In the Netflix smash hit “Squid Game,” there is a line that resonates with most South Koreans: While boasting that she is street-smart and capable, the self-proclaimed silver-tongued Mi-nyeo says, “I’m totally smart. I just never studied.”
The line stems from the widespread belief -- not just here but in many other parts of the world -- that being brainy and doing well on school exams are not necessarily the same.
But in a country where 12 years of schooling can be summed up in a score on one crucial, potentially life-determining test, it resonates deeply with many.
The art of picking the right answer
On Nov. 18, slightly over 500,000 Koreans sat arguably the most important exam of their life: the College Scholastic Ability Test, or Suneung.
A day after the annual exam, a parents’ union held a protest in front of the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education against the government’s ongoing education policies. The protesters were part of a growing movement that questions whether the country’s educational system can foster creative minds or equip young people with the skills they’ll need in the future, rather than just training them to do well on multiple choice tests.
Among the biggest questions -- both for the public educational system and the 9.3 trillion won ($8.1 billion) after-school hagwon industry -- is how well English is being taught.
Critics say English education is often targeted toward acing standardized written exams, like the Suneung, rather than improving students’ practical communication skills.
Kim Jae-joong, the head of a local English academy, said English studies at high school focus on rote memorization because of the Suneung.
Problems had long existed, but they got worse in 2018 when the Suneung switched to an absolute grading system for its English section instead of grading students on a curve.
The move was intended to tackle the snowballing cost of private English education in the country, but the similarities between the Suneung’s English section and the English programs on the state-run educational TV channel EBS led students to learn what patterns to look for on the test.
“Since (the students) can access similar questions and (Suneung) sample sentences, they focus more on memorizing (the patterns) to ‘pick’ the right answers,” Kim explained, going on to say that he actually advises students against trying to understand what the text is about. “It takes much more than two minutes, so one needs instead to find clues that will help them pinpoint the answer.” Test takers are given 45 questions that need to be answered in 70 minutes.
“We (educators) should consider the matters on the fundamental level, about why we learn English, and how English should be taught and learned well. This, of course, will take more than two minutes to solve.”
As most students work hard to gain the skills to ace multiple-choice tests, exams have come to include “ridiculously difficult” questions to distinguish high performers from well-trained but average students. This has led to the Suneung becoming inconsistent with the secondary education curriculum.
A major complaint over this year’s exam concerned a passage on Hegelian dialectics, followed by six questions about the passage. Other passages are also said to have exceeded the reading comprehension level required of high school graduates -- for example, one on the Bretton Woods international monetary system and one on optical lenses for automobiles.
YouTuber Korean Englishman recently posted a video of British students in their final year of high school taking the English portion of the Suneung. They struggled despite English being their native tongue, as the reading comprehension section contains excerpts drawn from philosophy, literature and technical manuals rather than everyday English.
When asked, “What did it feel like you were being tested on?” one student jokingly answered, “Not English.”
“It’s done in a way every answer could be the answer,” said another.
The roots of the exam obsession
In June, the Korean Society for the Study of Education held its annual meeting of 1,500 scholars from across the country. The theme was the present and future of education in the country. Naturally, its hyper-competitive, exam-focused nature dominated the discussion.
Professor Yoon Pyung-joong of Hanshin University said that was a reflection of Korean society.
Koreans tend to hold the view that “college entrance is the front line in the clash of the classes,” he said, adding that one should be mindful of the political and philosophical aspects of Korean education when discussing how to reform it.
Almost regardless of age, Koreans live under constant pressure to out-excel peers, and exams offer the most cost-effective way to evaluate and rank people.
In a country where well over 70 percent of high school graduates advance to college, getting good Suneung scores and enrolling in an elite university is proof of success -- at least early in life.
In “Squid Game,” protagonist Gi-hun’s weird obsession with boasting that his childhood friend Sang-woo is the “pride of Sangmoon-dong” and “graduated from Seoul National University with honors” reflects this same outlook.
Of course, this is why the Suneung is considered among the most important days of one’s life, if not the most important. On the eve of this year’s exam, the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family announced that it would offer round-the-clock counseling for teens dealing with post-Suneung stress -- part of an effort to prevent violence and even suicide.
In about four months, Koreans will elect a new president. At Global HR Forum 2021, held earlier this month, the presidential candidates shared their respective visions on education, which ranged from an emphasis on smart teaching and learning technologies to reforms that would emphasize creativity over exam skills.
Although they differ on policies, they share one big question: How should Korea prepare its children for the future?
Perhaps the fate of the fictional “pride of Sangmoon-dong” in “Squid Game,” considering where his SNU diploma landed him, is a reflection of where Korean education is headed unless something changes.
By Yoon Min-sik (firstname.lastname@example.org