“Challenges in Korean Education” Asia Institute Seminar with Bertram Chip Bruce

Asia Institute Seminar

6th May 2012

Bertram Chip Bruce


Library & Information Science

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

“Challenges in Korean Education”

Emanuel Pastreich:

Both parents and students in Korea feel oppressed. Students feel that they need to study all the time just to pass the tests required for high school and college entrance not because they enjoy learning, but because it is the only way to find a job. At the same time, parents pay much of their income, going into debt in many cases, just to get their children into the right schools so they can survive economically. This endless study and endless payment cycle seems to be spinning out of control.  And those students not only have to go to school, but they also have to go to cram schools where they study until late at night. What can we do about it? And what do you think is at the heart of the problem?

Bertram Bruce:

We have to start by distinguishing between short-term and long-term goals. In the short term, students are often concerned with getting good test scores that will let them enter good universities, particularly universities that are internationally recognized and looked upon favorably by employers. It is very understandable how people get caught up in that game of collecting documentation that makes them qualified. But in the long term, this focus on exams and collecting the perfect “specs” for college admission, or employment, is detrimental for both individuals and for society as a whole. Even in the narrow sense of economic success, there is no clear relationship between test scores and success. It’s very hard to point to some new rapidly-growing corporation and demonstrate that this is happening because the people involved had good exam scores—often it is the opposite.

Success happens because people are given the opportunity to be creative and innovative—the specs are not much of a factor. A colleague, Professor Yong Zhao,  researched international test scores and found that test scores are negatively correlated with creativity and innovation. Zhao suggested facetiously that if you want an indicator of success, then identify people who eat with chopsticks. Eating with chopsticks happens to be loosely correlated with standardized test scores. That may be a joke, but the truth is that the level of public debate on examinations and their function is at about that level: taking certain factors and blowing their significance out of proportion.

Emanuel Pastreich:

You are suggesting that there are multiple variables that one could link to success: whether you eat with chopsticks, or are left-handed, or you like jazz music, or you do well on standardized tests. There is no clear reason to say that doing well on standardized tests has a privileged status as an indicator of success.

Bertram Bruce:

That is exactly right.  So if you take a narrow view of education as the foundation for future economic productivity, there is no evidence that a focus on this narrowly defined academic “success” has any meaningful economic or societal benefit.

Another point to keep in mind it that the original purpose of education is quite unrelated to economic productivity and this rather functionalist definition is a rather new and alien perspective. Traditionally we thought of education, whether with regards to its function for individuals or for society, as a project that enhances the quality of life or produces critical thinking individuals and socially engaged citizens. Or education can play a central role in inculcating people committed to building a more harmonious world, or a more just society.  Those functions of education are critical, and one could even say they are more important than economic productivity, but they are invisible if we use many of these standard criteria for evaluating education. The narrowing down of the curriculum and the focus on simple quantitative measurements of success is simply misguided. There is absolutely no evidence that such education will produce an engaged and responsible citizen who is committed to build a just and peaceful world.

Emanuel Pastreich:

That gap which you identify between what the system demands and what the true value of education could be is clear to many Koreans. But Koreans remain puzzled:   how did this monstrous system come into being? How can we put the muzzle back on this monster?

Bertram Bruce:

Well, we live in an interconnected world and we need to take a holistic perspective regarding the challenges. I am not sure that even if there was a consensus in Korea, that Korea alone could put the monster back in the cage. Even the United States, although it sets many of its own standards, is not in the position to simply opt out of international systems for the evaluation of students—or professors, for that matter. We are talking about a system that has spun out of control one in which we are all caught up, and for which we all have a responsibility.

So the first step, in my opinion, is to encourage more informed and sustained public debate on education not just between parents, but among members of the community. We need to consider the entire education system and how it relates to the economy and society if we are looking for solutions. We need to go back to the basics as well, to debate what it is we are trying to achieve through education and what are goals are.

