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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.

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.”