“The Challenges and Opportunities in Korean Education” Asia Institute Seminar with Regina Murphy

Asia Institute Seminar 


Interview with Regina Murphy


“The Challenges and Opportunities in Korean Education”


October 1, 2012


Regina Murphy

Senior Lecturer

Education Department

St. Patrick’s College

Dublin City University

Dublin, Ireland


Emanuel Pastreich

Have you had any experience with Korea in the course of your research and your activities in education?

Regina Murphy

I was at a conference on arts education in Seoul that provided me the opportunity to learn a bit about how Korean education is approached, or at least something about the culture of those involved in education. I remember distinctly the extremely advanced audio-visual equipment that the conference centre employed and overall the Korean conference as one of the most technologically advanced and well-organized conference I have ever attended. Nevertheless, I received the distinct impression that the Koreans were not so interested in music and art education—my field of expertise. I was told that if an individual or school holds a concert, few people would come who did not have a strong obligation. The performing and visual arts do not seem to be a priority in Korean education. Overall, I was struck by the remarkable uniformity of clothing in Korea—even though the clothing was not meant to be uniform. Men’s dark suits and ties seemed pretty much the same and most women were wearing beige. That crushing uniformity seemed to me to be a challenge in Korea—although I do not know Korea well.

I was profoundly aware of the size of Seoul, some ten million people living in high rise apartments. Ireland, the entire country, has a smaller population of 4.6 million. I drove by kilometers of apartments. We are talking about living spaces with no place for toys, bicycles or elaborate gardens we enjoy here. If you do not have the space to have such hobbies, then perhaps education takes on a greater significance.

Emanuel Pastreich

How are Korea and its education system perceived in Ireland?

Regina Murphy

Although there are profound differences, the history and culture of Korea has a lot in common with Ireland, certainly in terms of cultural identity and the struggle against a dominating imperial power next door. The identity issue is huge for both countries. The climates of the two countries are quite similar as well. So also Korea and Ireland have constantly compared their domestic education policies with foreign examples, exaggerating deficiencies in education, that part is also equally similar.

For the past 20 years Asian countries like Korea have been held up as examples for Ireland as successes in education. We first saw this in international studies of achievement in mathematics and science that revealed that Korea was extremely advanced[1]. For some in Western Europe, there was perception that our students and teachers are lazy and not willing to put in the necessary hours for teaching and learning compared with Korea. And this is true, at least in part: we know that instruction in mathematics here is not remarkable. Typical governmental aspirations in Ireland are for citizens to become more skilled, for the country to be more advanced technologically, mathematically and scientifically. So Korea is held up as an example all the time of what our education system should be supporting. We see a profound awareness of educational achievement in Taiwan, Korea, Shanghai and Singapore here.

But there is counterargument you will hear in Ireland to the Asian model. Many feel that the critical issue for us is our own cultural identity. There are many in Ireland who talk seriously about how we can build and reinforce our cultural identity, and reinforce individuality and promote self-expression among young people. These people ask where would storytelling, arts and crafts, poetry and dance fit into that Asian-style educational system? What does such an approach to education offer for the student’s true happiness and well being. There is a real resistance towards too rigorous and inflexible a model for education in Ireland and not enough interest in math and technology. Perhaps in some ways that holds Ireland back. At the same time we feel strongly that the other values of culture, our connections with our family and community are of great value. So I ask myself what would community mean for me if I lived in one of those towering apartment buildings in an enormous city like Seoul? It clearly would be different and it would not be possible to just do things in Korea the Irish way; Or in Ireland the Korean way.

Emanuel Pastreich

Seoul is not a village, after all.

Regina Murphy

No, Seoul is certainly not a village and it is on a far larger scale than even the biggest cities in Ireland. In my writing and teaching about education in Ireland, and in the seminars and conferences we hold here, we keep coming back to the importance of happiness and quality of life. I believe there will always be unintended consequences of our actions that we did not anticipate. Korea has extremely high levels of suicide and one should ask if these are, in part, the unintended consequences of educational practice? We can easily miss the big picture. Is this an educational system rife with competition, standardized tests and constant study that is just something you must go through for a few years to get to a much more satisfying level of existence when you come out on the other side? Or could it be that life after education remains the same, perhaps colored by the process of education? Or could there also be a case in which you have a very happy experience in school, but when you graduate you find that the prospects for employment are dismal? We must constantly ask ourselves: what is the purpose of education?

The large question is connecting with the problem effectively. Some of the administrators in universities and the public policy experts would tend to look at the problem from the point of view of demographics. There are three “thirds” of the student population. The top third are the high achievers who want to go into medicine, sciences or higher professions. And then there is a lower third that would go into the trades, seeking relevant, but less advanced training. Finally there is a third who can be encouraged one way or another in terms of their life strategy, their approach to education. Some of that group are leaning towards social sciences, or applied sciences or other fields. That is the group that you should be working with to encourage them to meet the needs of society, to make sure they are trained for the needs of the age and the challenges of the future.

