South Korea: Kids, stop studying so hard!

South Korea is enforcing a cram-school curfew, writes Time’s Amanda Ripley, who embeds with government inspectors on a hagwon raid. Tutoring sessions are supposed to end by 10 pm.

South Korea’s hagwon crackdown is one part of a larger quest to tame the country’s culture of educational masochism. At the national and local levels, politicians are changing school testing and university admissions policies to reduce student stress and reward softer qualities like creativity.

In 2010, 74 percent of students received private after-school instruction at an average cost of $2,600 per year.  There are more tutors than teachers in South Korea.

South Korean students are the best in the world on international reading and math tests. (Mellow Finland does well too.)

But the country’s leaders worry that unless its rigid, hierarchical system starts to nurture more innovation, economic growth will stall – and fertility rates will continue to decline as families feel the pressure of paying for all that tutoring. “You Americans see a bright side of the Korean system,” Education Minister Lee Ju-ho tells me, “but Koreans are not happy with it.”

South Korean students are encouraged to stay up late studying and sleep in class, Ripley writes. “The typical academic schedule begins at 8 a.m. and ends sometime from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m., depending on the ambition of the student.”

When I visited some schools, I saw classrooms in which a third of the students slept while the teacher continued lecturing, seemingly unfazed. Gift stores sell special pillows that slip over your forearm to make desktop napping more comfortable.

Success in South Korea requires winning a spot in a top university.  To reduce the incentives to cram, “500 admissions officers have been appointed to the country’s universities, to judge applicants not only on their test scores and grades but also other abilities,” Ripley writes.

Still hagwons are responding to the curfew by putting lessons online so students can study late at home. Other hagwons claim to be “self-study” libraries to evade the 10 pm curfew. Accompanying government inspectors, Ripley sees 40 teenagers sitting in carrels in “a warren of small study rooms with low ceilings and fluorescent lights.” The air is stale. “It is a disturbing scene, sort of like a sweatshop for children’s brains,” she writes.

 

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