This week’s TL;DR is on a topic we often talk about with each other and is a little bit more serious than most of our TL;DRs. The question we were asked this week is about the differences between Korean students and student life, and North American students.

A while ago we remember reading that Obama praised the South Korean school system by saying that

“Our children – listen to this – our children spend over a month less in school than children in South Korea every year,” Obama told a gathering at the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce here. “That’s no way to prepare them for a 21st-century economy.”

It’s clear to anyone who has experienced both the North American and South Korean school system that there are huge differences between the two, and while Obama may say that the South Korean system might give South Korean students a competitive advantage, we find that the South Korean system has some serious disadvantages, as well as some serious advantages, that don’t make it a clear cut winner over the North American system.

Flat out, we can say that the South Korean education system is definitely more competitive. There’s a sense of urgency in the South Korean education system. Students start studying from a very young age for their University Entrance Exams, which are a super huge deal in determining the rest of their lives. That kind of importance of education isn’t really prevalent in the North American system. You can get into a good university with mediocre grades (Simon’s a perfect example of this), and if you don’t get straight A’s on everything, it’s not the end of the world. Here in South Korea, though, getting perfect grades is a must if you want to succeed.

Even those students that don’t care about studying hard will still go through the motions with the other students. A student picking fights, doing drugs, skipping class and so on is just about unheard of here in Korea. Now of course, you can find example of a naughty Korean student, but they are so few and far between compared to what we’re used to back home. From our experiences as teachers in Canada, we had difficult students in every class, while as teachers in Korea, we barely had any difficult students. Our co-teachers would complain about some difficult students, but their complaints are about disinterested or tired students, rather than violent or rude students.

So what is the difference between Korean students and North American students to create this giant huge behaviour gap? Well, we have various theories (including how Korean parents take a super active role in their daughter/son’s school marks) and one of them has to do with differences in the concept of individualization. North America is all about finding yourself, speaking up, thinking out of the box, debating, and essay writing, while Korea is all about fitting in, listening to your teacher’s lecture, knowing the one right answer, and succeeding on multiple choice tests. Being able to form creative answers based off a student’s ability to synthesize material is important in North America, while in South Korea it’s almost unheard of.

So they point of our ramble here is that Korean students end up becoming very focused on studying and they consider it a full time job, while North American students are lots of other things apart from students. They hold part-time jobs, they date, they go out with friends, they play on the basketball team, and oh yeah, they do their homework. Korean students don’t do as much as North American students do, because they go to school almost the whole day. They study a LOT more than North American students. A LOT MORE. Sure, South Korean students hang out with their friends, but not to the extent that North American kids do. There aren’t house parties here where people awkwardly socialize and mingle and mate. There are gatherings at the PC room with some of their friends.

Anyhow, we really have a lot of things to say about this, and we can ramble on with examples of differences forever, but the bottom line is that even though Korean students are must better behaved than North American students, we still don’t think either system is perfect. Korean students work way to hard. You teenage year is the time to make mistakes and to grow up and discover yourself, but how can you do that if you spend all your time walking around in a daze because you just study ALL DAY? Plus, you don’t really study as much as memorize, which we think is not as good as say, struggling to write a thought provoking essay. So which system is better? We don’t know, but we wish could take a little bit of each and mix it to create this awesome middle system.

Wow, we said a lot…we definitely need to hear your opinions and experiences on the subject. Let us know!

  1. Why do teachers in k-dramas go to the police station for their troubled student? Is this as common as troubled students or is it completely fictional?

  2. Hello,
    The article was a good insight into the South Korean education system. I noticed quite a few grammar mistakes in your article and I couldn’t help but point them out.

    From the second to last paragraph the first sentence should start with ” So the point”. In the last paragraph it should be: ” Korean students are much better…”, ” work way too hard.”, and ” Your teenage year…”.

