▲ The storm and stress of modern education Photo courtesy of Tellmeimok, Wikimedia Commons
Korea is a land of education. In 2015 it led the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in tertiary completion, with 69 percent of Koreans aged 25 - 34 possessing a university, college, or technical training diploma. The OECD average was 42.1.
Unfortunately, these impressive statistics coincide with the appropriation of troubling international trends in higher education.
Industrialized countries have in large part built their school systems on a factory-based analogy, where education is less about learning and more about the installation of socioeconomic norms into prospective workers.
Obviously this is a gross oversimplification and there are an enormous number of ways in which mass education has changed the lives and minds of millions of people for the better.
However, despite its many triumphs, the bureaucracy of our education is becoming progressively more profit-driven, more inhospitable when it comes to some very simple, very basic human needs.
Students often feel like school is a giant conveyor belt, with sterility masquerading as objectivity and emotional detachment posing as professional distance.
Humans are designed for small, intimate support groups; variegated programs that encourage the inherently unique curiosity present in each individual. Our growth across multiple intelligences requires nuanced, interpersonal, formative assessments that rely on a broad spectrum of evaluations, projects, and practical applications.
And most importantly we require emotional relevance. We survive and thrive in direct proportion to the quality and emotional authenticity of our interpersonal relationships. This is especially true in the student/teacher relationship.
Current models of “teaching to the test” depend far too heavily on an impersonal, standardized process. Letter grades and the “normal distribution curve” say more about the goals of institutional efficiency than they do about student achievement.
More often than not, when we give students an F we are teaching them to fear mistakes, linking ideas of self worth to achievement within a hierarchy rather than personal persistence. Too many of our systems teach students that mistakes should be avoided. But mistakes are how we learn.
And like the fear of mistakes, people are also taught to fear and avoid emotional content, particularly in an academic setting. This is a dangerous, irresponsible, and unfortunately popular message: if you want to succeed, divorce your thinking from your feelings. As if that were somehow desirable, or even possible.
As neuroscientist, psychologist, and former public school teacher Mary Helen Immordino-Yang notes, “It is literally neurobiologically impossible to build memories, engage complex thoughts, or make meaningful decisions without emotion...we only think about things we care about”.
It is imperative, therefore, to integrate emotions and feelings into our educational strategies - something that’s practically unknown in most classrooms. We need to start asking what we are teaching students to care about, because some of the answers we find to that question are alarming, especially here in Korea.
Korea takes school very seriously. The time and money that this culture spends on education is part of why so many people come here to teach. Korea offers unmatched opportunities for almost anyone with a bachelor's degree.
Unfortunately, professional development is sadly lacking in the over 14,000 E2 visa holders from English speaking countries that cycle through Korea on a yearly basis. The majority begin with very little formal training and receive little to no supplemental instruction during their time as teachers.
Fewer still gain anything more than a cursory understanding of the cultural and historical landscape in which they are embedded.
For instance, few foreign teachers are aware of the enormous amount of trauma this country has absorbed over the last few generations. Thirty-five years of oppressive Japanese occupation only ended in 1945, and the war that fractured their culture and laid waste to the entire country started a mere five years after that.
Korea responded to these challenges with a truly incredible level of perseverance. Few cultures on the planet could have recovered with the same alacrity and grit that Korea demonstrated. However, everything - even tenacity - comes at a cost.
For instance, during much of Korean history, four or five generations of extended family lived together in the same house or village. Now there is an epidemic of elderly people living alone in one room apartments. Families are fragmented and increasingly isolated from one another.
This is partly due to the burden of a frantic and unsustainable work ethic, which is conspicuously present in education. Grueling 14 hour days of study can begin as early as six years old. In a constant rush, students sacrifice diet, exercise, family, social life, and childhood in order to “succeed”.
The intense pressure to do well in school has morphed into a culturally sanctioned hostility towards failure and mistakes. The shame and guilt of getting an A rather than an A+ is often enough to spark suicidal responses.
The bottom line is that for many Korean students, educational pressures are a focal point for profound stress, anxiety, and loneliness. And for many, it becomes a matter of life and death.
Most people who live and work in Korea don’t realize that on top of being a global leader in education, Korea has also led the OECD in suicide for almost 13 consecutive years now, since 2003.
Down from its highest level in 2009 of 33.8 suicides per 100,000 people to 28.7 in 2013 (the most recent data), Korea is still far ahead of the next highest country on the list. In 2013, Hungary only had 19.4. The average for the OECD hovers around 12.
According to Korean governmental statistics, suicide is currently the leading cause of death for Koreans aged 10 - 39. Take a minute to think about that.
By virtue of this final statistic alone, the role of education in emotional health deserves a far more prominent place in professional educational discourse than it currently retains. Especially if we have any hope of responding to these issues as teachers here in Korea.
In the next part of this series we will explore something I call “affective pedagogy” and ways to introduce emotional relevance back into teaching methodology.
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