It’s exams week for grade school and middle school students in Korea. Next week, it will be the high school students’ turn. And the week after next will be the college students’ midterm. You wouldn’t believe how crazy the culture of studying is in Korea. You will think that the students are addicted to it.
Korean students spend six years in grade school, three years in middle school and another three in high school. There are two kinds of high school, academic and technical/industrial. Obviously, if you intend to go to college you’d go to an academic high school and if you’d like to learn some skills then the technical or industrial is just right for you. The most difficult year is third year high school, when you’re preparing to go to college. There are not so many universities in Korea and admission is tough. You’ll need the SAT to go to college and failing it means waiting for another year to take it. You see, the SAT is offered only once a year. And today is D-25, meaning 25 days more for the SAT.
Grade school and middle are compulsory and parents usually just pay about 10,000 KRW ($10) a month. High school is about 100,000 KRW ($100). Education is not really cheap in Korea, since most parents spend hundreds of dollars a month to send their kids to “hagwons” (these are private schools offering special education apart from regular school) to study math, Korean, Chinese and most of all, English.
My husband’s niece Ta-yeon, 11 years old in Korean age — Koreans add a year to their biological age — attends public school from 9 AM to 3 PM. After her regular school, she has to go to her English, arts and Tae Kwon Do classes. That’s three hours spent on extra curricular activities. Other students are (not) so lucky that they spend more than that. I know of a high school student who goes to school from 8 AM to 4 PM. Go straight to the hagwon for her math, Korean and English classes plus violin lessons. She goes home at around 11 PM and still heads to the library (which are usually open up to 2 AM) to do her assignments. So she usually sleeps at around 2 AM. It’s not an uncommon sight to see high school students in their uniforms getting off the bus or the subway at 11 PM.
Students in Korea go to school from Mondays to Saturdays, but their parents only have to go to work during the week. It’s a good thing that the government had decided early this year to give the kids one Saturday off every month.
One might be impressed at the number of hours these students spend studying, but are they truly learning? I wouldn’t really know but I’ve heard several of them that I know complaining about how their parents push them to study even if they just want to play computer games. It’s truly difficult to live in a competitive society that doesn’t accept failures. My husband and I often discuss about this… if we have a child, shall we give him/her a Korean education? Or maybe there are alternatives available out there that we don’t know of. I wish!