Friday, November 22, 2013

Anti-Education and My 50% Success Rate at Answering Korean English Exam Questions

So, I am an Englishman flown in to South Korea to help educate their young in English.  In my school my level of English is obviously unmatched (I am English after-all) so why is it I am so bad at answering English exam questions in Korea?

Perhaps I only ever get asked about the tricky questions, or maybe I am just a dumbass, but it turns out that I am right about 50% of the time in my estimation.  In many ways it is embarrassing, why can't a reasonably well educated native English speaker, from England, who has spoken, read, listened and wrote in English all his life, answer questions correctly in a country where the overall level of English is poor (this is not a criticism, just simply that English is not their first language)?

You can get an idea of the type of questions that come-up in the college entrance exam (the big one) here at Ask a Korean.  They are not easy.

Personally, I was intrigued by a couple of things recently.  I have just finished correcting about 40 essays for our innugral and now annual school English newspaper.  The vast majority of them are sound efforts indeed - much better than I could do in Korean - however, they are riddled with mistakes as you might expect.  Sometimes it becomes very frustrating to check because the meaning is so difficult to grasp without actually going through the essay with the student who wrote it.

One of the few teachers in my school I have the ability to be honest and candid with, asked me to check one such essay the other week.  After a while of struggling through it, she asked me what I thought; I said it was fairly similar to all the others I had checked.  In reply, she said that the original piece was by a student at our school, but which had almost totally been re-written by her brother, who has just finished high school.  I replied that it was still difficult to understand and she remarked that her brother just received a perfect score in his English college entrance exam.  Shocked, I asked her honestly how this was possible and her reply was that the exam is all about reading and listening and not speaking and writing.  I guess we all knew this, but it really did bring home just how messed-up the system of learning English in Korea really is.  The kid got a perfect score in the biggest exam in the country at English, yet his essay was all over the place and was not what you'd expect from someone who just aced a very difficult English exam.

One of my perennial gripes with education in all countries is teaching to the test and in Korea they have perhaps hit the pinnacle of "excellence" in this regard.  Tests are not completely useless and I suspect in subjects like mathematics and mainly theoretical subjects, they are valuable as tools, not only for assessment, but for motivation a well.  In regard to English, though, I can't imagine a worse thing to be doing.

My colleague's brother had been taught for years and years and spent countless hours studying to pass a Korean English test and not to how to use and communicate in that language.  The tests and the education system that surround them are to get into universities, period, they serve no other purpose.  In terms of communication, every student in Korea would be better off spending 3-6 months in an English speaking country learning English, rather than 14 years in a Korean classroom.  I really do believe this, I'm not over-stating things, and I can't help but think that this waste of time is almost immoral.

I will give an example of a question passed to me the other day by another English teacher at my school.  Answer the following question by giving the correct response:

A: Can you tell me why you were so upset?
B: ___________________________________________________

1. I got some money for good grades.
2. I got the book I wanted for my birthday.
3. I'm angry because my brother broke my MP3 player.
4. I feel happy because I won first prize in the contest.
5. I couldn't sleep enough because I had to prepare for an exam.

Got it?

Actually, this is an example of quite an easy question; it can only really be two answers 3 or 5 and 3 is in the wrong tense, so it must be 5.  On first attempt, however, I slipped-up here.  Again, maybe I was just being a dumbass, but I think it part of the reason is because of a profound difference in the way Koreans see the English language and how English speakers see the language.  English speakers are communicating in English and therefore I think the relation between upset and angry is far stronger than upset and tired.  Everyday English conversation teachers all over Korea receive responses from students to verbal questions like this; i.e. that are perfectly understandable but have errors of grammar, like answer 3, and I personally grasp what Koreans are trying to say to me, even though they make simple tense errors like this.  My wife's English was not perfect in the same sense when I first met her and for quite a while after, but she was an excellent communicator and easy to understand.

The amazing thing is that probably 95% of my high school students would not be able to even give the incorrect response that's understandable, let alone give a spoken response with perfect grammar.  Only about 5% can achieve a speaking or writing ability good enough to get their thoughts across in any meaningful way, but I bet the majority of students answered the above question correctly. 

I have the sneaking suspicion that if I took the college entrance exam, I would not get a perfect score and probably would not even be in the top 10% of students.  I would love to see an experiment done on foreign teachers in Korea to this effect, I think it could be very revealing.

The ignoring of the spoken and written aspects of the English language in Korean exams is a telling one because it is speaking and writing that are the creative and interactive elements.  I think that creativity and interaction are things that Korean culture as a whole are exquisitely uncomfortable with, especially in a classroom situation.  Creativity involves individuality and interaction may involve disagreement and possible embarrassment, especially when another language is being used.  Korean culture has always appeared to me somewhat ill at ease with the concepts of individuality, disagreement, and embarrassment and many Koreans strain to avoid all three over and above what obviously occurs in Western culture also, but in smaller doses (mainly in disagreement and embarrassment).  Korean students are comfortable sitting quietly and passively in class with their heads in their books and listening to their elders/teachers bark instructions and information at them.  Korean teachers and parents are also very cozy and content with this situation.

The fact that the Korean education system doesn't confront the clear issues in its culture and education of the young regarding these factors is a local symptom of what education has become world-wide.  What is driving it are the ideas of conformity, tolerance, the fear of failure, meeting targets, societal values, and saving face.  I would argue this is not education but anti-education.  If you only ever do things that are inside your comfort zone, how can you ever truly grow?  It's like going to the gym and never increasing the weights you lift, the reps you do or the time and resistance on the bike, rowing or running machine.

What I see all over the world is the teaching of youngsters to conform to other's wishes and views (not necessarily always bad), to be concerned about the idea of free expression in favour of tolerance and to have a fear of failure that is reinforced by never taking students out of their comfort zones and by continuous testing.

What is knowledge of a language good for if it is not to communicate with it?  Korean education is so caught-up in understanding all the little nuances and academia with it as well as saving face by not speaking it, it ignores the whole purpose.  I see the same thing in science education, which I trained in as a teacher, in England; everyone was so caught-up in teaching the facts and doing experiments with Bunsen burners that everyone ignored the whole point of science, to ask questions and to be in wonder and awe of the world around us.  I can't remember any wonder or awe from my school science classes when I was younger and there was no wonder, creativity or questions raised in my science classes when I taught either.  All that was required of me was to whizz through all the facts and the silly practical skills in the syllabus as quickly as I could to fit them into the school year and to make sure they missed nothing for their exams.  If I digressed to explore something in greater depths or answered questions that went off at interesting tangents from the class topic, I was chastised for it by the teachers that were "training me" to be a better teacher. 

This is anti-education, but it is what passes as education and it really elevates my blood pressure.

Apparently, Korea sits at number 2 behind Finland in countries with the best education systems.  I think really this is nonsense, the wording needs changing; Korea actually is number 2 in schooling, not education because if there was ever a land that matched the following quote from Mark Twain more closely, I haven't heard of it:

"Don't let your schooling interfere with your education" - Mark Twain

Sound advice, which people in all countries should take note of, especially Koreans.

Note: I think this post goes quite nicely with a great piece written by "the Boss" over at


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