Changes in the Education Systems of East Asian Countries Look to the West

Image by David Woo*

Success carries its own need for change

Since World War II, East Asia has had the fastest-growing economy in the world. Japan was rapidly joined by China, Singapore, South Korea, and other nations seemingly swept along by each other’s successes in the marketplace.

From the beginning of its post-war ascent, East Asia has made education a priority. Now, the face of its education is changing. While this is much less debated than the economy, it is certain to have a profound effect on East Asian rapport with the West.

There is historic logic to this sequence: generally, as the economic fortunes of countries rise, so does their emphasis on progressive modes of education. It is both a reflection of society’s ambitions—we want our children to be cultivated for the sake of their growth as individuals and their standing in the world—and of interdependence between economy and education: to maintain its market viability, a country’s economy needs an educated workforce prepared to think forward, and education needs an economy that will provide it with the latest technology: computers, labs, and so on.

Modern economics is necessarily outward-looking. Once aloof of foreigners, East Asian countries have entered the global market and allowed it to permeate their world. Their education systems have strived to complement the economy by producing highly-skilled global businesspeople versed in math, sciences, and English. Changes in that trend are a surprise, although they are, in part at least, spurred by the same stimulus as the original trend: the need to let the world in.

South Korea is experiencing a wave of immigration: many come looking for business opportunities and stay, planting their roots in the new soil. They come with their own traditions and hope to be able to maintain them. America was built on this premise, but in South Korea, China, or Japan, it is a relatively new and difficult concept. It is the need for tolerance and harmony that has contributed to the changes in education. Since Lincoln Center Institute (LCI) has a working relationship with the Seoul Foundation of Arts and Culture (SFAC), the changes are of enormous interest to us.

A quick look at the South Korean system of education shows us a nation almost incomprehensibly preoccupied with success in the classroom, which has been yielding stunning results. In 1945, the majority of adults were illiterate. Today, practically everyone is literate. There is a 90% graduation from high school, there are 180 colleges and universities across the country. Students study for long hours and “cram” late at night and on weekends, under strict discipline and the unquestioned authority of teachers who receive rigorous training. Recently, students achieved among the highest mean scores in math and sciences in the world.

Physical education is not considered to be education. Many schools have no gym or sports. Remember this when you read about Dr. Ko’s presentation, later in this article.

The intense competitiveness embedded in the culture of many Asian countries is legendary, so it comes as no surprise that South Korean students undergo competitive examinations commonly known as “examination mania” (a moniker borrowed from Japan, which doesn’t mince words; there, it’s “examination hell”). The examinations that lead to college admission have produced astounding numbers of highly-qualified graduates; they have also produced a high rate of rejected candidacies. There are a disturbing number of suicides among the failed students.

Changes and the influence of Lincoln Center Institute

This January, South Korea’s Munhwa Broadcasting Company (MBC), a major national TV network, collaborated with SFAC to produce a documentary on arts education. Its working title: Neo-Cultural Revolution—Life is Art. When filmmaker Sunah Kim got in touch with SFAC, which was one of the earliest international recipients of LCI’s consultancies, the Foundation recommended including LCI in the project. MBC interviewed our executive director, Scott Noppe-Brandon, as well as a graduate of the High School for Arts, Imagination and Inquiry, the first school founded on LCI’s principles of education.

SFAC, it should be said, never followed LCI’s example blindly; it adapted it to its culture. At the same time, it pushed an agenda contrary to its cultural environment, one of non-competitive teaching and learning focused on aesthetics, imagination, and creativity—a concept that is nearly as new in the West as it is in the East.

Life is Art, which aired in South Korea on January 26, follows four individuals who have gone through life-changing experiences thanks to creative education associated with the arts. SFAC’s and LCI’s practices and philosophies are prominently featured. The hope for the program is that it will bring to Korean audiences an awareness of alternatives to the present educational system. Given the above factoids, this is a revolutionary hope.

Here are some themes from Sunah Kim’s outline for the film:

“All human beings are equally important. However, the reality of this world tells another story. Competition is severe. Winner takes all and loser can hardly survive. Nobody wins all the time. What makes one happy in life is not winning the competition. In the 21st century, people learn the importance and significance of their being through artistic and creative experiences. When we learn to express our feelings and ideas in creative ways, we can find who we are and what makes us happy.”

In November of 2011, at the World Innovation Summit for Education in Qatar, Dr. Yeong Jin Ko, State Superintendent from the Gyeongnam Office of Education in South Korea, spoke during the Nurturing Creativity debate. Dr. Ko, partisan of “humane education” and organizer of such intimacy-generating vehicles as “Friend Day,” was most eloquent about what he called the “holistic system of education, which cannot exist without creativity.”

Dr. Ko, who, significantly, emphasized the word “happiness” rather than “success,” described three themes he had identified as key to schools that support the creative process. One is familiar to all: Schools That Read, in which, if the students are taught that reading is a happy activity, they can not only find creativity but also develop their own and grow into independent thinkers.

The other two themes are not something we have learned to expect from Asia’s ultra-competitive fray, bent on math and hard sciences: Schools That Exercise (see earlier caveat), which involves whole families, and Schools That Sing. To briefly summarize the speaker’s explanation, without health it is hard to find happiness in life, ergo exercise. Music brings us happiness and develops the mind.

A better handshake

Since the above events took place, Singapore’s National Arts Council has contacted LCI to express a desire for collaboration. If all goes well, LCI will take its consulting savvy to Singapore in March.

One is tempted to see a message in all this. LCI has always made it clear that its outreach programs, such as the consultancies or Imagination Lesson Plans, offer a degree of flexibility, so that its approach to education, however rigorous, can be adapted to diverse needs. This would certainly be a must in a culture as distinct from ours as that of South Korea. But the message seems to imply that on a humanistic level, aspirations have steadily been growing similar across the globe, since international trade incidentally opened doors to true cultural exchanges. By “true,” we mean that we are far from the politely cold handshakes of a bygone era, when propaganda-hungry nations shared a symphony or a folkloric dance troupe, often without any participation by the general public, and without any further attempts at understanding each other; sharing educational ideologies is as intimate as two countries can get.

But there is a twist to that. Noppe-Brandon tells of a conversation with a South Korean educator who, as an astute observer of America’s entanglements with standardized testing and the memorization it promotes, said, “You know, sometimes I think that you’re going where we once were.”

It would be a cruel irony if Asia ended up teaching us our own lessons. No doubt it will be in a position to do so. For instance, Asia Society is taking the plunge and launching two new branches, one in Hong Kong, another in Houston, in spite of the thinning endowments that have been plaguing arts institutions. Why the risky investment?

In a New York Times interview, Ronnie Chan, the real estate developer involved in the project, said, “The world is far more interconnected today, hence the need to understand each other is greater than ever before.” Asia Society’s president, Vishakha N. Desai, concurred: “people thought knowing about Asia was nice—‘I’ll get to it when I can.’ Now it’s a necessity.”

Kipling’s prophecy notwithstanding, the twain shall meet.

*There is a Creative Commons license attached to this image.

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