In a good many Korean schools it is perfectly acceptable for students to fall asleep at their desks and snooze through an entire morning of lessons. In some, it is actively encouraged.
This latitude is born not of negligence but of concern. For the state-school teachers know exactly where the children’s chronic fatigue was nurtured: in the madness of a parental arms race that has made a fetish of private cramming schools and pushed mainstream education close to dysfunction.
What the country needs — urgently, say some — is essay questions.
South Korean education is what happens when meritocracies and one-upmanship go berserk. Two monsters loom over the exhausted children of Seoul and the country’s other big cities.
On one side is a country straining to compete at a national level with the Asian titans of China and Japan: it is an economy where good jobs are getting more scarce and where educational accomplishment translates closely to social heft and long-term financial success.
On the other is an army of parents and grandparents with the cash and ambition to buy their descendants any small advantage in the great educational struggle. Children’s evenings and weekends are viewed as a resource to be tapped to breaking point; sleep is viewed — in the most extreme quarters — as weakness.
The undoubted beneficiaries of this arms race are the hagwons – private education institutes that prepare all ages of Korean children for the cavalry charge of exams that thunder down on them from the day they enter elementary school to the time they sit university entrance tests. South Korean parents spend fortunes sending their children to these schools, which has created a separate arms race. Parents send children to good hagwons to improve their chances of getting into even better hagwons that will in turn improve their chances of getting into better private schools and colleges.
Britain engaged in passionate national debate over whether to extend licensing laws to keep pubs open beyond 11pm. In Korea, a similar swell of emotion surrounded the question of whether hagwons should be allowed to stay open beyond 10pm. The late-opening proponents won; defenders of sleep lost.
Revolution may be around the corner, however, and it is starting to terrify parents everywhere. Beyond the punishing demands on children, one of the perceived flaws with Korean education is the rigid nature of the examinations: almost every subject is tested via questions that demand prodigious memorising and binary right/wrong answers.
The Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education has announced that it plans to make essay-style questions mandatory. It has two reasons for switching to this policy. The first is the belief that essays questions will prod Korean education out of its emphasis on rote learning. Essays, said a senior official, are needed to “create innovative minds” and test students’ ability to formulate arguments.
For a country eager to secure its future as a cutting-edge producer of electronics, biotechnology and engineering, that argument reflects national concerns that the country must do something to preserve its technological cushion.
The second, more tantalising, theory is that essays could break the spell of the hagwons. Essays are intrinsically harder to train for, definitely harder for hagwon teachers to predict and specifically outside the current teaching expertise of the cram schools. If the theory is correct, essays could be the secret of a good night’s sleep.