my smart phone”.

It seems unfair that they have so little time for creativity and for being kids, in general. 

In the US, Obama praises Korea’s educational system and says that American kids are falling behind. In Korea, leaders are concerned that the lack of innovation and creativity in society will cause their economic growth to become stagnant (Time).

Grass is always greener, eh?

One comment

  1. The way young children and teenagers in Korea are educated always blows my mind. I’m about to start teaching at a high school there and dread to think the kind of pressure and stress I’ll bear witness to.


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