High School Education in Japan and South Korea

A while ago, a local college in Boston contacted me and asked if I could deliver a lecture for a group of Japanese high school students visiting the United States. After some days of negotiating on the compensation, I decided to do a lecture on U.S. foreign economic policies with a focus on Northeast Asia – China, Japan, and South Korea. The talk was basically on trade relations.

The students were from Niigata City Kohshi Six-year Secondary School (新潟市立高志中等教育学校), an institution which takes the form of middle and high school incorporated into a high school system. I was told in advance by the organizers that the group is notoriously quiet and has a very low level of English proficiency (they were here enrolled in an ESL program). Accordingly, the lecture was delivered in the most simplest way possible, mainly in the English language but mixed with the Japanese language to help them understand the content. For example, abbreviations like WTO, FTA, TPP or economic jargons that would be too difficult for students at the high school level were simultaneously interpreted into Japanese by me after the English explanation. It was quite a task, but also eventful in remembering my own high school years back in South Korea. Most of the students did not respond, but I felt that many of them were too shy to speak up, or that something ‘oppressive‘ – that they have inherited in classroom culture back home, was holding them back from raising hands and asking questions or responding to me proactively.

With Japanese students from Niigata City Kohshi High School visiting the U.S. after my lecture at Boston University (August 5, 2013).

I recall that even at the lectures convened in the Japanese language that I witnessed at the University of Tokyo, with the unilateral method of teaching, questioning within the classroom was highly unlikely and rare, even in an economics lecture. It was one of the most awkward and boring moments that I have had during my fieldwork in Japan. This would change when the class size is reduced to 15-20 people, but still there would be awkward moments of silence because the discussions don’t go smoothly. Later, I was able to ask some Japanese colleagues around about why this happens. To note on an funny anecdote, I asked the same question to one of the senior economists at the Ministry of Finance over sashimi dinner. He answered in rather full detail that in the Japanese classroom setting, asking something that someone else in the classroom would already know would be of trouble (meiwaku) in Japanese culture as it would eat away the class time, so should questions arise regarding the contents that were unilaterally delivered to the students, one or two students would form a group of students who had the same questions informally, then approach the teacher or professor as a group to save his/her time. I remember that I looked at him in awe when I heard the answer. The economist himself laughed at the explanation he gave, and we just really laughed it off. But would I want to go back to that ‘oppressive’ classroom culture? You bet I wouldn’t. Those were the bygone days and they don’t affect my scholastic life anymore, and that’s why I can laugh it off.

In retrospect, high school education that I had in South Korea took a similar format, but classes in college were convened in a more aggressive way (from the students’ perspective). In high school I remember that I felt some oppressive cultural force – the culture that presses you down and keeps you from revealing that you are smart, or that you may be curious about things that normally others aren’t curious about – that prevented me from asking questions in public (that is, while class is being convened), so I would have to run out the door as soon as the class is dismissed to get a hold of the teacher to ask questions. Not only was this a big hassle, but it was also a hard task during exam prep periods, because you would have to check when you would be able to grab the teacher and have him/her focus on your question individually. But all of that changed in college, because thanks to people who sought to quench their intellectual thirst, questions were raised pretty much naturally within the lectures. Thank god. But most of the professors didn’t hold office hours. Only the prominent scholars deeply engaged in their academic research would gladly answer questions after class or toward the end of the lecture.

During my lecture for the Japanese students, there were two students sitting at the very front with sparkly eyes, who seemed to understand roughly 90 percent of the lecture content. Most of the students who sat in the back would just doze off to sleep or would seem very out of focus. The two students’ questions at the end of the lecture revealed that they captured the important points I delivered to the students in the lecture. One of them later came up to me before the photo session and asked, ‘Is conducting research possible after becoming Professor?’ I of course said yes. I have no doubt that those two smart students will have a bright future. During the Q&A session, I told them that they should really strive to find what they like to do – I said that if you really like something, then just do it, whatever it is that you like, be it music, science, arts, language, what not. Many of them sheepishly smiled, but the two students in front seemed enlightened.

To think that I went through the same pattern of high schooling, it’s rather painful. A recent article featured in the Wall Street Journal about South Korea’s gigantic private educational market made me feel somewhat angry and also a bit remorse to bring back the memories of high school education format in South Korea. I shared my opinions online, and was glad that most of us (South Koreans and foreigners alike) were seeing the blind spots of the WSJ article by experience or by observation in South Korea. I very much doubt that the patterns will change – and as an individual seeking to be a researcher and professor here in a more lively classroom (although the U.S. classrooms have other issues), I feel blessed to be able to have groups of students who will actively engage in discussions with me in the classroom.

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