Before the breakout K-pop craze, South Korea was famous for its rigorous schooling. On average, a South Korean high school student spends 15+ hours per day in school. If you go to any math, physics, or other Olympiad, you will see that the Koreans rank at the top of the list. Why is that? It happens because there is so much continuous pressure on the students to succeed. Every year there are hundreds of students who become suicidal because of the heavy pressure from their school.
I think everyone wonders about the lifestyles and the schooling practices of South Korean students. Let's try to understand why South Korean students consistently study such long hours. How do they stay motivated?
How much time do you spend at school? Perhaps I should’ve asked how long you HAVE to stay at school? I don't know about others, but South Korean students have to spend 15+ hours per day in school. Spending time in school doesn't mean sitting around talking about the newest...whatever. In Korea, you have to participate in school activities actively.
Unfortunately, all of their school activities are related to learning. They usually have a one or two-hour extracurricular activities time slot. But don't be confused by their kind of extracurricular activities. Solving math problems or other study-related activities are their kinds of extracurricular activities.
Maybe that's why we have not seen a World Cup-winning football team from South Korea? And I'm sure we will never see a world-class cricket team from South Korea because it requires 9 hours to complete a regular cricket match. South Koreans can't conceive of spending 9+ hours playing a game. Instead, every year we see outstanding results in the math olympiads from the South Korean students.
School is the best place for students to make close connections with friends. This is true for most, but when your school system abstains from non-academic activities, schools can't be so alluring to students. For every Korean student, the daily routine is more or less the same.
Everyone has to attend school at 8 am, and they leave school at around 9 or10 pm. This means students have to wake up at 7 am, and they go to bed around 11 pm. Unfortunately, because of this schedule, their dinner is served at school.
School is the only place for them to socialize. They can only socialize during special school events. All their waking hours are spent in school. Can you imagine living like that?
Until recently, Korean students had to attend school on Saturdays too. Previously they only got Sundays off. Imagine how miserable their lives were. Since 2012, the South Korean government has given the students a two-day weekend. Do you believe that just because they don’t have to go to school, they don’t have schoolwork to do?
On pen and paper, almost all cultures praise their teachers. But in reality, teachers are the most neglected of highly educated people. In many countries, if you choose to work as a software engineer or work as a university teacher, the majority would choose the software engineering job because of the higher starting salary and job growth potential.
In South Korea, teachers are highly paid. As a result, there are countless bright and deserving people in the high school teaching profession. Teachers are among the top earners here. On average, a high school teacher earns between $2,000-$3,000 per month. Let me explain, these earnings are pretty satisfactory considering the cost of living in South Korea.
Discipline is at the core of the South Korean family. Their schooling system is built around discipline. From a very early age, South Korean children have discipline drilled into every activity they do. Their culture sets a high priority for discipline. One of the most famous poems by Han Yong-un is:
"Others say they love freedom, But I choose to obey."
Almost all of the South Korean family system has developed solely because of discipline. Even when there is nobody to judge them and South Koreans can choose freedom and break the rules, South Korean people tend to stick to the rules. They have a long history of using corporal punishment just for breaking minor rules.
Thank God that in recent times, the school system has banned the use of corporal punishment. I think you get the idea of how seriously Koreans take discipline.
The South Korean government allocates close to 5 percent of its total budget for education. Considering that South Korea is a developed country and their per capita income is higher than average, their spending is praiseworthy. That’s not the end of it.
Each family spends, on average, 10 to 15 percent of their income on their children’s education. In other countries, people are more or less dependent on government spending and student loans. The South Korean family sacrifices a big chunk of their earnings for the betterment of their children. They don't rely solely on the government. They are proactive about the education of their children and their children’s futures.
Learning math in a Korean classroom is not like what you know. Instead of being a haphazard, cavalier affair, it’s a complete immersion of drills and repetition. Students are forced to learn it by rote until they master it. In this kind of teaching environment, you can’t help but learn mathematics.
Another important distinction is that there is no separation between the high/medium/low performers in Korean math classes. Everyone is grouped and struggles together, usually in a class of 30-40 students. If you’re struggling, you put in the extra time at home and school to catch up. But no one gets earmarked or humiliated as a “slow” learner.
That's why every year, you will see the dominance of South Korean students in many mathematical Olympiads.
Due to tight-knit families and the hard-working nature of the people of South Korea, expectations of the students are consistently above the bar from a very early age. There everyone is hardworking. Every student is required to spend 2/3 of their day in the school system. If you lack any skills for a topic, they give you extra work to cover it up.
That's why the deviation in standards between the top tier and the lower tier is not astronomical. During any entrance exam, the competition is always extreme. The high expectations of the people around the students don’t come out of the blue. These expectations motivate them to study hard throughout the year.
In recent times, in some countries, we have seen a trend that avoids the typical educational practices but emphasizes the use of free learning resources like youtube, Khan Academy, Coursera, etc. Many entrepreneurs and business icons are also actively promoting homeschooling for their children.
Don't dare suggest this to South Korean families. They can't conceive of the idea of their children not going to school. They possess a high regard for their schooling system. Students also believe that school is a significant part of the formula for a successful life. In addition, South Korean students take exams seriously. When education is at the core of your culture, you naturally take exams seriously.
Now you've been introduced to the South Korean education system. Their values and beliefs drive them to study 15+hours per day.
You might be able to motivate yourself to study 15+ hours. But don't just imitate them blindly. You might study the same hours Koreans do, but you might not see similar returns from your time and effort. Your next-door neighbor’s boy might spend 15+ hours in ventures and earn many times more than you. He might earn more respect than you. Seeing this, you would be disappointed.
Ask yourself,” would you be okay with this?” If you know and accept the consequences of studying 15 hours per day, like the Korean students, you will be okay... They get relief by participating in extracurricular activities, which are math games, whereas you play games and sports or take up gardening, arts, etc., as your extracurricular activities. Koreans stay true to their culture. Why don’t you try it?