Lessons in Education from South Korea

I’ve been reading ‘The Smartest Kids in the World and how they got that way’ by Amanda Ripley – a book that aims to discover exactly what the top-scoring education systems in the world do that helps students learn so much. Far from being a policy primer on comparative education policies from the top-scoring national school systems, this book shows us the school system of these countries in their unique cultural and historical context. Most importantly, it looks at education policies from the perspective of all those affected, but with a special emphasis on who it affects most: the young people that must live and learn within that system. It shares these perspectives in a compelling way by weaving storytelling with quantitative data, expert interviews, and telling anecdotes.

So far, I’ve only read the chapter on Eric, who went from Minnetonka over to South Korea to continue his education after high school. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the chapter though, as it shows you how education works in Korea, rather than merely telling you with points of data. You can feel how comfortable students feel in their schools, because they practically live there. When you hear the gruesome story of a student stabbing their mother so they wouldn’t go to a parent-teacher conference and learn of their child’s less-than-perfect grades, you can almost join the South Korean press in feeling sympathy for both sides. This mother had pushed her child too hard and sometimes beat him if his grades weren’t good enough – she surely didn’t deserve death, but for a nation feeling the train of a hypercompetitive education system, her ‘punishment’ for pushing too hard can feel cathartic.

Despite problems with Korean students being pushed too hard though, the chapter illustrates one of South Korea’s most impressive educational accomplishments: there are high expectations for every child, and how much you learn and succeed is seen as a direct function of how hard you work. This myth of pure meritocracy in determining life success has obviously had damaging consequences (as it does in all countries where it is taken too seriously), yet its inclusivity has also pushed every young person to succeed. We could really learn something from that idea in the US, where we have a cult of meritocracy, but tragically low expectations for those coming from low-income families, and few resources to help them step onto even the bottom rungs of the ladder of opportunity.

Overall, I’m impressed and delighted by the book so far. Looking forward to reading more!


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