South Korea: Happiness a missing variable in math class

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.

But the creative challenge is tough. The South Korean system is built around a highly competitive college entrance exam that rewards how much students know rather than how they think. The majority of students, starting from a young age, supplement their school day with private tutoring at “cram schools” to learn more facts and prepare for the test. SamHyun Park, an eighth grader from Anyang, just south of Seoul, explained that he studies math at school each day and at least three nights a week at a private academy. When asked why he doesn’t enjoy it, he said, ”I am kept captive for too long.”

To give students more room for creativity, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology plans to slim down the curriculum starting next school year. Students will have extra time each week to go on field trips or do projects or meet with professionals who can show them how education is applied in the working world.

Hansung Science High School, a highly selective school for gifted students in the northern part of Seoul, has smaller classes and more time for lab work. Students also have unusual freedom because they are not bound by the traditional college entrance process. Many are on a fast track to apply to top colleges after only two years using an American-style portfolio showing special talents and extra-curricular activities, along with grades.

Student JungHyen Lim shows off a baby hamster to her friends in the biology lab.
(Michael Alison Chandler/GlobalPost)

That means Soojin Lim can occasionally detour from the textbook and do an activity meant to inspire students, even if the lesson never appears on a multiple choice test. Lim has special training in gifted education from the University of Virginia, but she said it is difficult to apply the creative lessons she learned abroad with Korean students who are more accustomed to listening than sharing ideas, and who are afraid of wasting time. Even Hansung students must worry about mid-terms and final exams that dictate their all-important class rank.

Hansung 10th grader JungHyen Lim, 16, said her school days are long. Students live on campus so they can focus on their studies and they often sleep less than six hours a night. But she enjoys biology because she likes working with “living creatures.”

On a recent afternoon in the lab, she fed baby hamsters drops of water from a plastic bottle, while her classmate shared his snack of honey twists with the little nibblers.

Their experiment, a semester-long project, is to see how the animals respond to sound frequencies. Some of the classmates are entering their research projects into a contest, she explained. “For us,” she said, “this is just for fun.”