    I love your enthusiasm and quirkiness. Thanks for the wonderful posts :)

  3. I am aa sixth grader from south korea.
    Seriously, I sleep at 1am-2am and wake up at 6pm-7pm.
    I once studied my whole night without sleeping.
    Education is really important, and on 10pm in daechidong(THE place with the most academires-more than 800 but you can walk around it within 1 hour), police cars and mothers’ car (to pick their children up) pack the streets. The cars hardly move. The police get out of their car in action, to look for hagwons that it still operating.
    My mom makes me memorize the textbook,so when she says page 38, I say (for example) South Koreans were dragged into Japan’s territories….
    In that way if you have to write long answers, I can perfectly.
    My mom slaps my face if I get it wrong.
    We are also learning advanced subjects.
    For example, like me, I am supposed to learn about circumference and in hagwons I learn geometric sequence.
    There is a saying really famous that quotes,”If you sleep 3hrs a day, you can go to Seoul University. If 4hrs, other universities. If five, don’t even think about going into one”
    Scary, I believe.
    Also, mothers say that if you want to go to a good middle/high school, you should MASTER (and that means repeating the whole thing at least five times) every subjects till 10th grade (about 11th grade in US) before you graduate elementary.
    Like, WOW>
    I am supposed to do my homeworkand Im doing this secretly.
    I should stop now.
    Anyways, I want you to know this :In Korea, memorizing things is the ‘thing’.
    In Korea, you study 500% of everything, but learn nothing.
    Thanks and I love ur videos

    • Suck it up! Folks, these Koreans are just complaining and whining!! It’s like when I was sent to Chinese school, and I didn’t like it because I felt like it was boring and too hard. Soon after, my parents allowed me to stop going, but in the long run, I regretted leaving and was upset that my parents did not push me to learn Chinese. Now I am terrible at my native language! These naive and ignorant children in Korea don’t know how their type of education can benefit them in the long run. Sure, their hours are long, but tell me that the adults who went through the same education did not benefit from it. There are students in America that don’t give a crap about their education, which in turn destroys the image of teachers and makes our country look stupid. Do these Koreans want to be like these Americans? At least, Korea holds their discipline towards the students, but America can’t do that. “Is your student getting an F? It’s okay, we’ll let them do a packet that is 5 levels below their current grade at the end of the school year and pass them so he/she can move on.” I have seen this happen! We call it the no-child left behind policy. Students in Korea have the fear of their parents, teachers, or whoever if they don’t do well, but for the majority of lower-class families with parents who don’t give a crap will let their children do poorly in school. How about middle school students in America who Christmas-tree through state tests and have no consequence? That’s because the tests aren’t counted against them. Do you want Koreans to start getting to that point? It might not seem like that at first, but that’s how America started out too, and look where it’s gotten our students to?

  4. From my experience, I think this is definitely true, though, I have only been, & still am, in the North American education system. Here, school and the pressure school presents is definitely true for everyone. But, the pressure is higher for some people and lower for others. Most of my classmates, don’t really care about school and grades. They find it annoying and pointless. Many of my classmates are even rude to the teachers and school faculty. There’s even vandalism and littering on parts of school grounds. Now, I am NOT saying that every school in North America is just like this, but for the 2 schools I have attended thus far, one being a public school and one being a private school, this is very true. Students don’t really respect the school or faculty and talk bad about them often. I personally care a lot about school and education and there are other students like this in my school and other schools all around America, of course. I try in school and make all “A’s”. While in Korea- I guess- I would be considered successful, here, students think of me as a “try-hard” or a “teacher’s pet”. So, a major issue in the North American education system is pressure from not only your parents but pressure from your fellow STUDENTS. Does this exist in North Korea? In America, where I live and at the school I attend, there is an average group of students. If you’re above that average or below that average, you’re considered weird. I’m not sure if I’m being exactly clear about this issue, but I hope you get the jist.

  5. Just found this blog, and sorry for the late comment.

    thought that Korean students really really do have a horrible study life during school.
    but there is something questionable to me, if they’re spending most of their “day” in front of the desk doing such a homework or Hagwon ( if i’m not wrong ), and going to bed around 2 – 3 AM ( It sounds creepy rite? ) .. so, when will they explore what their interest of ?
    it is almost no time for them, even to enjoy their young lifetime.

    Is it ? :'(

  6. Here is a good example of the harmony of Korean and American education. The Principal of ‘Democracy Prep Public Schools’, Seth Andrew was a teacher once in Korea, now runs many public schools in NYC, and accept Korean method over American system. So what? Now so many students of african-americans, hispanics, and immigrants in Harlem go to IVY league and after accept Korean method, public schools turned 1st grade school in NewYork, which means american public school in Harlem can compete with the 1st grade prep school like Trinity School which is no.1 ranked and costs $40,000 a year.


  7. Here is a good example of the harmony of Korean and American education. The Principal of ‘Democracy Prep Public Schools’, Seth Andrew was a teacher once in Korea, now runs many public schools in NYC, and accept Korean method over American system. So what? Now so many students of african-americans, hispanics, and immigrants in Harlem go to IVY league and after accept Korean method, public schools turned 1st grade school in NewYork, which means better than Trinity School.


