Thursday, December 16, 2010

Education Hell

The other day, I had an awesome conversation with a South Korean hair dresser. While she cut my hair, I peppered her with questions about how school was different in South Korea compared to here in Canada.

Here's roughly how I remember the conversation:

Joe: "What was school like in South Korea?"

Kelly: "It was very different. I was at school from 7:30 to 10:00 pm. There was no free time. No physical activity. Just school. 7:30 am to 3:00 pm is school, and then the evening is academy. Elementary kids go to academy until 8:00 pm and high school kids goes until 10:00 pm."

Joe: "Did you like school?"

Kelly: (Laughing) "No not at all. I hated school. No one likes school. Did you?"

Joe: "Well, there were parts I liked about school, and some parts that I definitely did not like, but remember I had lots of free time during my school career. Even though I went to school, I did lots of other things."

Kelly: "Oh, but you also had parts of school you didn't like?"

Joe: "Oh sure. There were parts of school I hated."

Kelly: "Well, focus on what you hated, and that's like me."

Joe: "Do you know anyone who liked school?"

Kelly: (laughing) "No! No one likes school. I knew no one who liked it. There is so much pressure from teachers and parents to be competitive. It's not like that here in Canada. That's I why I love it here. There's so much more freedom and it's relaxed."

Joe: "What did you do in class most the time?"

Kelly: "The teacher talked a lot. You know, lectures with the chalkboard. I was very quiet. I never talked out. I only talked when I was called on by the teacher. If you misbehave, you get hit."

Joe: "Hit? By the teacher? With their hands?"

Kelly: "Oh no. Not with the hand, but with the stick. Hitting with the hand is bad. Hitting with the stick is good. If you misbehave you also might be made to stick with both arms straight up in the air, and you have to hold them up for 15 minutes in front of everyone."

Joe: "What if a parent objected to this treatment of their child?"

Kelly: "What?"

Joe: "What if a parent complained about their child being hit?"

Kelly: "Why would a parent complain? This is a part of how we do things in our culture."

Joe: "Did you have tests?"

Kelly: "Big tests. Lots of pressure. Very competitive. The test to get into college is very important. If you fail, you have to wait until next year to write it again. In the mean time, you go back to academy."

I thanked Kelly for the wonderful haircut and the conversation, and I was on my way.

As I reflected on this story, I thought of a post by Yong Zhao where he shared a news story that is making headlines in China titled A Helpless Mother Complains about Extra Classes Online, Students Say They Have Become Stupid Before Graduation:

Since my daughter began 7th grade (first year of middle school), she has had extra evening classes. At that time, the class ends at 18:50 and I accepted it. But ever since she entered 9th grade, the evening class has lengthened to 20:40. For the graduating class, the students have to take classes from 7:30 to 20:00 on Saturdays. There are also five weeks of classes during the winter and summer school vacation. All day long, the students don’t have any self-study time, or physical education classes…
This kind of practice has seriously damaged students’ health. They have completely lost motivation and interest in studying. My child’s health gets worse day by day. So is her mental spirit. She has begun to lose her.

Two thoughts come to mind when I hear these heartbreaking stories:

Firstly, I found William Chamberlain's comment on Yong Zhao's post very profound:

I would prefer my students to be little “dumber” but a whole lot happier.
And secondly, in the late 1950s, Erich Fromm wrote:

Few parents have the courage and independence to care more for their children's happiness than for their 'success'.

There are lessons to be learned from education hell, but I would hope they are realities to be avoided rather than replicated.


  1. Fromm's quote strikes home. I am a teacher, my wife is in college to become a teacher. My eldest daughter is in college to become a teacher. My second eldest daughter plans to go to college to become a teacher. (I think my two youngest daughters 8 and 5 both still want to be princesses.)

    While they have seen me struggle with student and parent apathy, teachers who hate students, students that have been abused and neglected, and the new bash-the-teacher meme they must still get the impression I enjoy my work.

    I would love for my children to be happy as adults, I think that having a job that matters is a real step in the right direction for them.

  2. At a parent meeting in my school one year, I asked them what their priorities were for us as we worked with their children. "Happiness" was the easy #1 answer. I love our parents.

  3. How old is your hair dresser? I'm curious whether Korean teachers still physically discipline students today.

  4. Ed,

    Happens more than is acknowledged though now, "on the books" it is against the law. I have probably been in more Korean schools than most foreigners and worst of all are the Middle schools. dark, totalitarian places where kids live in fear, like deer in headlights. Elementary school by contrast is great and I think Joe's hairdresser was not talking about elementary school. There is a lot about elementary school's that Koreans could teach us.

    I really think the whole story points to how irrelevant school has become (or became after the 2 nd world war). School divorced itself from citizenry and liberal arts and became a place to inculcate and raise consumers and labor.

    It also raises the issue of children's rights. Why must school be compulsory? why must children who don't go to school and learn through alternative means or self directed - have to suffer? Why such a strict and draconian system. If we made school voluntary (and that would REALLY follow the libertarian principles of most administrators!) then the system would / might actually work. As is - it is hollow.

    Great read.


  5. I've just heard the speeches of the graduating year 6 students who all talked about the things they loved about primary school - the cooking they did after they had harvested from the gardens, the camp where they had to dress up in olden days clothes and live in the gold mining town, the excursions etc..
    The fact they can write and deliver a speech, compose and sing a song and enjoy one anothers company seems to be taken for granted [at times].
    My hope in the future is that they might also say how they connected with other around the world and enjoyed solving some of the world's problems in their pown backyard might be good also.
    Thanks for the post.


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