I recently attended a conference  in Spain about the future of the university. In Europe one of the biggest issues these days is the Bologna process, a program that establishes a standardized higher education system for all of Europe. In Spain The cultural and linguistic diversity of regions in Spain is a very important domestic issue and even today certain regions have their own languages and their own cultures. Communities have built unique aspects of their culture and language into the very education system. The massive standardization of education required by the Bologna process threatens to wipe out all cultural distinctions between schools in Spain. I am not saying that the Spanish education system is perfect, but we do need a critical debate on  what are the pros and cons of this massive change are. We need people to consider how the Bologna process can be modified so that it continues to preserve some local differences as well. Of course we need some standards concerning what the degrees issues in difference countries mean, but we can do that without demanding uncompromising uniformity.

Emanuel Pastreich:

This question of whether to standardize education or preserve diversity has been debated for a long time.

Bertram Bruce:

Well, back in 1923, when Ataturk established the Turkish Republic, he wanted to create an independent and secular European-style modern nation where the backwards Ottoman Empire had been. The first thing Ataturk did was to invite the American academic reformer John Dewey to come to Turkey. Dewey stayed for three months and wrote a report on education in Turkey. That report contained a remarkable insight which remains relevant today.

Dewey wrote, “Ataturk wants to create a new unity among the Turkish people and this goal is a noble one. There is great advantage to establishing a unity that crosses all these different languages, cultures, languages and religions. But he needs to remember that unity is not the same as uniformity. Uniformity precludes the chance for genuine dialogue and understanding of differences, which is necessary to create true unity.”

What Dewey was saying is that while every child should study about nature, and there should be generally recognized definitions of what nature is, nevertheless, the manner in which they study can vary from region to region and such variation is a positive. In the mountains they might learn about goats and berries and at the sea side they might learn about fish and seaweed, the tide and the winds, and so on. This same kind of argument could apply to any part of the world. All children need opportunities to learn about nature, mathematics, civil society, and so on. But the subjects they take up, and the approaches that they employ can vary from region to region—and such variation provides valuable diversity. Even in Korea, which is not a large country, I think there could be remarkable variations in education based on region that would enrich education. Such diversity would be quite stimulating to students.

Emanuel Pastreich:

I agree. The potential for making Korean education truly exceptional can be realized by introducing such diversity based on location into the curriculum itself. So far the Ministry of Education has not tolerated that degree of autonomy, but I think the potential is immense.

Bertram Bruce:

I can imagine that even in the heart of Seoul, there might be interesting differences between the histories and the traditions of two high schools. By valuing those differences and by allowing students and teachers to build on their own local knowledge, their own unique traditions, actually presents the possibility of more profound learning and more meaningful unity— not just uniformity. Much of our standardized testing system values uniformity.

Emanuel Pastreich: 

Around the world this numeric approach to evaluating education, through the ranking of schools, or the ranking of students by test scores, has taken root. All forms of knowledge are now given some numerical value by importance or relevance and people get this sense that somehow that number can be used in an absolute sense to assess the value of knowledge. Where did that compulsion to rank students, teachers, schools and even teaching methods come from? Is it a necessary evil that we have to live with?

Bertram Bruce:

I think it is a very understandable impulse to want some accountability in education and to establish some kinds of measures for progress and achievement in learning. That approach has been around for a long time and makes sense in many cases. For example, if I study  piano I certainly need a measure by which I can know if I am learning something or just going around in circles. My teacher can give me things to play and I am sure that she is looking at my hands and listening to what I play, assessing whether I am learning and what else I need to learn. That assessment is in many cases numerical.

Education seems to go through pendulum swings whereby the approach to teaching goes one way or the other to great extremes. It seems to me that reached the extreme today in terms of making a narrow sense of accountability the overwhelming focus. Accountability does not necessarily mean quantifying ability or achievement. Accountability simply means an approach to assessing performance. For example, having a student in grade 12 present a portfolio of his or her best work is also a form of accountability. That approach might actually be more informative, and more related to the kind of work we want the students to do, than a standardized test that shows how quickly students can do math calculations or how many vocabulary words they can identify in a limited amount of time.