  8. FAY- ETT-VILLE not fa-yet-vill :)

  9. I’m from Portugal, good old Europe. We have very few tests where we have to pick the right answer. We even call those american type tests. Usually we have to write it. No matter what test subject, be it history or math, we have to write our answer. The logic counts, it’s never luck in guessing if it’s A, B or C, we actually have to know the answer. Good grades count but not for all courses, unless you want to become a doctor, then you need straight A’s. Memorizing is not the way we study and not the way the questions are made, in fact the colleagues that tried just memorizing didn’t do very well if they weren’t out of the ordinary. Best thing about school is always between classes, we go out to play and just hang out. Boys and girls get together and start talking and dating. Boys play football, girls talk girl stuff. And when we finally get jobs I find that most people are well prepared if they wanted to be.

  10. Man… I wish what you said about Korean students were true at my school. I teach at a middle school in the countryside and they are SOOOOOO bad. Almost every single day at least one student is outside the Teachers’ office writing reflection papers.

  11. sorry about comment so long after the video was released, but, as I mentioned in one of my previous posts, I am new to Eat Your Kimchi. I have to say I really like the TL;DR’s.

    I live around the bay area in California where there tends to be more asians than in most places in America and I believe our school experience is somewhere in between. We do compete for the best grades (maybe not as much as in Korea), but we also compete to see who does the most activites (sports, clubs, leadership opportunities, competitions, etc.) and with all the activities and regular school hours put together, many students end up staying at school from like 7:30 am to 5 pm (of course it depends on what activities one decides to participate in) there is also the creativity aspect in which students can decide if they want to take art, music, writing, etc., but people still expect students to get good grades or results in those classes. and usually when people choose to do something like this it is because they are passionate about it. They aren’t doing it just for the sake of putting it on their college application (although there are some people like that), but since they have so many other activities and programs they can choose from, they decide to do the ones that they really enjoy. There are some people that aren’t in the majority though. We do have a couple small groups of people who do drugs and cause some trouble, but i don’t believe that it is as bad as it is in many schools around North America. A lot of people also tend to compete to see who gets the least hours of sleep. Like some will say “i’m so tired, I went to sleep at 3 last night” and another person would say “i’m so tired too and I pulled an all-nighter” or something like that. Although people go to bed really late a lot of the time, sometimes it is because people are socializing and other times it is because of studying. It goes both ways.

  12. Neither is
    better in my opinion. As a Kenyan immigrant to the United States, education and
    hard work have been HUGE in my life. It’s a major component and my family and I
    value them both so much. But I’ve also attended to arts schools here in the
    States, so my creativity has never been repressed and I’ve been encouraged by
    my school system and by my mother especially to find the real me (in all my
    crazy, artsy, creative spazziness ^_^).

    Maybe if the
    two school systems combined or blended in a way, then students and society in
    both systems would be even happier.

    Here’s to
    hoping! :)

  13. Sometimes it’s better to, like, have a safer, more hardworking, respectful society/system like in Korea, AND also have extra-curricular activities which you like and you joining in is your personal choice. So maybe like in countries like Singapore, you can still kind of do that… So…. Yay?
    Anyways, about the ‘Asian-parents-always-push-their-kids-so-that’s-why-they’re-so-smart’ thing, not so true, cuz I’m Asian, I’m a student, and anyway, me and most of my classmates actually are natrually smart, and that’s only where the parents start pushing them, and they don’t really complain much… 
    I have to admit, though, maybe Korea could take it a little easier and give their students a free choice for the activities they want to join in or maybe suggest what activities the students want to do, and maybe North America could notify the parents or something so that the parents can push their kids a little bit more?
    This is only my opinion, spam me if you want, but I’ve always wanted to say this ><

  14. I completely agree. The Koreans are the #1 at studying. I am Japanese myself and I was like that too before I moved to America. But when I see them bored and not paying attention in class. When they get out of school, may it be after a day or after high school or college, they run around and start to like rough house around. Its still bizarre to me because in Japan we don’t act the same. I think its similar to South Korea (Education in Japan) you know. STUDY STUDY STUDY

    and their is a student who was punish by our language teacher that he is not allowed to sit in his chair,,,, he was so pathetic on that time,,, and their were 5 male students and one female who was put outside because they were caught not studying,,, and me and others was studying inside watching them being pathetic…..and then some highschool students who were not participating,,,, during our ceremony every morning,,,, they were not allowed to take their class,,, and stand whole period under the sun…. they were so pathetic… it’s so hot….and then the school principal,,, TROW PLENTY OF BIG HEAVY BOOKS,,, TO SOME 4TH YEAR STUDENTS… THEIR HEAD WAS HIT… OUCH….. i can’t escape! i can’t escape….   

