For my first six months here, I operated under the impression that Koreans are the busiest and hardest working people on earth. At some point during my first semester, that illusion fell apart.

In the west, image is important. But we’re taught that being dependable and producing quality work are the way to cultivate a positive image at the office. In Korea, image is everything. Quality of work and efficiency are relatively unimportant here. Convincing others think that you are a hard worker is far more important than actually working hard. (source)

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All over the world people try to make things look better than they are. Marketing is perhaps the most systemised example. But in Korea, it feels like half of all adult activity is making things look good for other adults who know very well that everyone is spending a big chunk of their time on making just-good-enough jobs look good. It’s quite strange, and also deeply ineffective and stifling. I’ll give three examples from my elementary school.

There is an fairly arbitrary idea of what makes for a good English lesson in the heads of most Koreans. It’s contains certain ideas like never speaking Korean, and writing up lesson objectives. And the idea that children might well learn better when they’re enjoying themselves becomes the idea that if they’re not having the time of their lives, they can’t possibly be learning. So in the teacher’s guides for our textbooks there’s always a lesson objective in Korean and English, for us to write up on the board alongside the sacred list of activities. Now, when planning lessons, setting objectives can be an effective way of keeping your planning on track. You can’t get lost adding questions to a work sheet if you’re continually reminding yourself of what you’re trying to teach. This means that a lesson objective has got to be something you want your students to be able to do after the lesson, that they either can’t do or can only do incompletely before the lesson. But the objectives in our textbook are never like that. They say “We are going to learn a song.” This is not an objective, just a statement about something we’re going to do.

The academic study of English as a foreign language education likes objectives and anyone who attends an EFL teacher training course will be coached on this. When I did my certificate, I had various objectives rejected until I got the hang of writing something achievable, and I learnt from this experience how important it is to get clear what you want to teach before you decide how you will teach it. In Korea, everyone knows there’s got to be an objective, because fitting the arbitrary standard of what an English lesson should be matters for the sake of appearances, but no-one is interested in using objectives as a tool for teaching better. That’s not the priority.

Secondly, the English we actually try to teach them. For grade 5 and 6, we spend seven forty minute periods on each chapter of our textbook. Each chapter has perhaps eight new items of vocabulary they are supposed to pick up, and between four and seven “key expressions” which together form one or two simple dialogues. For example, for one chapter, we might have them ask and answer simple questions about what someone looks like. Having a model dialogue to back to again and again could well be a good way of founding a series of lessons, as something to review at the beginning and end of each lesson, for example. But in Korea, our objective as teachers is to make our pupils capable of having the sample dialogue with no grammatical errors—errors of pronunciation don’t matter, it seems—at all costs.

Our pupils don’t want to give an answer in front of the whole class because they know we’ll keep them standing (it’s a quaint Korean thing to stand up when answering after putting up your hand) until they make the sentence perfect. A good teacher chooses to correct some mistakes and not others. If you’ve a solid lesson objective, you can easily know which mistakes to correct: those that get in the way of the student achieving the objective. If your objective is communicative fluency rather than gramatical accuracy, it’s clear which mistakes are the damning ones to be fixed. But this is never our objective.

It’s hard for me to judge when the English that I use in front of the class is at the right level. Particular words or constructions might be hard for the Korean ear. So I respect my Korean co-teacher’s judgement as to when to translate what I say. However, what I don’t respect is when she gives the answer to my question in Korean almost immediately after I’ve asked it. I might ask, “what’s he holding?” no hands will go up. At this point, we should either speak English or Korean to hint at what the answer might be. But my co-teacher will just say, say, the word for an apple in Korean. Hands will shoot up. The requirement to think has been removed: a perfect English sentence flows out of someone’s mouth, and that’s all that is thought to matter.

Thirdly, some of the activities by which we teach. Our textbook has an activity every chapter called “Act & Play”. It’s a roleplay activity: pupils must engage their friends in dialogue in order to complete a survey or win points by guessing their response in advance etc. Our pupils can’t just go ahead and do it: they’re either incapable or too lazy of coming out with the dialogue. So either they just speak Korean, or we put up a script on the board and they crane their necks to read each sentence out to the person they’re in dialogue with. If we put up the dialogue like this then they can produce the sentences. But they’re most certainly not capable of having any useful dialogues in English as a result of this activity. We should replace the activity with something simpler rather than carrying on. But it’s better to have them doing something that looks good than something educational.

Forthly, our English Writing Club. On some Friday afternoons grade 5 students choose between an English Writing Club, a badminton club or a film-watching club. It’s pretty clear what the smart choice is here and apparently some of those pupils “selected” for our club cried when they found out. The problem is that our writing club has a budget, which must be justified. We bought some stationary for the club but most of the money was spent on doughnuts for the members of the club, as a kind of apology for putting them through the budget justification process. For whenever they wrote anything in the club—and every week we’d have them write something—if it didn’t look good enough, we’d have them do it again, or write more, or rewrite it in nicer handwriting. I felt like a kind of slave driver, having my pupils churn out sentences on coloured paper, that we could then take a picture of and put in the report justifying the club’s budget—a budget spent on buying food as compensation for working for the budget. I think we would all have been happier without it, but that was up to the higher-ups.

Finally, the hagwon industry. Most of my pupils go to at least one private academy or hagwon after school, to learn maths and English, and/or something less formal like taekwondo or a musical instrument. What these places really are are daycare. What the parents need is somewhere for their kids to be from the time school ends to the time the normal Korean working day ends (three and a half hours for grades 5 and 6, four and a half for some of the younger grades). But then someone realised that they would make parents feel really good if they convinced them that their children were being educated. And so now there’s a huge industry of academies trying to do three things: (a) entertain kids so they won’t complain (b) make their parents think they are educating them (c) take care of the kids for a chunk of the day, including clogging up the road outside the school with minibuses. The third item of the business just listed is the only honest one. The reality is that the parents can’t be for their children. That might well be ethically sound. But no-one would like to try to defend themselves on that score. Instead, they’d prefer to pretend their children are being educated.

My students are well aware that their culture is like this. They behave extremely well when they know the class is being observed, compared to what they normally get up to. They like their teachers enough to help them out with ticking the boxes.

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