The education level that a person attains in South Korea can have an enormous impact on their career, so getting into a good university can open doors to job opportunities that simply do not exist for less educated people. This translates to a culture that puts pressure on students as young as 6 years old to perform well in school.
Rote Memorization in South Korea
What exactly are the students learning in these incredibly competitive classes? They learn facts. The Korean education system is based on a decades old system of rote memorization that is applied to every subject. Math, Society, Korean, History, Geography; all of the ten or so subjects that a student must take in elementary and middle school are taught by rote memorization.
It is a tough system, but there are several upsides to it, including the facts that South Korea has an almost 100% literacy rate (a rate that North America, in general, is beginning to envy) and that students leaving elementary school in South Korea have more knowledge than do most North American students leaving high school.
So is their system good or bad? To answer that question, you need to understand something about the ideological system that underpins Korean society. Confucianism, while practiced by only a minority of modern Korean people, has had an incredibly long-lasting and influential role in the cultural dynamics and mentality of the people. Most especially, the emphasis on order should be addressed.
Confucianism espouses Order. Through a strict social hierarchy that tries to solve all potentially ambiguous social situations, Confucianism makes for a society that is easy to understand and gives the people a direction in which all can struggle together. For a people who have historically been beset by stronger, more militaristic people surrounding them, a strong communalist society that puts the needs of the group before the needs of its individual members make a lot of sense.
In such a society, ensuring that every child has all the information they need and that it is uniform across all the people, is an asset. It allows all individuals to accomplish the tasks they are given, regardless of other factors and prepares youngsters for the workforce. This uniformity has proven to be highly effective, helping South Korea to make its lunge from third world destitution after the Korean War, to a global economic leader in less than 30 years.
So, to answer the question: is the Korean system bad? No. For several reasons: it has worked, it is based on a different set of cultural values, so judging it from our perspective is inappropriate, especially because it really does prepare them to live in Korean society.
Private vs Public Schools
Finally, we come to you, the reader. Given that you have decided to teach English in South Korea, you have two choices. You can find a position within the private sector, or within the public school system. What’s the difference you might ask? In the private sector, where I worked for two years, you will meet some of the most educated students in Korea. These are children who come from families willing to pay and possibly sacrifice many luxuries to ensure their child has an advantage. This means that the student’s families are usually very motivated.
You will have your classes after regular school hours, so your students will most likely be tired. There is a huge range of possibilities in the private school systems. You may have to use the curriculum, materials, and methodology that the academy you work for provides. Or you might have no curriculum at all.
You will generally deal with much larger age ranges than you would in the public system too. Everything from finger-painting with kindergartners to discussing novels with middle-schoolers within the purview of your school. And it is possibly all within the same day.
The other option, which I admit tends to be more difficult. It is to work for the EPIK system – English Program in Korea. First, students in the EPIK system are there regardless of their parents’ affluence. In many cases, you will have drastically mixed level classes. You will have much larger ESL classes as well; 30+ students in each class is an average. And lastly, you will have a Korean co-teacher.
Using the Communicative Approach in South Korea
How does the Communicative Approach fit within South Korea’s education system? Simply put, if you use the Communicative Approach, regardless of which type of school you have chosen to work at, you can maximize the amount of enjoyment the students get out of their language education.
The public school system (EPIK) allows more flexibility to their guest teachers than they do to the teachers of other subjects. You will not be forced to teach by rote memorization.
What this means, as far as the students are concerned, is that your class has the potential of being the most fun class they have all day.
The key to this is context.
It is within your power to teach English. In a way that allows the students to stretch their mental muscles, be creative, and learn a new language.
Following the precepts of the Communicative Approach allows you to add a vital component to the routine of their day. The key to this is context.
I have watched classes in which a Korean teacher explained the rules of English grammar on the board, using enormous charts and diagrams.
I had students come into my classes with an almost mathematical understanding of the rules of English grammar; however, they could not use their knowledge. For all the charts and diagrams that students are exposed to, the chances of the language being used correctly in the greater English speaking world is remote. The Communicative Approach brings context to students.
The Communicative Approach gives you the tools to teach students in Korea. It is in a manner that is interesting, fun, and engaging. Use the PPP approach in class. It is to give the students the opportunity to experience the English language in its myriad and complex forms.
Give your students the chance to apply their understanding in as many ways as possible. And also give them the tools necessary to succeed in the larger context of the global economy that Korea is just beginning to excel at.
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