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Korean School System vs. American School System


Teaching is teaching right? How different can it be to teach students in South Korea versus America? There are of course similarities, however in this post, I want to highlight some of the major differences that I myself noticed. Please keep in mind, as always, these are based off of my opinions and experiences while living abroad. This post is in no way meant to be scientific, or all knowing.

When teaching in Korea, (or any other foreign country), you have to take into account the culture and customs of the country. Korea is a country where modernity, and ancient traditional values meet. This society is grounded in Confucianism, which is an ancient set of rules/beliefs for society, that was founded in China. This system is based on hierarchy, Men the elderly, and those with wealth, or reputable careers are at the top of the hierarchical ladder. Women, younger people/students are near the bottom. Society prides itself on where you rank within this system.

What does this have to do with school system, or teaching English as a foreigner there? It is often seen as extremely rude to question the teacher, as they are “above” you so to speak, and know what they’re talking about. It can also be difficult for students to ask questions, and oftentimes asking, “do you understand” is pointless because students will almost always say yes. It’s much better to ask open-ended questions, or to incorporate a game at the end of a lesson to check for comprehension.

In American schools, there is more freedom to be creative, think independently, and to express personal opinions. There might not always be a “right”, or correct answer based upon opinion. Open discussion with teachers/professors is common. In Korea, the teacher plays more of an authoritative role, there is less room for debate, discussion, or creativity, and there must be a “right” answer, or way to doing mostly everything. There is a heavier emphasis on the hard sciences. Teachers are also more respected in Korean society than in America.

I took this picture of the Korean flag while visiting Geoje Island, because it was made from handprints. Fun fact: The Korean flag is called Taegukgi, (태극기)

I like to use this example of something that actually happened to me while I was teaching there, to give you another perspective on this topic. I was teaching prepositions to my first grade middle schoolers, (seventh grade in the US), after the lesson, I handed each student a piece of paper. I would say things like, “Draw a house” “Draw a dog outside of the house” “Draw a table inside of the house”, etc. What I found interesting, was that in EACH class, at first we could not get past “Everyone, draw a house”. Now, if you were like me, you’re a bit confused. What’s so difficult about being asked to draw a house? It’s pretty simple, right?

Well, the students wanted to know how big the house should be, should it be one level or two, did I want them to draw it in the middle, left, or right side of the paper…basically they wanted me to tell them how to draw the house, so that they could make an exact copy. I would show an example on my PPT of each step after we’d completed the exercise, to check for comprehension on the prepositions we’d gone over. However, one of my co-teachers insisted that I show them the house beforehand so they would know what to draw.

Despite this, that particular exercise was quite popular with students, and each class enjoyed participating. While I was living in Korea, it was surprising to me at times how completely opposite classroom teaching is to how it’s done in the States. As a foreign teacher, I had to learn to be EXTREMELY flexible, and adjust my teaching style to compliment my student’s way of learning. I can’t completely separate myself from my culture, so it definitely had an influence. Cultures between countries may be different, but at the end of the day, middle school students are still middle school students. Sincerity and being yourself goes a long way, and can cross cultural barriers.

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