Wednesday, October 20, 2010


I'm sure we all remember those days from high school or even middle school when we had a big test or exam coming up, and all we were told to do is study. "Mom, can I go to Rob's place?" The response: "No, you need to study!" Bummer.

Or do you remember when it was exam time, and you were doing particularly badly in a specific subject (usually mathematics) and you needed to go for extra lessons. It was such a gynourmous drag to go for that one extra hour, twice a week. Absolutely worth complaining about. Or not. Let me explain.

As you might know by now, I'm an English teacher at a Korean 학원(Hagwon), which is basically an after school academy. The biggest difference between the Hagwon and your private lessons back home, is that the kids here go to their Hagwon 5 days a week. Every week. The whole year. Believe it. Most kids don't just go to one Hagwon, they usually go to several different Hagwons. Maths, English, Science, etc. The kids here are drilled hard.

Just the other day, I was speaking to Christina, one of my middle school students, and the subject of school times came up. I asked her what time she finishes school. 5PM. Oh, so I'm figuring that this might be Korea, so the school times are shifted and they only start school at 10 or so. Nope. School starts at 8.30AM and finishes at 5PM. She is a middle school student! I asked what the school times look like for her older compadres, the high schoolers. 8.30 AM until....about (depending on the school) 6 or 7 PM. If your jaw has not yet hit the floor, be so kind and let me go on a little. After this 'finishing' time, the students are required to do about 2 hours of extra mural classes (not sports, classes). If my after school math tutor was any good, this puts us at 9PM.

After these 2 hours, another 2 hours are added, for compulsory studying time. This is literally time during which the students sit in their classrooms studying. 9+2=11. Yes? Yes. 11PM. These kids spend almost their entire waking day at school. Depending on the school, the students finish their day at 10 or 11 at night. This is before homework is done, or before they are even home, for that matter.
To someone like me, who, during his final year at high school started school at 8.30 AM and finished at 2PM, this is beyond comprehension.

Now, I can finally get to the heading of my story. 사당오락 is read as Sa-Dang-Oh-Rak. It means 4-pass-5-fail, and it's a saying they have in Korea. The saying is used with regard to Korea's best university, Seoul University. The idea behind the saying is that if you only sleep 4 hours a night (because you study so much), you will pass the entrance exam for the university, if however you sleep 5 hours a night, you are not studying enough and you will fail.

It seems pretty brutal to a non Korean to see how hardcore studying and learning is here, but it is a great representation of the national mindset. Hard work pays off. If you consider the circumstances from which Korea has pulled itself up, you cannot do much else but take your hat off and bow down in respect.

Korea is a country of fighters. Koreans don't give up easily. I am not saying this for the individual, but rather am talking of the national character. Koreas spirit is one that is worth admiring, and I believe that there are several countries that could benefit from taking a leaf out of Koreas book, even if it is just an after school study book.

Post by Oliver


Claudia and Oliver said...

Oliver is talking mainly about High School students but don't think that that means the Middle School kids get it easy! Both Oliver and I only finish work at 8 which means that that is when those kids finish. I am not sure whether it is inspiring, scary, or both.


Chrissie said...

Yes, it's good to study hard and be driven, but school isn't the be all and end all. But in Korea, it is. Too much emphasis is placed on 'score' and that's mostly multiple choice! Also, the definition of a 'good' and 'bad' university is too emphasised. Who cares, you got a tertiary education, and I can guarantee it's a very great degree.

Who's mature enough at 15 to decide what your career is going to be? Some people only 'blossom' later in life and only find a passion for studying at university.

The education system should change, but given the country's circumstances of many people, saturated jobs, and a highly competitive nature of the workforce, only the best can be rewarded.

I think there should be a revolution in terms of employment possibilities, or just a greater knowledge and understanding that there are other jobs out there that don't necessarily require going to university for.

I feel so bad when my students, at so young, break down because the pressure is just too much. It's a waste of a childhood...

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