What is successful?

When my parents were at high school in South Korea they strictly adhered to the mantra: ''Four hours sleep, pass. Five hours sleep, fail.'' This meant gruelling study drills at school, homework marathons and little time for extra-curricular activities.

It's a social malaise that has only become more extreme in Korea, where ''tiger mothers'' are the norm and students are forced to abandon hobbies so they can study from 8am to midnight. A 2007 report by the Hyundai Research Institute also said most urban parents spent nearly 20 per cent of their income on private tutoring.

This relentless pursuit of academic excellence rocketed South Korea to the top of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's education rankings by nation in 2009 but at a cost no country should be willing to accept.

I have seen more and more Chinese and Koreans settle in Australia and bring their educational values with them. I grew up hearing my parents lament the pitiful state of our education system - ''What you learnt in 7th grade, we were forced to know by the time we were seven''; ''In Korea we were at school every other Saturday.'' No matter that Australia still ranked in the top 10 of the 65 countries measured by the OECD.

My parents often reminded me that if we were in South Korea, there would be no time for the dance classes, guitar lessons and Duke of Edinburgh award I gratefully undertook. These activities diversified my interests, helped me realise opportunities outside the classroom and ultimately helped me attain a high university entrance score.

A few students at my selective high school complained that our principal focused too heavily on non-academic activities. In retrospect, he did us a favour by sticking to his vision in developing ''well-rounded, articulate and informed citizens who will be the leaders and active participants of our future society".

Students from Asian countries do graduate with a more advanced knowledge in science and maths and are much better at second and third languages. This is impressive. But our culture here is not conducive to it. We have a multi-faceted understanding of what success means and know a comprehensive education is not limited to academic achievements. Our culture is underpinned by a huge love for sports and adventure unique to Australia.

In South Korea, success generally means fluency in English, a degree from a prestigious university and a high-paying job at a large corporation. The competition to enter a great university is so extreme that it is now no longer unusual to hear of students committing suicide, triggered by poor results. In 2009 the government introduced laws to ban cram schools operating after 10pm to protect the welfare of students. This year a National Assembly member who sits on the education committee confessed on America's PBS NewsHour: ''It is now time for South Korean society to allow diversity about what is successful. Being happy is also a success.''

With this in mind, South Korea is on the brink of overhauling its education system. Last month the government announced plans to stop schools operating on Saturdays to give students back their weekends. ''We think students will be able to learn creativity by participating in outdoor activities,'' an official from the Education Ministry told the JoongAng Daily.

South Korea is waking up to the fact that academic learning isn't everything. It is essential that we improve our education system while preserving its Australian flavour.

Should schools look to Asia? No
Esther Han July 14, 2011
Esther Han is a Herald editorial intern





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