Wednesday, May 27, 2015

A free semester and Children's (parent's) dreams

One way to understand what the phrase "a different culture" really means is to look at the variety of ways the people of that culture think of health and fitness.  Coming from Canada, I am conversant with a dozen different sports games and had some mastery of one. At the same time, I am 85 kg (happily down from 95 a year or so ago and still descending) and carrying at least five extra kg and cannot sit comfortably on the floor for any duration.

Few of my students here in Korea can swim and while most can ride a bike, few own one or have actually ridden one in the past year.  Hiking is for old people (like me, so I fit in that way).  Many of my male students are as tall or taller than I and the vast majority are slimmer. Heck, the vast majority of Koreans my age are slimmer. And they are all flexible enough to sit or sleep on the floor habitually or by choice, even with a sofa next to them.

Few of my students do any exercise -or so they claim in a challenging foreign language - except for occasionally walking 100 vertical meters up the mountain our university is built on to reach their classes.

At the same time, Koreans are famous as sports stars.  Korean women are the world's best at archery and both genders typically medal in the fighting events at the Olympics (boxing, TKD, wrestling, archery, um, etc?).

What I've seen is that young Koreans and their parents make a very clear and long-term decision around the time they finish elementary school whether to bother with sports or not.  And if not, badminton, walking, jumping rope and hula hooping are the boring-but-grimly-practical ways they pretend to stay in shape.  Go hard in sports or stay home and jump rope.

The previous five paragraphs were all to introduce my thoughts on a new government initiative called the Free Semester.

Let me backtrack a little.  From the Joongang Daily.

The “free semester” program is aimed at giving middle school students an opportunity to explore their career options without heavy burdens from tests for a semester, one of the core pledges of the new administration’s education policy.
No one would object to the idea of fostering young students’ creativity and talent by freeing them from tough competitions to enter top schools, as the program prioritizes active debate and field trips over written tests for rote learning.
From GELPonline (PDF):
The objectives of Free Semester Program (FSP) are to provide opportunities for students to explore their dream and talent, and also to develop 21st century competencies including creativity, character building, social skills and self-directive learning skills by reducing burden of written examination (18th PTC, 2013; MOE, 2013). In order to achieve such objectives, every middle school in Korea is supposed to implement the free semester program' by 2016. During the free semester, students will be exempted from regular mid-term and end of the term examination and instead, the school curriculum will operate flexibly where students can enjoy various activities including career exploration.
First, the program aims to expand opportunities for students to nurture their talents and to experience ‘flow’ by engaging in their own interest. Second, the program also aims to introduce innovative teaching and assessment method in schools by allowing more teacher autonomy and encourage further development on students' creative thinking skills and cooperative learning culture. Third, the program encourages schools to play proactive roles in educational reform by forming flexible learning community. Fourth, voluntary participation from the parents as well as local community will be encouraged in order to build strong infrastructures for career exploration activities.
 Also from the GELP link:

Okay, so why did I start with a discussion of health and fitness?  Well, aside from writing this in a stream-of-consciousness format and not planning the essay before blogging, because the first link discusses athletes and how they fit in. Here is that link again (to the Hani) and an excerpt:

“We need education that teaches skating to Kim Yu-na and swimming to Park Tae-hwan.”

This was the message from Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Education Hwang Woo-yea during a May 7 visit to his alma mater. Hwang mentioned the two sports stars repeatedly while advertising the “free semester” system as a way of harnessing the “dreams and gifts” of middle school students young enough to be his grandchildren. His heart seems to have been in the right place, and his words weren’t exactly wrong. But the reaction from students’ parent was sharp to say the least.

“He wants me to ‘teach skating to Kim Yu-na’ without offering to buy a single pair of skates.”
Parents today are now channeling too much of their resources and efforts into finding “dreams and gifts” for their children. The problem, in a nutshell, is an acute shortage of education facilities and programs with public school support. And in a society where even dreams and gifts become stratified, there is little chance of developing the competitive talent of a Kim Yu-na or Park Tae-hwan. In a society where 80-to-20 odds are less a concern than 1-to-99, families that chase impossible dreams of skill end up without food on the table. This also explains why so many children, when asked for their “dream,” give a stable job like civil servant.
I have considered writing a Gladwellian book with the  title,"Slack: how life is tightening its bound and reducing wiggle-room and flexibility".  The title and conceit are satirical but the concept is not.  In Canada, children can have free time or go to camps that teach everything or nothing.  In Korea, children are sent to academic camps where they can study a few of the same subjects as their regular classes but in more detail and for longer hours.  I must admit I profit thereby as I often work at such camps and earn more at them than at my regular work.  There isn't a lot of slack time here for self reflection.

Anyway, the government appears to want to give students time to investigate their options and learn what they individually enjoy but for a child to study less than usually during that four month period means they could be at a disadvantage during the university entrance exam and. well, in Korea, nothing more needs to be said.  For those outside of Korea, the university entrance exam results controls what university you will go to and a job seeker with "Seoul National University" on his or her resume will be chosen first, regardless of what comes next on the resume.

In Korea, study and focus on education peaks in the months before the university entrance exam.  No Korean expects to study as single-mindedly even while at university.  Students have a chance to relax and be creative and inquisitive while at university but I feel like it is too late then.  They have already chosen a major and cut off some options by this time.  Further, a middle school student who explores options would think about dating, sports, games, the world and education while a university student in the same position looks at dating, soju, nervousness over military service, soju, and dating, then sports, games, academia...

I hope the Free Semester program takes effect and actually promotes the goals it is intended to and soon.  My son will be a middle school student two years and I want him to have these opportunities.

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