The Demands of Learning

Photograph by Jean Chung for TIME

Pink Floyd’s notable lyric from Another Brick in the Wall (albeit edited for conventions) has been trending in educational commentary as of late, and the recent issue of Time is no exception. In Teacher, leave those kids alone, Amanda Ripley reports on the intensely demanding, ferocious study habits and schedules of South Korean students. Ripley follows a group of Seoul government officials whose evening mission is to patrol and discover children who are studying after 10 PM and to stop them from doing so.

South Korea has begun enforcing a curfew in order to attempt to quell the nation’s obsession with private tutoring, which erupted out of its longstanding emphasis on one-size fits curricula leading to high-stakes, college-entrance exams. Consider the following, shared in Ripley’s article:

  • 74% of all students participate in private after-school instruction
  • the average cost of this after-school tutoring is approximately $2,600 per student per year
  • there are more private instructors in South Korea than there are teachers, the most successful of whom earn millions of dollars per year through face-to-face and online classes
  • when students fail to gain entrance into top universities, they spend their next year after high school attending hagwons to improve their scores on entrance exams (and only 14% of those students are accepted into the most sought after hagwons)
  • fertility rates are declining as families feel pressured to financially support students’ education
  • South Korean students are working hard, but not necessarily smart – Ripley noted her observations of students sleeping in class during the school day in order to have the energy to stay up late to study
  • hagwons continue to be an impenetrable force because the stakes are still the same: students feel a strong desire to get into one of the country’s top universities. “Where you attend university haunts you for the rest of your life,” noted Lee Beom, former cram-school instructor
  • students are crammed into poorly lit, small spaces, late into the evening hours, devouring common worksheets and study guides; daily schedules range from 8 AM to 10 PM-1 AM, depending on the ambition of the student
  • parents relentlessly push their children academically in order to compete with other students who are attending after-hours tutoring

Are South Korean students successful? They outperform students in nearly all other nations in reading and math. Their country has benefited: its GDP has increased nearly 40,000% since 1962. However, government officials are concerned that the rigid system must be transformed in order to make way for more innovation, otherwise economic growth will stagnate. Schools all across Asia are looking to make their schools more “American” (a recommended read is Yong Zhao’s Catching up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization) in order to equip students with a more global skill set. South Korean education officials are working to improve public schools by creating more rigorous evaluation systems for teachers and principals (sound familiar?) and requiring more professional development for low-performing teachers.

As an American administrator I’ve been introduced to the ins and outs of the educational systems of foreign nations, such as those in Singapore, Finland, Canada, and South Korea. The propensity for comparing the supposed abysmal performance of our students to those in more “successful” nations is becoming quite the popular pastime. I still have a hard time believing our system is as broken as many claim it to be, however Ripley’s account of her nocturnal journey (she describes the hagwon she visited as “a distributing scene, sort of like a sweatshop for children’s brains”) solidified in me a great appreciation for our desire to teach and value the whole child; to encourage passion-driven, student-centered, and inquiry-based learning opportunities; to ensure the time students spend within our brick and mortar or online learning environments is time well spent: that it’s engaging, authentic, creative, collaborative, and intellectually stimulating. That we allow for play, mistakes, and continuous growth in a nurturing environment.

Films like Race to Nowhere examine the detriments that the pressures associated with academic competition, grades, and homework can play on our children’s lives. I shared my thoughts on this documentary last spring and some of my colleagues did as well, including Jonathan Martin, who most recently shared a guest post on his blog pushing back against Nowhere’s claims that homework in itself will be the downfall of our children, but rather than homework and academic overload is to blame. When I consider the implications of the South Korea system, hagwons, and the inordinate amount of pressure to perform experienced by those students on a daily basis, the word overload doesn’t quite do it justice.

Administrators, we owe it to our students to examine often and in depth the demands our school systems are placing on students’ intellectual, emotional, social, and behavioral well-beings.

Ripley, A. (2011) Teacher, leave those kids alone. Time. December 5.
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  1. George Couros

    I agree with a lot of what you are saying in this post and the value in nurturing our students and helping to create wisdom.  There also has to be some push and expectations in the work that we are doing.  We can continue to talk about giving our kids exploration, but there also has to be a balance of content as well.  

    Take a look at Google. Many focus on the 20% time where it is flexible and people get to follow their passions and produce many innovations, but they are also successful because of the other 80% that happens in their work where they don’t have flexibility.  We latch on to the one-fifth that we think is a departure from the norm, but I am sure there are some other aspects in the other four-fifths (albeit in a way more comfortable setting) that work as well.

    I think as educators (as you share and embody here), we have to continuously look at school, but we also have to think about jumping from one extreme to another.  Will that help? How do we promote that nurturing environment, while also encouraging, giving nudges, and setting high expectations for our kids to get better?   

    • Certainly, we need to have high expectations for our children. We know that they can rise to any challenge given an environment conducive to learning (which may look different for each learner). For anyone currently practicing as a classroom teacher or principal, the demands to meet government-issued standards is very real. There are standardized assessments and mandates. Do I think the Common Core standards and other policy guidelines are inherently bad for kids? No. But, as you say, we need to find the balance of innovation, student freedom in learning, the push for academic excellence, global and service learning, and authentic assessment and instruction that will yield the greatest benefits for our children. It’s no easy task, but I think that if we continue to share examples of how schools, classrooms, and teachers are striking that balance and enriching the lives of children and communities, we will propel our systems forward. Thanks for your comment.

    • So what I find myself asking is how do you define “high expectations” and “better”? What does “conducive to learning” really mean? I’d love to put 20 random educators into a room and ask them that. I’m betting I’d get all sorts of answers, some of which were at cross purposes.

      And that’s the problem. We each bring our own lenses to that “learning” conversation, and it requires us to be really, really specific about what we mean when we talk about that stuff. 

      So I’m curious, what are “high expectations”? How do we measure if they have been achieved? And are they shared by our constituents? If not, what do we do about that?

  2. Jimohagan

    Typically missed in these comparisons between American schools and any other country schools are the cultural differences. A country like the United States is more culturally diverse, with a much larger population than these other top performing countries. Considering the US is still the cultural and economic power of the world, surveys and world standing with test scores needs to be looked at more than just a number. We are doing an amazing job considering our highly diverse and individual-centric population.

    • Agreed, Jim. I think there are a lot of factors not taken into consideration when these comparisons are made. Last year I had to endure entire continuing ed. leadership coursework that focused on these international comparisons. Needless to say, I was concerned about the focus on these statistics and an emphasis on how we’re failing rather than our strengths and working to enhance our systems.