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Differences Between North American and Korean Students

October 21, 2011


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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!



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Differences Between North American and Korean Students


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  1. Does South Korean schools has a schedule for going through a lot of rooms of 7 periods, with 7 different teachers?

    2 years ago
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    4 years ago
  3. I went to school in America and I do wish the school system was a lot better. A lot of students don’t care a lot about their own education. The main students who did were the ones in the AP/honors classes that I was in. My mom pushed me really hard to do well in school and I wish I would have listened to her more. I graduated with an A GPA, but it wasn’t a 4.0. It was close, but not there.
    One thing that is true is that American teenagers do get into a lot of trouble and have a lot of free time. The main ones who didn’t were the AP/honors students, and even though they studied a ton, they still did other things besides schoolwork.
    Teachers care a lot about their students, (well, the honors teachers did) and they are really involved because they want them to succeed.
    I just feel like American students need to value their education more like Korean students.

    5 years ago
  4. I am a korean. I totally agree with you.
    About 80% of high school graduates go to college/university.
    Therefore, someone who want to be hired earlier than his/her
    friends should aim to go to famous university. The vocational
    education are not activated in my country. Most studentr

    5 years ago
  5. 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?

    5 years ago
  6. 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 :)

    5 years ago
  7. 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

    5 years ago
    • 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?

      5 years ago
    • Stay safe

      5 years ago
  8. I’d like to say BOF is TOO MUCH dramatic. not a little ;)

    8 years ago
  9. Mostly public but they’re not perfectly free, and we do have many private schools as well. Primary school is almost free, but need to pay some money if you go to middle/high school.

    8 years ago
  10. Unless you want to be a full-time student or worker, you don’t need to do. :p
    want to be an exchange student? much easier!

    8 years ago
  11. I wish we are North American’s would focus MORE on education the way that Asia does.  I see the down side to Asia’s approach…but a happy medium would be nice.  And MAN!…I deff. wished that N. American kids were are well behaved as Asian’s kids…respect has broken down so much.  I can happily say that I have raised my children to be very much like a balance of Asian/American personality.  They both are VERY respectful and are LEADERS.  They don’t do what everyone else is doing.  They don’t like the appeal of drugs…most of the time they don’t even understand the draw but at the same time…they are very crazy kids.  I mean I have allowed my kids to use profanity at a very young age…as long as they understand content and timing and of course, the crowd when they use it!  To me…profanity is nothing more than words!!!  You give them power by how you use them.  Peace!

    8 years ago
  12. Go to http://www.youtube.com/simonandmartinabonus and submit it to the Google Moderator

    8 years ago
  13. I don’t know… I’m korean high school student..
    korean education system is so pressure and so many forbidden thing in the school.
    and some korean teachers do violence to student by reason why punishment.
    It makes us feel sad,blue and stressful and so on . Eventually that makes teenager suicide or mentally problem…
     I think that is different meaning of violence…….

    8 years ago
  14. a spudgy channel would be great fun   :D

    8 years ago
  15. missing an o @ “working way too hard”… sorry i just notice it haha.

    asian system and american system need to find a middle ground, both of them push their own system to the point of diminishing returns, alot of asian students are great at doing homework, but that’s it, they can’t apply it to real world problem, the US system on the other hand isn’t forcing enough of a “pathway” to their students, they just let them go on their own, and most of the time the student doesn’t really learn anything either (you let a kid go on by himself, chances are he’s gonna go play instead of study).

    8 years ago
  16. Since I grew up in India, I can probably explain the Asian education system here. 
    Most people here see a good education as a means to a) Lead a comfortable life, b) Help their parents lead a comfortable life. 
    Remember that it is only after World War II that Asian countries began to develop, a process that had been started by Europe and North America in the 1700s. 
    There is very little scope here for making a career out of music / sports / arts, so children are pushed to do as well as they can during school. While it does create a stifling environment, children also end up learning the basics of all subjects, which then helps them a lot during College. I know many people who took up guitar / drums / painting / video games after they got a job, so people do have personalities of their own, but we prefer to explore that part after we are “secured in life”, as we tend to put it

    8 years ago
  17. I feel another thing that’s very different between schools in North America and schools in South Korea is the relationship between student and teacher. Now, my information is just from watching dramas and doing research, but it seems that the level of respect students have for their teachers in North America is a hundred times less than what most South Korean students show their teachers. I don’t feel like this is always the student’s fault, however, nor do I think its a bad thing. On the one hand, you can respect your teacher and cause less trouble, but feel like they’re not there to help you as much as they are to teach you; while on the other hand, you can develop a friendly relationship with your teacher, and feel as if they’re more involved in your learning. I’m the type of student who has always respectful to my teachers, but I never had trouble talking to them if I had a problem, or even just chatting with them about things that weren’t even school-related, because they encouraged me to. Almost all of my teachers here in America were very friendly and laid-back. I feel like this may not be the case in South Korea, and that maybe its another added level of stress for the students? I know it would’ve been so much harder for me if I hadn’t had teachers that tried to understand and were friendly with their students in school, so I can just imagine what South Korean kids might go through, not having that type of support.

    8 years ago
  18. It’s clear Obama doesn’t know what he was talking about when he was praising the educational system. In Korea I remember watching a movie a long time ago that criticized the educational system which dehumanizes students and drives them to suicide. But from the comments that I read and commentaries about this subject that I have had come across it always seems that the grass is greener on the other side. Americans looking at the lackluster performance of their kids compared to other countries and wishing that their kids had as strong performance as say Koreans and Koreans chaffing under their educational system and in way looking at the educational system of the US as being less dehumanizing and less pressured which is healthier. 

    8 years ago
    • About the lack of pressure… I am always surprised when I meet young kids who don’t care about school. Growing up I had uncles who had studied and had good jobs while the other one’s just barely made a living. So I knew I better study.
      But now they seem lost. Some don’t even learn to write properly. There are no goals.

      7 years ago
  19. I agree with you guys. In my classes the students are rude to the teachers and are always saying ” Im bored”, which bothers me because they don’t know the importance of education. But luckily my school is a “Green Dot” school, which do push students and prepare us for college ^_^ .  http://www.greendot.org/

    8 years ago
  20. Martina, you blink a lot. I don’t know why I noticed that.

    8 years ago
  21. IDK if you guys have seen this already, but someone made a documentary focused on Korean high school students.
    The fact North American countries never had to climb from being one of the poorest nations in the world to one of the richest in 60 years also contributes. Helping rebuild your country and bring it to the forefront? Now that’s a real initiative for students…

    8 years ago
  22. Simon&Martina u guy hit the nail on this one, * im still a high school student* and a lot of my classmates are SOOOOOO disrespectful to almost all there teacher *the guys in my math class call my teacher by her first name! and a lot of the girls have MAJOR attitudes!!!! and this girl in my bio class want to be a vet, well hate 2 break it 2 u honey but with the u got in bio well im sure as hell im not letting you near my puppy*

    8 years ago
  23. is there a lot of plus sizes people in korea like there is in america and are how do they get treated?

    8 years ago