On hagwons, students, and the disconnect between money and knowledge


This subject deserves a longer post, but I’m still catching up on winter vacation traveling posts… A hat tip to Doing It Korean Style for posting about the story first.

This subject deserves a longer post, but I’m still catching up on winter vacation traveling posts… A hat tip to Doing It Korean Style for posting about the story first.

The Korea Herald story sounds innocuous at first – a lengthy article on the many varieties of hagwon (private schools) available throughout the country. You’ll find more hagwon in the richer areas of Seoul than anywhere else, and the subjects they attempt to teach are simply astounding. While English and math hagwon have been around for a long time, these days there are hagwon for acclimating you to join the army (recall that Korean males are required to serve two years after high school, and are often more apprehensive about that than college), for understanding medicine, to help you quit smoking, and even for dating. Yes, dating:

“I told you a hundred times that ‘how to say’ is much more important than ‘what to say,'” said Kim Byeong-cheol, the instructor and also director of the hagwon, furiously writing “30 percent” and “60 percent” beside “how to say” and “what to say,” which he had previously scribbled on the white board.

Students hurriedly nodded and highlighted the phrases in their textbooks.

A volume of teaching materials which would amaze most people who had never imagined that dating skills could be taught in such an academic way, were used in the class.

One kind was video clips of actual blind date situations. In the video, a guy was struggling to make a conversation with the beautiful girl sitting in front of him. After the viewing, the class tried to figure out what the guy had done wrong.

“I think his baseball cap was an error. His glasses, too. He should’ve worn contact lenses,” said a student.

“He’s leaning towards the girl too much. He looks too desperate. It is certainly not the ideal posture of a proud male,” said another.

“Is he wearing short sleeves or did he roll up his sleeves? I heard it is better for men to hide as much flesh as possible and for women to reveal as much as possible on a first date,” said the last one.

“What you guys said were all correct. I mean, what’s with the baseball cap? A fedora could have been better. We have interviewed the girl, so let’s hear her impressions of the guy,” the instructor said, clicking another video clip.

The class continued for two and a half hours, looking at video clips, discussing them and going over the textbook with the instructor.

What disturbs me is the notion of one-method-fits-all teaching. If having the right ‘look’ means dressing the same preppy / pretty way, count me out. There’s a ‘correct’ way to talk to a woman? Give me a break. The thought that sitting in a classroom and taking notes will somehow help me pick up women? Come on. While I don’t advocate the type of ‘pick-up school’ promulgated by Neil Strauss’ “The Game”, it is at least more experiential in its nature. Learning to fly without a safety net forces you – yes, forces you – to get out there and do it. Going to a class that either lets you cheat or get by with simulated situations can’t possibly prepare you for reality. Only reality and time can do that – until you get both from a experienced teacher, you’re shortchanging yourself and being overcharged at the same time.

Beyond collecting money and providing something claiming to be education, the one thing these hagwon seem to promote is Their Method – calculated, crafted, and honed by supposed years of experience in the field. Only we have the inside edge on the subject at hand, the best teachers, and the hyperbole goes on. To be fair, I have the firm belief that anyone can learn given the interest and desire to learn – and some hagwon may be conducive to such endeavors. That some schools will teach their One Method to Fit All People seems a slap in the face to independent thought, personal freedom, or different approaches.

Beyond the dating hagwon mentioned in the story, there’s also the medical schools. Supposedly for medical school graduates, a few quotes from the story gave me pause:

“Also, there is a big gap between medical classes given in universities and the actual medical scene but the professors can’t teach the students one by one how to fill the gap. It is up to the students. Unfortunately, most medical students these days are used to hagwon and private lessons, so they don’t know what to do unless they are taught. At the hagwon, we teach experience rather than medical knowledge,” he said.

Medipreview started in 2003 when Gwon gave an emergency room lecture to 40 public health doctors.

Because they just graduated from medical school, they didn’t know even the most basic things like how to read X-rays or what kind of medicine to prescribe. They needed help,” Gwon said.

What the heck are you learning in medical school?

I’m not surprised by the disconnect between what is taught in school and what is truly needed in the workplace. It’s a common complaint in schools across the world, but deceptively hard to change. Perhaps that’s why ambition and self-learning are commonly seen as skills in their own right.

As long as people perceive a hagwon to be an advantage in their job, career, or dating prospects, the hagwon will continue to prosper. Paying money for ‘education’ is not only socially redeeming, it sounds good. Your friends may respect you more or ask what you learned, giving you an opportunity to either demonstrate or shy away from the question. It creates the appearance that you’re actively improving your life without necessarily providing the desired benefits. It’s akin like going to the Weight Watchers club but not following the eating guidelines when not in class.

In the end, the only person that gets cheated is yourself – you may have received a certificate from the dating school, but that doesn’t mean you can talk to the opposite sex any better.

Creative Commons License © Chris Backe – 2010

This post was originally published on my blog, Chris in South Korea. If you are reading this on another website and there is no linkback or credit given, you are reading an UNAUTHORIZED FEED.

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