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South Korea: Happiness a missing variable in math class

Better known for rote memorization, schools in Seoul are making more room for fun.

A South Korean novice monk smiles at a ceremony at the Chogye temple in Seoul, April 21, 2006. (Lee Jae Won/Reuters)

Photo caption: A South Korean novice monk smiles at a ceremony at the Chogye temple in Seoul, April 21, 2006. (Lee Jae Won/Reuters)

SEOUL, South Korea — On one October morning, students at Hansung Science High School shuffled into their biology class expecting test results but instead found yellow police tape and a crash course in forensic science.

Their teacher flashed a silhouette of Alfred Hitchcock on a screen before appointing them teenaged detectives. Their first assignment: to determine the biological father of a child, using genetic evidence.

The 10th graders solved the mystery by pushing their text books aside and huddling together to analyze DNA patterns printed on strips of paper. During the next class they would test their skills again in a simulated crime scene of their own design.

“I think they liked it,” said teacher SooJin Lim, as the students filed out still laughing. They are usually quiet, she said. “But today it was kind of loud.”

Making class time fun is a recent aspiration for South Korean schools, better known for their emphasis on drill and memorization. The education system, built from scratch out of the rubble of the Korean war, catapulted the nation to the 13th largest economy in the world and gave Korean students elite standing on international academic tests.

But success has come with an emotional price: In a 2007Trends in International Mathematics and Science survey, only 38 percent said they actually enjoyed learning science and 33 percent said they liked math (compared to 54 and 41 percent of Americans respectively, who rank much lower in skills).

South Korea is not alone in its academic melancholy. The highest performing nations in mathematics — many of them in East Asia — tend to score lowest on a “happiness” index, according to a 2006 analysis by the Brown Center on Education Policy.

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The findings have prompted some critics to argue that the educational music videos and technicolor text books that proliferate in the United States are not the surest path to academic growth.

Still, joylessness has become a worry for South Korean leaders who hope to train the next generation to do more than memorize. They are looking for technological breakthroughs that will propel their economy further ahead. If students enjoy what they are studying, the thinking goes, they will be more likely to ask new questions and innovate in their fields.