Most teachers coming to Korea have had little or no experience of teaching in their home country, and so it is very easy to exaggerate the differences between ¡°Western¡± and Korean education systems. Having said that, there are a LOT of differences, from Korean¡¯s attitude to education, teacher-student relations, and the way students behave in class, and the reasons for many of these are rooted in Korea¡¯s history. If you like you can skip the history section and go straight to the lists of things you¡¯re likely to find in your ESL classes, but they will make a lot more sense if you do read it.


Very few traditional societies, Western or Asian, were noted for their social mobility, and education was limited to the elite. Korea was no different in this regard. One difference though, which Koreans will love reminding you of, is that Korea was a ¡°nation¡± and had a kind-of ¡°state¡± millennia before Western countries, and it needed educated people to be civil officials. Given how Confucianist Korea was, the education deemed necessary was learning Confucian texts to instill the proper virtue and ethics, and then writing them all out word by word in competitive examinations. Those who wrote them out more accurately got better marks. In theory this was meritocratic and open to anyone, but in practice very few people outside of the elite had the 20-30 years spare required to study. As explained below, Koreans have been preoccupied with exams and results over quality and substance ever since.

The other great influence was the Japanese colonization of Korea, from 1905 until the end of the Second World War. Koreans remain very bitter about this - it strains relations with Japan today ? and so many are very reluctant to admit that Japan in fact significantly developed and industrialized Korea during this period, although it is very true that this was all for the benefit of Japan, never for Koreans themselves. Japanese agriculturalists would, for instance, reform the agricultural sector and apply scientific techniques to rice farming, then send most of the new rice bonanza straight to Japan.

Japan brought over civic officials from Japan to lead Korea¡¯s development, and expanded the Korean education system to produce educated workers. But not only were Japanese teachers used instead of Koreans, and the Korean language not allowed to be taught at all, but there were never enough schools built to satisfy Korean¡¯s new demand for them. And as for middle and high school and higher education, there were virtually non of these outside of the few led by Western missionaries that the Japanese hadn¡¯t kicked out, and this was a deliberate policy to make Koreans subordinate second-class citizens of the Japanese Empire. So upon independence, Koreans had a burning desire to set up an education system of their own, and Korean parents now spend more money on their children¡¯s education than any other country in the world.