Accountability is useful, but it’s a mistake to acquaint accountability with a narrow form of quantitative assessment. In fact if anything, relying on such standardized tests results in less accountability. If you look at a school district in which the parents have high incomes and advanced educational degrees, you can be guaranteed that the kids will do well on standardized assessment tests. I think that reduces the accountability for those students to do better than they would have granted their own privileged backgrounds. I would want to challenge the school system, and challenge the parents saying, “Look, your kids would have done well on those exams even if they had never gone to school at all. If they had just spent time talking with their highly educated parents and reading the books that their parents bought for them, that would have been enough. So these tests are not pushing your kids at all and are not assessing how well they are doing.” If high school students in wealthy neighborhoods receive good test scores, that doesn’t tell me anything about accountability. What has the school achieved, what value has it added to the child’s experience?

One of the best program evaluation studies ever conducted was the Eight-Year Study  conducted between 1932 to 1940 by the Progressive Education Association (PEA). Thirty high schools participated. Instead of narrowly-defined subjects, there were broad themes of significance to the students. “The starting point of the curriculum would be life as the student saw it .” Moreover, the schools were community-based. Students focused on issues like citizenship, society and the arts, developing the whole person as part of the educational process. They followed the young people who had been in these schools into college and did blind match pair analyses. The study was longitudinal: not just what is happening this year, but what happened eight years later. What they found was that the students who have richer education experience rated higher on citizenship, creativity, whole development, and all the things that most parents would want and most government officials advocate. We have proof that a richer and more open approach to education is possible and we actually know that it works in the long run. When we narrow the definition of education down, we are not likely to be able to measure such things as creativity or maturity. It’s cheaper to conduct a standardized test, SAT, but it does not measure those things that we expect education will do for children.

Emanuel Pastreich:

Sometimes when I listen to my students, I feel that if someone were to tell them “You can graduate with good grades and then get a good job with Samsung, if you sign here. And if you sign here you will not have to go to school at all.” Most of them would just sign it. They don’t see the taking my class as all that critical in and of itself. They just want the certification that will allow them to get a job.

Bertram Bruce:

Part of me is disturbed by the apparent cynicism with which students look at the educational system. But then, when I reflect on the issue more deeply, it occurs to me that the students accurately comprehend the system that we are offering them.

The irony is, if you ask people, “Do you really want to create a world in which there are no arts and no appreciation of the arts? Do you want to see a world in which young people are uninterested in, and uninformed about, civic processes and the political system and don’t care about others.” All parents would say, “I do want my child to get a good job, but I also want him or her to appreciate these other things and I want the education system to further these larger concerns.”

One suggestion I would have for Korea, granted its strong position in education globally, would be national discussions about what the different goals for education can be and what we trying to achieve in education. The Koreans should ask themselves, honestly, whether they are doing the things that will help to get them to where they want to be as a country, not just what will get his or her child into the college of his or her choice.

Emanuel Pastreich:

I have talked to parents who say that they don’t want their kids to read lots of books. I thought it was an odd statement. But they explain that reading books doesn’t improve your test scores; it’s better to focus on the repetition of test questions so you can improve your scores and secure a good job with Samsung.

Bertram Bruce:

As we encounter greater and greater economic inequality in society and fewer and fewer decent jobs, why wouldn’t a parent, or a student, say that? We need to understand that the parents, the students and the teachers are all caught up in this inhuman system and need to succeed in it. But that doesn’t mean that we cannot simultaneously be talking about how we could build a better system—and start taking the first steps in a new direction.

