On Nov. 12, over 600,000 Korean students took the college entrance exam, known here as the “Suneung” and widely referred to as “the most important test of their lives.”
But Lee Won-key, the vice president of Seoul National University of Education, said the exam papers comprised of multiple-choice questions represents what is wrong with the English education in Korea. The multiple-choice questions restrict the students’ thinking to prearranged options, depriving them of a chance to think creatively.
“The problem is students are trained to think in a box for 12 years (from elementary to high school). By having them choose from five options, (the educators) are virtually injecting a perception that there can only be one answer to problems in the world,” he said.
Lee pointed out three main problems that ail students despite the much-touted education fever: multiple-choice-based questions, policies swayed by politics, and the academic gap between students.
Lee said the multiple-choice-only evaluation was “education that smothers creativity.”
“The method has its merits. It is very economical and there is less conflict over the right answer. ... I am not suggesting that it should be eradicated completely, but that it should not be the only option for students,” he said.
Lee, a lifelong educator in elementary English, stressed the Suneung’s “backwash effect” ― referring to effects that an exam has on the way students are taught. Although Korea’s college entrance admissions process also consists of essay tests and interviews, the state-commissioned exam is still the biggest influence on a student’s acceptance to a prestigious college.
“Because the most important test of their lives is a multiple-choice one, the school exams follow suit. Making their own opinion is tossed aside, because it is not part of Suneung,” he said. “Without addressing this issue, the education system has no future.”
Lee has published multiple books on English education such as “Teaching Primary English in Korea,” and participated as an expert consultant for a series of government policies, namely readjusting the amount of English classes for elementary schools during the former Lee Myung-bak administration.
He received a doctor’s degree at the university, and was a professor of English education at SNUE prior to being appointed the school’s vice chief.
Lee pointed out that the lack of original technology is due to lack of creative thoughts.
“Restricting students with multiple-choice questions is like locking them inside a box, and punishing them. It forbids students from coming up with ideas that were not presented by the teacher.”
But reforming the educational landscape requires maneuvering Korea’s education policies, which are heavily affected by politics and based on a top-down approach, the educator pointed out. One example is the “easy English” slogan by the Park Geun-hye administration, sparked by the president’s command for her officials to come up with a solution for the “excessive English education” that is rampant in Korea.
“Very rarely are lawmakers education experts. As a result, the education policies are swayed by politicians, not education experts,” Lee said. Former Education Minister Hwang Woo-yea was previously a judge and a five-time member of the National Assembly.
“When coming up with policies, (the politicians) often look at which one will get them the most votes, not what will be most effective for educating the students,” he said.
Another issue hurting Korean education is the gap between students who excel in class and the ones who cannot keep up. Lee pointed out that the frustration and lack of confidence can lead to problems such as school violence.
“These are things that cannot be addressed by individual educators. The president herself must recognize this issue and work out a solution,” Lee said.
Experts and the government have blamed private education for triggering the downfall of public education. They said students who learned all the curriculum beforehand were not motivated to pay attention, leading to teachers losing interest in class, which then results in students who actually need school classes losing the opportunity to learn.
The Park Geun-hye administration has been seeking to break the vicious circle by implementing a bill forbidding students from learning material from the curriculum for older students, but this only applies to schools and after-school classes and not to private education institutions themselves.
Lee echoed the need to reform private education, but advised a different approach than simply curbing it.
“Realistically, private education cannot be banished. (The government) should encourage it to address the fields that public education cannot deal with instead of college admissions,” he said. For example, the private institutes can host English camps for students that have trouble keeping up, or provide wider opportunities for students excelling in classes such as networking with foreign students and groups.
Ultimately, however, Lee said authorities need to tweak the evaluation system, the most important aspect of which is reforming the Suneung itself.
While the government rolled out the plan to institute an “easier Suneung English,” namely implementation of an absolute grading system for English, he said the plan may just result in students disregarding the subject completely.
He said the key was to include writing and speaking section for the college entrance exam.
“Speaking and writing are not things that can be done in the short term. Students have to consistently practice at school, which can allow them to acquire a basic ability to communicate by the time they go to college,” he said.
But Lee said such a policy would take time, pointing out the former Lee Myung-bak administration’s failed attempt to include conversation skills in college entrance via the National English Ability Test. The NEAT, introduced in 2012, was effectively scrapped this year after a series of technical difficulties made it an unreliable system to be used for college admissions.
“They (the administration) were not ready, and they rushed it too much. The new system shouldn’t be applied to the Suneung immediately, but to school exams first. As the school grades affect college admissions, it will garner the attention of students and teachers,” Lee said.
Considering the tremendous backwash effect of college admissions in Korea, he said the introduction of Suneung English writing and speaking is sure to spark the much-needed reform of English lessons in the country.
By Yoon Min-sik