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Korean classroom full of eager but silent students

Published: 2013-04-03 20:00
Updated: 2013-04-03 20:00
In South Korea, students are deterred from asking questions not just by teachers but also by their own classmates. This is because the importance of asking questions is undermined throughout society.

Korea’s intensive education system is well known to other countries. The system is thought to be demanding, challenging and competitive. Koreans, even though they are often critical of it, have become used to the system and secretly are proud to be called bookworms. Korea’s education system is now globally recognized.



Despite such a positive reputation for the Korean educational system, there are many underlying problems. These are problems that are hard to spot. However, as a sort of in-betweener who has been educated in both Korea and overseas, I was able to see the system from a different angle.

Not many people know or understand that asking questions is highly discouraged in Korean classrooms. It would be certainly new to people who studied in Western countries where asking questions is widely encouraged.

In Korea, students will complain when other students ask many questions in class. Of course, when a curious student asks many questions, they will be answered by teachers. However, soon the student will have to face angry classmates. This is because many Korean students believe questions slow the class down and they have every reason to hate the slowdown of the class. In Korean schools, all students in the same grade take the same test.

Thus, even before school starts, the amount of content that will be on the mid-term and final is agreed upon. If one class lags behind the schedule, teachers will have to rush through the course to cover all the pages that will be on the test. Therefore, asking many questions in classrooms which will put them behind schedule is considered annoying and even rude.

Korean students often think questions should be asked after the class or can be answered by private tutors or academy teachers. In many cases, however, they skip the bothersome process of asking questions and instead simply memorize the given class materials.

Teachers are often test-oriented and thus do not see much value in questions that are not related to exams. When asked a question, the teachers’ first response is often “It will not be on your test.” They do not explain any further. If the student then says “I don’t expect it to be on the test. I am just curious,” the teachers will usually be startled. Their responses show that the purpose of education for Korean teachers is not to fulfill the intellectual curiosity of students, but rather to help students take tests and earn high scores. Thus, any question that involves content that will not be on the test is often left unexplained.

What is even more alarming is that the “active discouragement” of asking a question is not perceived as a serious problem. Once, a teacher spared some time to tell a class about a student who she felt really bad about. She jokingly said that the student was very enthusiastic and put a lot of effort when studying but would ask questions that would not show up on tests. Her story offended me because she was devaluating a student’s hard working by saying that he only asked unnecessary questions. Nevertheless, all the students in the class started laughing.

This was a huge shock because it is a clear sign that even students think only “smart questions” should be asked in classes. Moreover, they did not recognize that making fun of the student who studied hard but maybe inefficiently can greatly deter other students from asking questions in the future.

Asking questions regarding what the school teaches is a necessary and even vital process to achieve true academic excellence. The purpose of education is not to guide students to the path of memorization and passive learning behavior. It is to share knowledge and fulfill their curiosity even when it is not directly related to the test.

The current Korean education system needs to stop its practice of systematically discouraging students from asking questions and teachers should stop publicly picking on students based on their ability to ask smart questions. As a Chinese proverb goes, “He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; he who does not ask a question remains a fool forever.” 

By Choi Su-ji

The writer is a senior student of English interpretation and translation at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. ― Ed.

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