Emanuel Pastreich:

An increasing number of alternative schools are emerging in Seoul these days. The number is miniscule, but the rate of change is very fast. There are some parents who have said they will handle the education of their children themselves, that there is nothing to be gained from this incredibly competitive test-oriented system. The alternative schools do a good job teaching the students.  However , those schools cannot place students in sufficiently reputable universities.

Bertram Bruce:

That is the problem. These alternative schools may look very good, and maybe doing very well at educating, but within a system which has been corrupted, alternative schools have trouble surviving.

If we look for success in alternative education in the United States, we see the most interesting examples either at the very top or the very bottom. At the very top, we find students from privileged families who know very well in advance that they are going to be successful and feel great self-confidence. They can afford to go to innovative alternative schools. They can work on a farm milking cows or live with people in Africa, because ultimately they do not have to worry.

Then there are alternative schools at the very bottom, like the Puerto Rico community that I worked with in Chicago. There was an alternative school for kids who had dropped out of, or been kicked out of, school. Those students were in a pretty sad state because of drugs, diabetes and abuse and neglect and gangs. So in that alternative school, the administrators said, well nothing else has worked, trying a few off the wall things will not do them any harm. Then the alternative school was able to do some creative and original things. Even the test scores started going up. It is really in the extremes that we see some of the most innovative work being done in alterative education. It makes me think, if we can be successful at the extremes, why can’t we do so in the middle? We probably could be innovative in the middle if we could move our notion of education goals beyond the very narrow definitions. At present, we demand of the student in elementary school answers to trivial questions about reading a paragraph or solves very predictable math equations.

Emanuel Pastreich:

I am reminded of what Richard Feynman’s argues about Mathematics,The issue in mathematics, he notes, is not how quickly you calculate, but rather whether you understand what the process is. Being able to recite the multiplication table quickly after you memorize it is one thing, but being able to understand what it means to multiply is a different skill set.

Bertram Bruce:

One argument that one could make in Korea concerning education relates to what is happening in technology today. Technology is evolving to the point at which it can do the work of searching, it can do most calculations and it can increasingly do translation. So probably these skills should not be the primary goal of our educational system. Computers are going to get better and better, now the question is what can people do. They shouldn’t be trying to compete with Google, which is certainly what our testing system does now. Instead students should learn to do all the many things Google hasn’t even talked about, understanding different cultures, communicating in a deeper sense. People can find the problems, find the questions, as opposed to computers that are good at solving problems and questions. For example, how do you take a messy situation and define it as a problem? That is what a good engineer does. For example, if a bridge is about to collapse a good engineer can find what the problem is. Once the person has identified the problem: the bridge needs more structural support, then the computer is good at solving the problem.

Emanuel Pastreich:

My university, Kyung Hee University, has been trying very hard to introduce significant change into the curriculum, including the introduction of civic classes for students in the university that explain what the role of the citizen should be. The project is quite compelling, and I enjoyed the book immensely, but the fact is that many of the students do not like these courses. They just want to take courses that will get them a job at Samsung. These courses that describe how society works, that are meant to teach them how to think about the world and its complexities, those courses are just a distraction for them. For many students, education is about being qualified for a job, nothing else.

Bertram Bruce:

I think we are giving a mixed message to students without even knowing it. We tell them they should have a broader education to learn about the real world, to think critically, to understand others, to appreciate art, and so on. We may offer opportunities to volunteer and take time off. But then we turn around and rank students by their grades, or by their test scores. We hire them based on how closely they stuck to mainstream majors.

Students naturally want to know what we really mean, what we really want from them. They think to themselves, “Societies says this and then it requires the complete opposite. Is this that civic course really useful to me if you are going to come back and judge me solely on my grade point average when you hire me? Students may not always get As in their courses, but they are actually pretty good at seeing through the show. We offer a course on society, and we even work hard to teach it well and make it relevant. But if the signs out there in society don’t suggest that civic engagement really matters, most students will not think so either.

Emanuel Pastreich:

It’s a question of the entire political system. Some put the question more cynically. Do the powers that be even want people to think deeply about how society actually works?

