Friday, July 31, 2009

South Korea: More questions than answers!

Spatialworlds website

Picture descriptions:
Left Image: The message at Daeil Foreign Language School (Beautiful Dreams, High Hopes)in Seoul during a monsoonal downpour.
Right image: Classic view of a South Korean river.

Seoul, South Korea: N: 37º 01' E: 126º 36'

Questions to ponder
When searching for a country to study, the inquisitive geographer ideally wants to go beyond the mundane and investigate a place full of contradictions and complexities. From July 13th – 26th I was lucky enough to attend the Asia Education Foundation’s Korean Studies workshop in Seoul. What a great experience! The trip went way beyond my expectations and provided an amazing amount of knowledge and awareness of modern South Korea. However despite the copious lectures and input from tour guides on the field trip I was left with many questions about what makes South Korea tick. These questions relate to development, growth, relations with neighbors, education, environment and the culture itself. On the surface the country is beautiful, the economy seems robust, education is highly desired and the people friendly and happy. However the more time I spent in South Korea the more the questions grew in number. This blog sets out to pose questions about South Korean education, using information and experiences gleaned from my two weeks in the country. Future blogs will deal with Korean cultural sustainability, environmental perceptions, relations with neighbours and the rapidly changing demographics of Korea. In no way are the questions posed intended to be a criticism of South Korea but rather the observations of a geographer posing the question of what, where, why, what if and where next.

Competitive education

The educational scene in South Korea is highly valued but also highly competitive. Education is closely linked to South Korea's remarkable development and is seen as a necessary component of South Korea's future. As a result South Korea has some of the highest Program for International Assessment (PISA) scores in the world for literacy and numeracy. Many believe that Korea's attitude to education is determined by the countries confucious traditions and is firmly embedded in the national psyche and society as a result. Students are at school from 8am till 10pm at night (sometimes even later!). Even in the holidays students attend extra schooling to cram for the exams. There are many private tuition firms making a killing from the demand for extra tuition and academic success. Only now are academics and the Korean Government starting to see that this may be exploitation of the young and a potential problem.

The questions!!

* What sort of pressure is this putting on the young people of South Korea?
* Is such a system of exam centred learning creating a creative society?
* Is such a pressure cooker for young people healthy and is it sustainable?
* Will young people eventually challenge such a competitive environment or are Korean young people resilient enough to survive in such a system of education?
* Where will it stop? Can the treadmill of academic endeavour be slowed down?
* What social controls does the system use to ensure conformity and observance of expectations?

Considering the complexities of these questions in relation to education alone, the study of Korea has the potential to be a rich and challenging case study for geography classes. Korea and its amazing development over the past 30 years provide a unique opportunity to study an economy, environment and society going through massive changes over a very short time. This compressed development is not only unique but will continue to be newsworthy in future years. It is inevitable that with its dynamic socio-economic-political nature, South Korea will be frequently in the news. Such currency will provide teachers with a country that will provide plenty of newsworthiness as well as a country worthy of Australians knowing about and understanding in the Asia-Pacific region. Korea and it study will provide plenty of rich multi-dimensional questions for the inquisitive geographer to explore. I hope to pose these questions in future blog entries.

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