Parents push their kids to start learning early

By Yoon Min-sik

Experts warn of lasting side effects of early childhood education

  • Published : Jan 9, 2014 - 21:08
  • Updated : Jan 9, 2014 - 21:09
A young boy sits on the road near a complex packed with private institutions in Daechi-dong, Seoul. (File Photo)
A flood of young women visited the grand convention center in Coex, Seoul, with fire in their eyes and passion in their movements.

These women roamed the 30th Seoul International EDU-CARE Fair for Children and Kids Products Fair to look for things that will help their beloved children take a successful first step in the lifelong journey of education.

“It’s quite a sight. It is more than just toys for kids. The companies there have really broke it (child education) down to a complicated system,” said a 32-year-old mother surnamed Cho, who attended the event held in December. Cho said she was surprised by the enthusiasm of other young moms.

The fair consisted of nearly everything a parent with a preschooler would look for: toys, strollers, snacks, home-study materials, children’s books and other items.

“I’ve been most interested in the education-related booths. As my daughter grows, I keep wondering what I can do for her,” said another woman who had visited the event.

The convention reflects the expanding private education market for preschoolers in South Korea. Private education used to target middle and high school students; institutes now seek to recruit elementary school students, preschoolers and even toddlers.

Experts, however, warn about the effects of teaching children from a very early age.

Lee Ki-sook, a professor in the Early Childhood Education Department at Ewha Womans University, said preschool education does not always leave a lasting mark. Lee, who conducted a six-year-long study on a group of 181 children, said that there are no meaningful differences in literacy between children who had early reading and writing training and those who did not.

“Preschool education makes children who are only smart on the outside. They know that one plus three is four, but they don’t know why,” she said.

Lee emphasized that early education is very important, but parents should be careful not to “inject knowledge” into their children. She warned that children who were forced to just study workbooks and did not have experience playing with others are likely to have problems interacting with people.

“We found that those children can either become isolated or very aggressive. Also they can lack imagination or creativity,” Lee said.

She also warned against the possible hazards of simply memorizing materials without fully understanding the logic, a method adopted by a number of workbooks targeting children. Lee said such workbooks work against the development of language proficiency.

Suh Yoo-hun, a professor at Seoul National University’s College of Medicine, said that childhood education should vary according to the stage of brain development.

“Forcing the teaching of certain subjects on a toddler ― whose nervous system has not fully developed ― may potentially trigger disorders such as depression and attachment disorder,” Suh said. “Just because your child starts studying early and studies a lot, does not mean that he or she will do well in school later.”

He said that the education of children 3 years old or younger should focus on their emotional well-being, since their frontal, temporal and parietal lobes develop evenly during that time. For the group aged between 3 and 6, whose frontal lobe is developing rapidly, parents should be mindful of children’s personality development.

Suh warned that teaching children a foreign language before the age of 6 could cause various stress-induced mental disorders.

Early private education can have a negative impact on students and ultimately on children’s ability to study independently, a civic group against “excessive private education” said.

“The worst (side effect) is ‘advanced learning’ (learning part of a school curriculum beforehand via private education). They’ve already learned everything so teachers cannot conduct their lessons in a normal way,” said An Sang-jin, an official of World Without Worries About Private Education.

An, a former high school teacher, said parents feel obliged to provide private education because of their lack of faith in schools.

South Korea is among the lowest when it comes to parent and student confidence in teachers, according to the 2013 Global Teacher Status Index by the Varkley Gems Foundation. South Korean pupils’ respect for teachers ranked at rock bottom.

The study was conducted in 21 countries including South Korea, the U.S., China, Japan and the U.K.

An said that early education should focus on letting children play and develop their personality. “If you focus on one field (such as English), other fields cannot be developed. Children should be educated naturally through playtime,” he said.

Lee said that there is no need for parents to spend a lot of money on educational materials. Rather, children should learn creative thinking through everyday experiences.

“I’m not saying parents shouldn’t expose their children to educational materials. But for young children, learning through playing and using various tools is much more effective,” she said. “Early education doesn’t have to be anything special. A mother can ask a child to set the table for a certain number of people. Isn’t that sort of like math?”

Studies have shown that preschool private education in South Korea is a booming market.

According to the Korea Institute of Child Care and Education, 76.4 percent of Korean households with infants and preschoolers opted to spend money on private education. The average private education budget stood at 144,500 won ($136) yearly.

Its report also showed that parents of infants or preschoolers in metropolitan areas spend 169,300 won a month on average, which is higher than those in small towns, who spend 101,000 won on private education.

The report showed that more than 80 percent of elementary students had private education, which was higher than the rate of middle or high school students.

Chun Sang-chin, a professor of sociology at Sogang University, said that forcing children to become competent as early as possible is a social trend. Childhood was considered a “moratorium” for such competition in the past, but things have changed, he said.

In keeping with the trend of early education, education companies are churning out child education products for all age groups.

Woongjin Think Big, a major publisher of educational textbooks, launched a series of educational materials aimed at helping infants learn how to speak. “Children who have a large vocabulary can speak and communicate fluently. This is why we need a professional program,” said an official from the company.

By Yoon Min-sik (