Emanuel Pastreich

One of the most difficult parts to understand about Korean education is how Americans can see so much that they admire in Korean education. They think Korea is very impressive and the Koreans are all extremely well educated.

Working class Koreans are remarkably well educated in this country. But if you go to Korea, you find Koreans trying to ship their kids overseas, anything they can do to get out of the Korean school system.

Regina Murphy

I have an Asian colleague who told me quite proudly about how he had sent his son to boarding school in Australia because his son did not seem all that independent in his thinking. And now his son is much more independent and now he even wants to become an Australian citizen. Well his parents just think that is a great thing. But for me that response seemed quite odd. If it were me, and my child had taken off for some far-off country at a young age, and then wanted to become a citizen and lived there forever, well, I would be extremely sad and I would even feel I had somehow failed as a parent.

Emanuel Pastreich

Certainly it would seem a tremendous loss.

Regina Murphy

So there is this tremendous question of citizenship and identity that is linked to education. Do we feel inferior or uncomfortable with our identities? Of course Ireland is quite accustomed to emigration, and to the question of how we reconcile our identity with regard to England next door. Emigration has been Ireland’s hallmark for ages. We hear that some forty million Americans are descended from Irish émigrés. In fact, President Obama was able to trace his roots back here to Ireland and when he visited, – he met his eighth cousin who has a pub in a tiny village in Ireland.

Emanuel Pastreich

Korea does not have that sort of internal cultural politics yet.

Regina Murphy

Korea tends to be quite homogenous, I believe. Perhaps with the aging population and more foreigners coming to Korea, a more complex cultural will emerge.

Emanuel Pastreich

In my daughter’s case I certainly see the emergence of a more diverse culture. Her school, Jangchung Elementary now has kids with parents from Italy, the US, Mongolia, China, Japan and Indonesia. It is more diverse than the so-called international school that my son is attending now.

Let us consider the European case. Certainly Europe is quite multicultural these days. Are there aspects of European education that you would want to recommend to Koreans?

Regina Murphy

One program that has been outstanding in Europe is the Erasmus program, an exchange program that encourages quite deep learning in other countries. At the university level, Erasmus allows students in the second or third year of study, to spend a period of time – weeks,  a semester, or a full year  – studying at a partner university in Europe. Academic or university credit gained in one university is then transferred to the home institution through as university partnership agreement. The program makes such exchange a very enriching part of the students’ experience, encouraging a general social cohesion in Europe itself.

Many of our university and college students have benefited immensely from that work. The experience broadened their perspectives and established close international friendships early on and there is a desire to increase the number of students from Ireland on Erasmus programs. The exchange of students, learning about one’s discipline in a broader sense, learning from interactions and discussions with peers around the world are all invaluable. We welcome students here from around the world and they are taught for free. The Bologna Process assures that credits are received and all teaching is aligned to a set of frameworks. Those programs have been extremely helpful in opening up the horizons of our students to new possibilities in themselves and in their communities. Even if the students do not travel, they have friends who will.

Emanuel Pastreich

Give us a specific example of an educational program in Ireland that you think works well.

Regina Murphy

An initiative that we have found very beneficial in Ireland is offering students a transition year in secondary (high school) system. This approach to high school education has been quite effective in encouraging students to reach their full potential and really reap the full benefits of education. . The transition year is for students properly registered in high school and it comes at around age 15, when students have completed 3 years of secondary school and still have 2 years to go. It falls between two important periods of state examinations: Junior Certificate (for 15 year olds approx) and Leaving Certificate (for 18 year olds approx).

Transition year is extremely important for many students. In the transition year, however, they do some reading and study, but they are discouraged from studying for the higher examinations (Leaving Certificate) explicitly. What they do instead during that transition is a range of social programs and volunteer work. They might learn how to start up and run their own business, or learn the principles of social entrepreneurship. Or they may be involved in some form of scientific experiment or a journalistic or academic investigation of some topic or participate in a variety of arts and theatre events, or debating competitions. Some take the time for outdoor pursuits like hiking, or they may learn a language and spend time abroad. For some parents, they have such ambitions for their children that they will take them out of this program and arrange for more rigorous study. Such students skip transition year and focus exclusively on examination. Transition year has an extremely positive effect on students, as our research in Ireland has confirmed. And overall such activities contribute to the maturity of students, and in many cases, improve their academic performance.

I was speaking with my older son about transition year and its benefits en the other day. My older son, who normally does not say much about social issues as an engineering student, spoke with great passion about the importance of transition year. He detailed all the benefits that he received. At one stage in the transition year, his group staged an Ibsen play for which my son was responsible for the lighting. I went to see the play and I was inspired.

My daughter was also involved in setting up a business, working in the theatre and also involved in working with an orphanage in Romania. Her work that year was quite broad in subject and approach.

