Skype Day: Thoughts on the Korean Education System

This post is dedicated to MB and BB, to whom I owe great thanks!! Trans-continental high fives!

For the last day of the school year, my co-teacher, JH, and I decided to do something different. It still took my by surprise though when one Friday afternoon, JH turned from her desk and said,

“Do you want to do the Skype with your friends next week?”

“Sure!” came my glad response. This was an idea I’d suggested months prior (though as a disclaimer, I can’t take any credit for the idea since it was an idea that was thrown out there waaaay back at the October Orientation). I’m never certain if my somewhat unconventional lesson plans are met with enthusiasm or not at school since we never get a chance to do them, what with my poorly timed entrance into the school at the end of year and textbook material cramming up in the final weeks like a logjam.

When she took me up on my suggestion for a Skype day, I felt like a nimble lumberjack hopping lightly past the pile-up and onto greener shores of awesome.

My Canadian analogies come out sometimes…

The concept is a fairly self-explanatory activity wherein I call some friends back home on Skype and the kids practice using their English with them. Simple enough in theory, though it certainly poses its own challenges – not least of all 14 hours of time difference to negotiate.

Still, I was eager to try and put it into effect. Likely this was because I’d been thinking a lot recently about how little interest my kids have in English – mostly because it’s about as impractical for them to study it as it is for a flock of Arabian dromedaries to learn 50 Inuit words for snow.

“Don’t shake my fucking foot before you ship me off to Inuit boarding school! I DON’T WANT TO LEARN ABOUT SNOW!”

The majority of Koreans – and I mean the adults, not just the children – have never left Korea. So aside from businessmen, who need English for doing business both with English speaking countries and countries where English acts as the common language of interpretation, English is rather unnecessary for the vaster side of the population.

I was speaking to my other co-teacher, KK, the other day about why the government wants to drop so much money on foreign English teachers, and she wasn’t really able to give me a solid answer: it’s because they want to keep good relations with America; it’s because it’s easier to learn at a young age; it’s because Korean English teachers don’t know how to pronounce things properly.

That makes all the sense.

Frankly I don’t think any of those are satisfactory points from a government POV. Though I realize KK is no more an expert in Korean government insight than I am on Canadian government insight, these are the reasons most of the Koreans I’ve spoken to feel are true. But even the “good relations with America” bit doesn’t make sense since it’s only government officials who would be interacting with the US in a way that would impact a good relationship or not.

The best answer was that the world is big and Korea is small, and if Korea’s ever going to have a chance at “bettering” itself, then it needs to know the language of international communication.

I still don’t know if I buy that though. Because for an everyday Korean, the only international communication they have is with their foreign English teachers. Hell the only international communication I have is with foreign English teachers. There are no tourists in Korea, save potentially in Seoul and lurking in the infamous Penis Park, so if we took away foreign English teachers, then the need to interact with an English speaker would drop to negligable amounts.

Get rid of the teachers, get rid of the need for English education. It’s like being prescribed a pill and taking another pill to offset the side affects, and then another two pills to offset the side affects of the side affects pills. In the meantime, the Korean government is paying off my student loan and filling my coffers with millions of won in savings. You’d think this was maybe a little not beneficial to them…

I’m sure it makes sense somewhere down the bureaucratic paper trail.

All this to introduce why I wanted a Skype day: for my students to use English in a practical circumstance. This is really hard. Textbooks are enough to make a person loathe any subject, and you can’t beat a dead horse enough if the only pro-learning argument is “it’s useful later in life”. That’s what they told me about math and I challenge-accepted them into learning only enough to keep me going as a cashier with a calculator.

I’m sure my kids view English with much the same precocity.

But if I were to create an out-of-textbook scenario with the need for spontanaeity, verbal communication, aural attentiveness all the while spurred by the curiosity of meeting someone new to ask about them and their country? Well, I figured it was outside-the-box enough to potentially light a fire, as Yeats says.

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” – William Butler Yeats

I very much feel this applies to the way the education system is used today. I watched a Ted Talk about it recently which used that very quote.

It’s a long video (though hella worth the watch!), so I’ll paraphrase – but one of the important things he brought up was the flaws in the testing system. It’s all about rehashing memorized material. Memorization is important for foundationals, but once you cross a threshold you should be supporting yourself through asking the right questions and developing original thought.

Korea, however, is a nation wherein original thought isn’t valued as much as in the Western world. I don’t mean this derogatorily or in a 1984 way, but rather to say that group mentality and one-mindedness is of higher value than idiosyncratic freedom. After all it’s easier to run a cohesive, peaceful country if everyone’s on the same page, not to mention the comfort that exists in a uniform community. There is evidence for this sameness everywhere in Korea – from the single style of clothing available, to everyone having the same bucket list, to each generation sharing the same conservativism. Even the prevalent couple culture is a phenomenon that has two people melding into one single unit (more on this tomorrow!).