Bertram Bruce:

The progressive education movement in the United States floundered exactly because of this point. Leaders of education reform ended up saying “We need to change not only the schools, but all of society. By changing the schools and producing engaged citizens, we will have the capacity to change the society. At the same time, we need to change the society so that it is more open and more supportive of the individual. You can’t do one without the other.”

During the 1930’s Harald Rugg a leader of the progressive education movement produced a series of social studies textbooks, under the title, “Man and His Changing Society.”  The series was organized around controversial issues, such as the nation’s considerable economic achievements but the persistence of economic inequality. It stressed the importance of understanding people from different cultures, thinking about the goals of society and pursuing equity and justice. He was attacked by right-wing radio hosts and business interests. His remarkable textbooks eventually disapperead from American schools.

There wasn’t much attention to education during the Second World War, but after the war, progressive education again came under attack. It was clear that many influential people were thinking, these textbooks and methods of instructions create students who can think for themselves on critical issues and we don’t want that. That’s why I think that ultimately we are not just talking about a technical question of how to improve education, but a political question of what kind of society we want to have.

Emanuel Pastreich:

Of course there are set platitudes that just about every politician will say when asked about education: “Education should encourage our students to be innovative and productive, cultivate creativity and judgment, and teach them the skills they need to serve as good citizens.” So at some level there is a consensus.

Bertram Bruce:

The reason politicians can get away with saying those sorts of platitudes, is because there is a lot of agreement at that level of generality. I mean we are talking about a “Google search” level of generality.

But if you go deeper into the issue, if you ask “what do we mean by ‘innovative?’” then the differences become stark. Do we mean by “innovative” people who can quickly figure out solutions to puzzling questions on their college exams? That is one way to look at innovation. Or do we mean people who can really think outside the box, leaving behind the “common sense” they learn from mainstream society to come up with approaches that work in messy situations that don’t have such clear solutions?

Emanuel Pastreich:

How one reads, how one learns is more critical than the textbook or the test. For example, if you take a great work of literature, or a thoughtful philosophical work, and you come across it quoted on Wikipedia, it will appear flat, just a part of this continuity of words that roll in front of your eyes at a set rate. Even the most profound writings will seem pretty homogenous.

Bertram Bruce:

There was an interesting recent case concerning Wikipedia. Timothy Messer-Kruse is an expert on of one of the most famous events in American labor history, the Haymarket riot and trial of 1886. As an author of books and articles on the event, he decided to edit misleading statements in the Wikipedia entry on the subject. But Wikipedia took away from him his ability to edit the existing entry, no matter how erudite he was or how much evidence he could produce. Why? Well, Wikipedia asked him for his sources for what he was writing. Although he had his own writing and verbatim testimony from the trial published online by the Library of Congress, this was considered a minority viee. It had the facts yes, but was not supported by the preponderance of authoritative texts, which have not been updated yet.

The Wikipedia policy on adding information is “the threshold for inclusion is verifiability, not truth” This means that they writers must cite authoritative sources like the encyclopedia. If the encyclopedia is wrong that is fine as far as Wikipedia is concerned. If you have new information (“original research”) that is more accurate than what is cited by received sources, it cannot get into Wikipedia because does not have that pedigree.

This episode should remind us that students need to learn not only how to access information quickly, but more importantly, how to evaluate what they find. Moreover, it highlights that students today need to learn the meaning and appropriate use of concepts such as “truth,” “verifiability,” “evidence,” and “source,”  This goes far beyond the kinds of things assessed in standardized tests or in the curricula geared to nothing by higher test scores.



One response to ““Challenges in Korean Education” Asia Institute Seminar with Bertram Chip Bruce

  1. Paul September 15, 2012 at 6:29 pm

    Here’s another interesting perspective on Korean education: http://askakorean.blogspot.ca/2012/01/liberal-education-and-coffee.html

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