Both my elder children were hugely supportive of the concept of the transition year, feeling that it made an infinite difference. So I told my son that I remembered that the mother of one of his friends pulled him out of the transition year program to send him to grind school. And my son responded lightning-fast, “Yes! And I can tell you that kid went to college and he ended up dropping out.” Now we cannot generalize without knowing more of the background, but we say that taking the children out, before that race to the finish line of examinations and school, has tremendous benefits. Those activities can maximize brain power and diversity of experience at that point in one’s life so that one can develop a broader perspective. That broad perspective can make the difference when it comes to making full use of the variety of new information that one gets from one’s studies thereafter. One can learn self-discipline, learn to decide for oneself the value of study, and how to sustain one’s work on one’s own and to self-regulate without external systems.

Transition year gives children a chance to grow up a bit, to think more broadly about the world we live in and the significance of their work within it. This time gave them a chance to do things that they did not have a chance to do previously in the education system. This results in children having a very positive view of their own schooling and for what they learned.

Some of those benefits cannot be seen for years, so the evaluation cannot be made immediately, but only over years. So also the negative impact of test-driven education also are not immediately obvious, but revealed only over time. We see that over time that women do not study science, or that they do not get married, or any number of critical shifts, but shifts that are not visible on an individual basis.

Emanuel Pastreich

In Korea we see the terrible consequences of the failure to anticipate women’s needs. Workplaces do not provide for childcare, grandparents expect mothers to be responsible for everything and as a result women are increasingly giving up on having children. The demographic implications are catastrophic, but along the way no one thought that there was any particular need to make special provisions for women. Most Koreans had no idea what the larger implications of undervaluing women’s work would be.


Regina Murphy

Those are what we call quality of life issues. They may seem minor, but their long-term implications can be enormous. The best workplaces can integrate the needs of mothers into the work environment, even make them a priority. We need to be concerned with maintaining the well being of our entire society, all members, and we should be concerned with preserving the best of our society. We should not let the population drop by half in a generation because we did not want to be bothered with the concerns of women.

We should be looking at all issues, about bonding between parent and child, flexible ways of working that preserves families. Part of education policy should consider home working and job sharing that makes raising children and contributing to their education a critical of our priorities. Ireland is considering the model of shared parental leave that is practiced in some Scandinavian countries to create a more balanced family environment. The most important point is to start debate. Even if we cannot achieve new models immediately, we should certainly start the discussion. Just as well talk about the devotion of “tiger moms” to their children’s education, we also need to evaluate the positive impact of making the work and the home more integrated and more humane for education overall.

Emanuel Pastreich

So where does the solution lie for us as teachers and as students?

Regina Murphy

The key is not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” so to speak. Not to see education as an “either or” or “all or nothing” choice. To go too far in one direction or another is to give the impression of an extreme reaction, something that might work for one individual but that cannot be integrated effectively into the system.

Let us take the case of the shared-area classrooms (or open plan) that reflected the progressive approach to education. Such shared classroom spaces were very popular in the 1970s in Ireland. But then a substantial minority of teachers held the view that , “Well these shared-area classrooms are a nice idea, but they are so chaotic.” And over time, schools reverted to single teacher classrooms with the teacher in front of the class in the traditional style. That style seemed much more “efficient.” The earlier movement for cooperative learning and group learning seemed too physically removed—and ideologically removed– from the reality of the classroom.

So it might have been better to have said something like, “Ok, we will have separate classrooms, but we are going to work on the principles of shared learning and cooperative learning in certain subject areas and that will define those subjects.” If, by contrast, you go to a completely experimental approach to learning, and the children are given complete freedom, it is very hard to integrate that approach into the mainstream of education.

A similar case is found in the case of the patronage and ethos of schools. In Ireland, schools have traditionally been denominational and 95% were run by the Catholic Church. Of course in many small towns and villages the citizens would have had more of a secular quality, but the school was still under the Catholic Church. Then thirty years ago there was a movement to make schools multidenominational and the patronage would be held by the parents themselves. These schools started in middle class neighborhoods and they were very creative and experimental. But it was not until the schools became part of the less wealthy and rapidly developing neighborhoods that they started to be taken seriously as an approach. They had to stop being just the experiments of well-educated parents. These schools were known as “project schools” and the title “project” made them sound like a rarified experiment far outside out mainstream education. People thought they did not have any application outside of those experiments.

But now the approach is called “educate together” and we see many of these new schools opening in all parts of the country using this model and it has garnered tremendous support at all levels of society.has tremendous support. The philosophy of these schools is “child-centered”, multidenominational, co-educational and democratically run. One could argue that the original principles of state schools are the same, but in practice they are not very democratic or child-centered. The point is that this new model for “educate together” schools has stayed close to many of the norms and regulations of regular state schools, but they have done so far better and more effectively. The result is that they now have a direct impact on policy itself, and impacting how schools are designed.



[1] See: Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS)

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