Korean couple dressed to match.

I can’t speak for the other subjects in school, but I’d hazard a guess that it’s not just English class that’s all memorization with little output. Granted it’s elementary school, hence we’re in the learning-foundationals-phase, but especially in language teaching, practical output is of vital importance. Language is a living thing in the brain that must be fed, watered, exercised – and then, yes, put to rest at the end of the day to reenergize and settle in.

Thus I thought Skype was a perfect opportunity to exercise the English knowledge the kids have learned over the semester, to summon up all the latent information and take its blubbery butt off the shrimp-chip-encrusted, TV-faded couch and out for a jog.

But who to Skype with?

Well the answer was natural: MB and BB, the bestest brothers on the planet whom I love dearly.

BB and MB in their matching Christmas gifts, 2012.
BB and MB in their matching Christmas gifts, 2012.

I’d proposed the idea to them months back and they were down. We set a date and hoped for the best.

And the best we had! I prepped the kids the day prior and they prepared questions in class in case they got the chokes and couldn’t think of anything on the spot.

This worked for all but one class who, as soon as the call started, turned from boisterous and excited to dead silent, camera shy wall-flowers with their jaws glued shut.

MB and BB were champions though and did everything in their power to make them chuck a chuckle, including showing them their cat, wolfing down chocolate, and literally putting on a show complete with singing, dancing, and juggling.

The grade 3’s almost exploded with excitement, particularly 3.2. Most of them had never Skyped before so half the time I think they were 100% thrilled to see themselves on the projector, the other half being 100% thrilled to be seeing two other Canadians on the projector. No, those aren’t bad fractions – though I do recall telling you I insisted on learning as little math as possible in life – that percentage is because these kids were 200% excited.

Highlights from the kids included a magic trick (where’d the 100 won coin go?!), three taekwondo demonstrations (and one flying shoe that hit a kid in the face), and one of the boys singing a beautiful cover of Frozen’s “Let it Go” (it took a while to convince the B brothers I hadn’t influenced my students’ obsession over the film).

Granted, he wasn’t this dramatic when he sang, but it was adorable hearing a little boy sing, “It looks like I’m the queen.” Fucking cool kid. (Also couldn’t resist putting another Frozen gif.)

The last group, my second grade 4 class, was probably the best. Shyer than the grade 3’s but not crippled by fear-induced paralysis like 4.1, they were the ideal mix of inquisitive, articulate, and calm. Unfortunately by this point, poor MB and BB were up well past their bedtime and thoroughly worn from over three hours of classes (srsly you guys are champs).

And, honestly, so was I. Keeping 60 kids from hyperactive self-explosion, another 60 motivated enough to speak that they didn’t self-implode with self-consciousness, and all 120 of them convinced that no, I’m not in fact dating either of the B brothers had me ready to drop come lunchtime. I nearly fell into a coma in the staffroom but was kept conscious by obscene amounts of Valentine’s Day chocolate given to me by students and coworkers alike. Which I of course consumed most of.

At the end of the day, I was proud to have enabled a learning situation that was spontaneous, envigorating, and outside the box, however insignificant it might be in the grand scheme of things. But I might even have lit a few fires…

“You know that boy in 4.2 who did the taekwondo twice?” said JH at lunch.

“Yeah,” I answered, remembering his brief demonstration of the martial art in response to BB’s kung fu demonstration.

“He doesn’t like English, but I think he was excited today.”

Indeed, he had been the student who had asked most of the questions.

“I think today he liked English,” she said.

Hearing that was nice. Who knows? I might be well on my way to becoming this.

I guess in the end, government investments and finances aside, it doesn’t matter who’s teaching these kids, so long as it’s done by teachers going about it the right way. I can’t claim to be one of those, since my teaching experience started just shy of five months ago, but I do try. And in my personal philosophy, that’s what counts the most.

To conclude, dear readers, if any of you woud ever like to do a Skype day with classes, just let me know! I promise you rooms full of tiny excitable Koreans.

9 thoughts on “Skype Day: Thoughts on the Korean Education System

  1. What a marvelous experience it must have been!!!
    I can see all the pictures now!!!
    I’m usually free on Fridays if you want to try maybe a drawing session that they ask me to draw something and I do it for them…(IF we ever get a Skype camera going so we could Skype)


  2. Seeing the BB boys in PJ’s made me laugh so hard I cried. I would have loved to have seen them and yourself while being a fly on the wall. I would have truly enjoyed watching every students’ reaction as well as JH. What a great idea. Sad though that the use of english is so limited in S.K. Can’t say that about where I live though. I missed Latin classes by one year when it was phased out. Too bad. I would have really enjoyed spending that time with M. testing her like we did in her other courses.
    What’s your Word Wednesday going to be this week?


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