Education has been in the spotlight for many reasons, but last week on November 13th the Korean university entrance exam, called Sooneung (수능) was the national headline. Like the A-levels in England, the Sooneung test results define which university the student is able to attend.
As soon as a Korean child is able to pick up a pencil, they are trained to excel, succeed and work hard in order to attend a high ranking university. Getting into a top university can lead to a good job, high status, and family pride. Stating that the Sooneung is the most important exam in a Korean’s life is an understatement.
This exam has been criticized year after year. Is a single multiple choice standardized test a true reflection of ability? Many say that these exams make children into cogs of a corporate machine; substituting independent thought and opinion with regurgitating and ticking the boxes.
The Sooneung casts a dark and long shadow on the secondary school curriculum. The syllabus and teaching style is designed to optimize performance for this single exam. Good results take priority, so students and sometimes even teachers overlook the importance of stimulating minds and inspiring interest in learning. Without truly understanding and digesting, information is crammed in.
A common attitude amongst students learning English is, “I am just studying English to get into a good university, and then I will never use it again”. To them, the Sooneung exam looks more like a finishing line than a single pillar in a lifetime of learning.
Then again, Korean standardized testing has succeeded in many ways. The grueling education system alone may be the cause for Korea’s success in technology today. Samsung didn’t get to the top without the hard work and sacrifice of millions of hard workers. The Korean workforce has been trained like Spartans to endure and stay focused in order to create great results. In just three generations, South Korea has created a booming economy and dozens of global industries.
But, Korea is now so much more than that. Even government officials are wary that these learning strategies are becoming stale, as we hurtle through the 21st century. While Korean students go on to work well in corporations, we have yet to provide the world with a Nobel prize winner, or an international movement. Could a change in the Sooneung create a more well-rounded generation of deep thinkers? Could it make an even better Korea?
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