The line stems from the widespread belief – not just here but in many other parts of the world – that being smart and passing school exams aren’t necessarily the same thing.
But in a country where 12 years of schooling can boil down to a score on a crucial and potentially life-defining test, it resonates deeply with many.
The art of choosing the right answer
On November 18, just over 500,000 Koreans took arguably the most important exam of their lives: the College Scholastic Ability Test, or Suneung.
A day after the annual review, a parents union held a protest outside the Seoul Metropolitan Bureau of Education against the government’s ongoing education policies. The protesters were part of a growing movement questioning whether the country’s education system can nurture creative minds or equip young people with the skills they will need in the future, rather than just training them to do well on tests at multiple choice.
One of the biggest questions – both for the public education system and for the 9.3 trillion won ($ 8.1 billion) hagwon extracurricular industry – is how much English is taught. .
Critics say that teaching English is often aimed at passing standardized written exams, like the Suneung, rather than improving students’ practical communication skills.
Kim Jae-joong, the director of a local English academy, said high school English studies focus on rote memorization because of Suneung.
The problems had been around for a long time, but they worsened in 2018 when the Suneung switched to an absolute grading system for its English section instead of grading students on a curve.
The move was aimed at tackling the skyrocketing cost of private English education in the country, but the similarities between Suneung’s English section and the English-language programs on the public educational television channel EBS led students to learn the models. to look for during the test. .
“As (students) can access similar questions and (Suneung) example sentences, they focus more on memorizing (the patterns) to ‘pick’ the right answers,” Kim explained, adding that he advises against in fact for the students to try to understand what the text is about. “It takes a lot more than two minutes, so you just have to find some clues that will help them find the answer. Candidates are given 45 questions that must be answered in 70 minutes.
“We (educators) should be looking at the issues at a fundamental level, knowing why we are learning English and how English should be well taught and learned. This, of course, will take more than two minutes to resolve.
As most students work hard to acquire the skills to pass multiple-choice tests, exams have come to include “ridiculously difficult” questions to distinguish top performing students from well-trained but average students. This led the Suneung to become incompatible with the secondary school curriculum.
A major complaint about this year’s exam involved a passage on the Hegelian dialectic, followed by six questions on the passage. Other passages are also said to have exceeded the level of reading comprehension required of high school graduates – for example, one on the Bretton Woods International Monetary System and one on optical glasses for automobiles.
YouTuber Korean Englishman recently posted a video of British final year high school students taking the English part of Suneung. They struggled despite English being their mother tongue, as the reading comprehension section contains excerpts from philosophy, literature, and technical textbooks rather than everyday English.
When asked, “How did you feel like you were being tested?” A student replied jokingly: “Not English.”
“It’s done in a way that every answer could be the answer,” said another.
In June, the Korean Society for the Study of Education held its annual meeting of 1,500 academics from across the country. The theme was the present and the future of education in the country. Understandably, his hyper-competitive and exam-driven nature dominated the discussion.
Professor Yoon Pyung-joong from Hanshin University said it reflects Korean society.
Koreans tend to think that “entering college is the first line of class conflict,” he said, adding that attention should be paid to the political and philosophical aspects of Korean education. when discussing how to reform it.
Almost any age, Koreans live under constant pressure to outperform their peers, and reviews offer the most cost-effective way to assess and rank people.
In a country where more than 70 percent of high school graduates go on to college, getting good Suneung scores and enrolling in an elite university is proof of success, at least early in life.
In “Squid Game”, protagonist Gi-hun’s eerie obsession with bragging that his childhood friend Sang-woo is “Sangmoon-dong pride” and “Seoul National University graduate with honors” reflects that same perspective.
Of course, this is why the Suneung is considered one of the most important days in life, if not the most important. On the eve of this year’s review, the Department of Gender Equality and the Family announced that it will offer 24-hour counseling to adolescents facing post-Suneung stress, as part of a effort to prevent violence and even suicide.
In about four months, the Koreans will elect a new president. At the 2021 Global Human Resources Forum, held earlier this month, the presidential candidates shared their respective visions for education, which ranged from a focus on teaching technologies and learning to reforms that would emphasize creativity rather than examination skills.
Although they differ on policies, they share a big question: How should Korea prepare its children for the future?
Perhaps the fate of the fictional “Sangmoon-dong pride” in “Squid Game”, given where his SNU degree took him, reflects the direction taken by Korean education unless some nothing changes.
By Yoon Min-sik ([email protected])