South Korean educational reformer highlights initiatives
Byong Man Ahn discusses educational reform in South Korea.


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4:19 p.m., Nov. 18, 2010----Why change one of the best performing educational systems in the world?

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For Byong Man Ahn, former minister of education, science and technology in the Republic of South Korea, the answer has to do with creating a more balanced approach that fosters student creativity along with the needed memorization of materials in science, math and English.

Ahn, whose association with the University of Delaware goes back to his days as a Fulbright Scholar in Residence during the early 1980s, offered his views on South Korean educational reform during a reception and lecture held in his honor Tuesday, Nov. 16, in the Gore Recital Hall in the Roselle Center for the Arts.

The recipient of an honorary doctor of humane letters from UD at the 2004 Winter Commencement, Ahn was welcomed by President Patrick Harker and introduced by William Boyer, Charles Polk Messick Professor Emeritus of Political Science and International Relations and visiting scholar at UD's Center for Applied Demography and Survey Research.

“Tonight, we've gathered to listen to our great friend, Dr. Byong Man Ahn, offer an international perspective on education reform and systemic improvement,” Harker said. “He is uniquely qualified to do so, and we are exceptionally honored that he's traveled all this way to initiate this important conversation with us.”

In his talk, “Korean Education: Praised the World Over but in Need of Reform,” Ahn noted that while individual nations have their own respective challenges, larger issues such as curriculum, student testing and teacher accountability are worldwide issues for educational reformers.

“During the more than two years that I served as South Korea's minister of education, science and technology, I could not help feeling astonished that the entire world seemed to be noticing the South Korean education system and showering lavish praise upon it,” Ahn said. “At the same time, I could not conceal my bewilderment at the fact that within South Korea, that same educational system is subjected to constant criticism as being the nation's biggest problem.”

One of the reasons that the world respects the current South Korean educational system, Ahn noted, is that is was pivotal in the nation's rise -- a country that was a recipient of aid in the last century is a major donor of aid today.

“Today, South Korea's economy has rebounded almost completely from the worldwide economic recession. Its unemployment rate this year is 3.3 percent, similar to what is was prior to the economic crisis in 2008,” Ahn said. “Meanwhile, fully 85 percent of its high school graduates are currently enrolled in higher educational institutions, easily the world's highest percentage.”

The fact that such a high-performing system is also viewed as the country's biggest problem requires an explanation, Ahn said, noting that an emphasis on rote learning can be traced to the Chosun dynasty that ruled Korea until the early years of the 20th century.

“The Chosun dynasty adopted Confucianism as its founding ideology, and the high premium placed upon learning dominated the consciousness of the people,” Ahn said. “In conformance with its Confucian ideology, the Chosun dynasty adopted a highly competitive state-administered civil service examination system, called 'kwago,' which stressed the mastery of Confucian classics and tenets.”

In modern times, this tradition of rote learning has resulted in students having to master an amount of material that is more burdensome and complicated than in the past. As a result, Ahn said, parents have long turned to private education to help their children pass entrance exams to gain entrance into their desired colleges.

“The fact is that one simply cannot rely on public education alone if one is to send one's child to a desired university, thereby enabling him or her to enter a desired profession,” Ahn said. “The only way a child can come out victorious in this fierce competition is if he or she receives private education starting at a very young age, committing the majority of his or her time to preparing for the college entrance examination.”

While rote learning boosts student scores and test-taking skills, cramming in private school lessons until as late as 10 each evening leaves little room for personal enjoyment and the development of creativity. Ahn said this is a situation that the administration of President Lee Myung-bak is seeking to change.

“In an effort to promote creativity, the [Lee] administration has worked over the past two years to reduce the amount of material students are required to study, beginning with the bold move of reducing the number of required courses per semester,” Ahn said. “The administration also has moved to reorganize educational programs so that students are able to lead a more varied academic life, engaging in readings of their own interests, volunteer service and other such activities.”

The government has instituted a college entrance officer system that also takes into consideration factors such as individual student talent, creativity and potential growth, Ahn said.

Also notable is the creation of “garden schools” in rural areas, where students learn English, mathematics and the sciences as part of a reality-based system.

“The common thread that runs through all of these reforms is the goal of developing an educational system that values both creativity and the acquisition of necessary knowledge and skills,” Ahn said. “There needs to be a balance between the pain of memorizing and the pleasure of creative expression, with both being used to develop the full potential of our students and to meet the nation's need for a skilled workforce and a well-educated citizenry.”

Article by Jerry Rhodes
Photo by Evan Krape