  16. study system in korea is not worst for me,,,, i’m not korean but ,,, i believe that every person really undergo hardships,,,, to lead them not in destruction,,, but to lead them in pretty life after that….. a person who really working hard have been blessed at the last :))  

  17. I love koreans, how wonderful they are, the school system in korea is a little bit same with my school, strict authorities,or teachers,,,, today still i’ve got little bit stress even though it’s our monthly break, next month June 2012 is my class days again,,,, i’m not bored at all,,, even though,,, my friends keep asking me why i’m so different,,,,, “that, why i don’t let myself to have a date with,,,,and i don’t do things that is not in korea….” and why i’m always staying at my home,, always making hard work,,,,i have no time at all,,, no time to join at parties, no time to hang with them,,
    i’m still stress,,,-_-

  18. Sounds like the stress of being there at school from 7 to 10 or later is a major factor in the bullying.  

  19. As a military brat, stationed in Korea for a few years, and then all over the US, I’d say a balance was the best. In the DoDDs schools, there was a lot of the stress on education, and the challenge of pushing yourself to do more and be more, was really strong in the school systems. As a student, I felt adequately challenged with material that the US doesn’t teach their students for years (math and science the two subjects that leap to mind) while still given the lee-way and ability to express ourselves that I appreciated in the American school systems. It was the encouragement to do well and the atmosphere that made the idea of striving hard to do well acceptable by all – no matter your sex, race, religion, or socioeconomic background, partnered with the ability to explore what it meant and how you would apply what you learned with the world around you. I like to think it was a more contextualized educational experience that I really enjoyed as a child. Playtime, group projects, papers, and Korean Culture class. (I might throw it out there that it could be the exceptional teachers I had who really knew how to strike the balance and perhaps not the system in itself. Mad props to teachers who invest and try to make a difference). And I still had plenty of time to run wild, make terrible decisions, have my first kiss and all those other things that we hear our kids tell us years later and never wanted to know. ^.^

    All I know is the balance is key. Children aren’t miniature adults. Allow them to develop and make decisions but also to give them structure and discipline. I don’t know how one could create such a curriculum but good luck to those that try.

  20. Wow, that’s really weird.  I would agree with everything you guys said
    except for the behavior of the students.  In my experience teaching in
    California compared to in South Korea over the years, I have found the
    complete opposite.

    Korean students are MUCH MUCH MUCH less disciplined than students I had
    back home.  At least 90% of the time, students are quiet and attentive
    in class in America, and always raise their hand before speaking. 
    However, in Korea, especially middle school students, they will always
    talk over you through the entire class.  The ENTIRE class will just
    ramble on over you as if you weren’t even there.

    Now, I have a pretty loud voice, and both my and my co teacher literally
    spends at least 1/3 to 1/2 of the class time just trying to yell at the
    kids to get them to quiet down and listen to a lesson.  It seems as
    though students don’t really care about class at all because they just
    have so much of it.

    At the same time, (it only happened once), but when it was said that
    “it’s not like students are gonna go out and break stuff.  That was not
    necessarily true.  I’ve had students hurl a brick through a window,
    literally a few foot from my desk because they were “bored” during lunch
    time and felt like throwing things at the glass windows at school.  Of
    course, the student got in trouble.  But you know, I had pretty much the
    complete OPPOSITE impression when it came to student behavior.

  21. Lol, my parents don’t understand why I drive to my friends’ houses Friday nights to just have fun. They think that I should just stay home and study!

  22. Memorizing is studying, at least in math, and science. Which Korea puts big emphasis on, and for good reasons.

  23. I’ve been told by a lot of university professors that Koreans (and most Asian transplant students in general) have a huge problem with schooling that doesn’t involve sheer memorization.  My father would try to teach general concepts and always said he had problems from these students who were so conditioned to memorization.  I never understood this because memorization is such a bad method to learn things hrmm…

  24. Korean education system needs to encourage students to find out what they are passionate about!!! Passion is a key ingredient for success and a happy healthy life! However, this aspect is very overlooked here.

  25. I agree your opinion between kore and north american student !  and korean basic education sistem have a big problem, exemple I had rearned english in school for 10 years but I could’t speak english  well… exactly I only could speak english that words”Hi, how are you, fine, How old are you?” in foreigner however I stuied english alone for one years….just read english book by myself,,,,,reading book better good than 10years in korean school english education that is curle magic  lol lol lol

  26. I think you should check out the education system in Singapore… its kinda in the middle ( exclude violence)

  27. lack of discipline does not mean creativity…
    discipline doesn’t mean lack of creativity…

    I just hope south Korean students are aware that they could fall into the trap that this video is referring to…the generation that experienced this pain owes next generation to change the system…just like the previous generation’s effort to establish something better than that they had.. fair is fair.

  28. I wish there are more people like you in Korea. If the Korean education changes, i would definitely go back to Korea. I miss Korea a lot..

  29. I wonder if you guys could do one about korean attitudes vs american attitudes? Because i read online that seungri isn’t liked that much by korean netizens because he’s cocky, but i love his confidence. Also, what are some likeable and socially accepted characteristics of women?

  30. Maybe it’s cuz I teach after school, but my kids are crazy compared to what you described kids acting in a classroom. I see both sides though because I co-teach with my Mentor Teacher, and the kids are much more behaved and more interested in their class. I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot myself and what you guys mentioned is true. Apart from my students acting up here and there, they all really do work as hard as every other student in Korea. It’s crazy amazing how much Korean students study! But there are things that they can get from North American way of education.

  31. Me and my wife just found your channel! we think you are the greatest we
    have a white pekingese from goong dong near bucheon named kobi (nose
    rain) who has been orange for awhile (tail and ears). Thanks for the hilarious and educational videos.

  32. Me and my wife just found your channel! we think you are the greatest we have a white pekingese from goong dong near bucheon named kobi (nose rain) who has been orange for awhile (tail and ears). Thanks for the hilarious and educational videos.

  33. From what I observe S. Korea education system’s huge disadventage is that they don’t really teach kids to understand and use what they learn, they just make them memorize whole books. But to change the education system S. Korea would also have to change the job market requirements. This kind of education is what korean employers want, it’s them, who check eventual employees’ test results’ records and so on. In my country nobody is gonna check what grades I had in high school to estimate my qualifications and in Korea they do. Korean employers even check whether anybody from your close family commited a crime xX If for example your father has been in jail your chance to get a job will be low. It’s all about not treating people like individuals. They are always part of a family, of a school, of some organization….

  34. Very good observation. You can see both side of the coin. Korea very much like China. East vs West culture.

  35. You have to remember the Korean society is more homogeneous than North America. Remember America is a land of immigrants and individuality is treasured. I remember living in Switzerland, another  very homogeneous society, social conformity was also most important. Thinking “out of the box,” is not a very Swiss thing to do, I was told that by the Swiss themselves. I think because North American kids come from individualist culture and Korean kids come from a culture that stresses conformity, is the reason for the difference. I don’t think either side wins…they are just different.

  36. I’d like to say BOF is TOO MUCH dramatic. not a little ;)

  37. Why are the schools strict?
    Why is it that they take a VERY long time to finish a day in school?
    & Do they have any breaks (ex. Summer Vacation, etc.) & if so, how long?

    • basically, theres normal school like us that ends at 4pm. but then theres like this extra night school thing where after normal day school ends at 4pm, you stay for longer till about 10pm doing more work and hw.
      i guess the night schoool time ending varies, cause kids usually have other separate tutors and test preps to go to but they usually get home from 10pm-2am and then finish hw/review and then only get like 3-5 hours of sleep a day and then go back to school to repeat the cycle.

  38. I want to know if as a foreigner is hard to work in south corea due to all that competition they have?

  39. I’d love to see our two countries (US and Korea) learn from each other. I’m teaching at a hagwan in Yeosu, and gosh my little guys are deprived of refreshment! But their “peers” in the good old US could use a little more preparation academically! Just to show you what I mean, you should see my video of my little 7 year old’s English presentation in class the other day on my blog! HILARIOUS and colorful description of my husband and I in imaginary circumstances! http://everythingbutkimchi.wordpress.com/
    Imagine an American kid doing that in Korean! Bah! 

  40. i disagree about the naughty student part.

    They do commit unimaginable crimes (murder, prostitution, kidnapping, pimping…)

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