Waegukin - living and teaching in Korea

Working at a Korean innovation school (혁신학교)

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Jul 13 2013

My school is a little different. Depending on who you ask, my school is either the future of Korean education, or a hotbed of commie ideologues producing poorly educated children. My school is a “혁신학교” – a Korean innovation school.

The  혁신학교 program isn’t well documented in English on the internet. There is this article from the Korea Times, which gives some background:

The new schools focus on six innovative aspects ― management, curriculum, classes, student evaluation methods, counseling and education welfare…

However, conservatives have criticized that innovation schools are being influenced too much by left-leaning ideologies as many of their teachers are members of the liberal Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union…

Parents say these schools offer programs that allow students to learn outside of the classroom and that they try to promote cooperation instead of competition.

On the other hand, this article from the Dong-A Ilbo takes a conservative and critical line on innovation schools:

The recently released results of the 2012 academic performance evaluation suggested that innovation schools performed at a meager 30 percent of the level that other schools in the same regions achieved in grades improvement.

Certain parents said students merely chat all day long at school in the name of debate-focused classes, and come home empty-handed. Because of no tests, students grow lazy and too easygoing in class. The portion of teachers affiliated with the progressive Korea Teachers and Education Workers’ Union at innovation schools accounted for 24.4 percent last year, nearly double the national average of 12.3 percent. At 24 innovation schools, the number of teachers belonging to the union exceeded half of each school`s total.

Innovation schools are an attempt to deal with the much fretted about “crisis in Korean education”. They also attempt to address the problems in Korean education that smug foreign English teachers love to point out, usually with a sort of patronizing air of being the first person to ever make the observation, which they imagine Koreans are incapable of perceiving: too much competition, too much rote learning, no creativity, teaching for tests.

So, are innovation schools the future of Korean education, or Communist cells turning students into lazy know-nothings? Well, I’ve worked here for almost a year now, and I’d say the answer is…

….a little of both…?

Innovation school re-certification

A couple of weeks ago we had our inspection for re-certification as an innovation school. Being designated an innovation school is a big deal. So re-certification was a hectic time. Inspectors were to come to our school, and preparations had been going on for weeks. These mostly didn’t affect me, although I was supposed to give a pair of hopefully “innovative” open classes.

If you’re a teacher at a Korean public school, you will know about the ritual of open classes. Once a year, teachers and parents are invited to observe you teach a class. As a result this class becomes a huge deal; you write formal lesson plans that you would never bother with at other times; the color printer which you are never allowed to use because it wastes ink is suddenly available, and things actually get laminated. If you have a passive co-teacher, they may suddenly thrust themselves to the front of the English class, with god-knows-what disastrous consequences. The classroom is cleaned to a sparkling state; the teachers are anxious and so are the students; and then you give your completely phony, atypical lesson, and everyone smiles and ticks the top boxes on their observation form, saying you are a wonderful teacher.

The inauthenticity of this can drive some foreign teachers mad, and it bugs me a little bit, too. Some attribute it to a Korean obsession with style over substance, but I think it’s actually a classic “tragedy of the commons” problem. While it might be best for everyone to present classes as they truly are, this would result in a defector advantage for anyone who decided instead to prepare something special. So, everyone has to go through the ritual – and I’m sure everyone understands that what they’re seeing is a performance. Based on the open classes I’ve seen, however, it’s not too hard to separate out the reality from the artifice. You can tell who’s a good teacher, and who isn’t.

For innovation school inspection, imagine the above multiplied by ten, involving every teacher in the school, and with something actually at stake, and you will have a sense of the rush of furious fakery and fraudulence that descended on my school in the weeks before the inspection. I was mostly left alone for this, because, I suppose, nobody really thinks that the foreign teacher is important enough to affect things one way or the other. I was told that two of my classes would be available for inspection, and I should prepare good classes for them, but everyone was too busy to really focus on that. So I decided to prepare actual good classes for once, instead of the usual spectacle of pageantry and showmanship that is a Korean open class. And then there was Sofa-gate…


Suddenly our school was frantically innovating all over the place. One of the innovations was to make an area where students could sit and gather in small groups, which is a good idea, except there was nowhere n the school really suitable for that, so they squished it in on the landing at the top of the stairs. I got dragged into this because the teachers, in cahoots after hours, decided to pillage the sofas and table from my English room. The 부장님 who drives me to work told me about this on the way to work. “I am very sorry to you, but we took the sofas from your room. Do you use them?”

I held my tongue, but when I got to work and saw what they had done, I was really upset. Because the thing is I actually do use them, and for a really good reason. I have two classes a week with super-low level students, and I teach them on those sofas, to separate it from the formal setting of the classroom. And I thought those classes were actually genuinely innovative, and also important – I had taken a bunch of students who had no idea what the letters in the English alphabet signified, and got them reading simple passages. I was really proud of that, and it upset me that my sofas had been taken away without anyone consulting me. I complained to my co-teacher, who passed on the complaint to someone else; and then later that day the sixth grade teacher turned up, and asked me if I wanted them back. I said yes, and he sent the sixth grade boys off to pilfer them back for me.

The next day the 부장님 said, “You were upset? I told you it was only for a few days.”

“Maybe I didn’t hear you say that,” I said. She hadn’t said anything of the sort to me, but it was Korean face-saving, and I can play along with that.

“It is just a model house for the inspection,” she said – we had discussed the phrase “model house” the week before, which she thought was Konglish, but which I had explained was a real English phrase.

I understood that – that was why I was upset.

One thing I often say on here is, you have to pick your battles. Probably I should have left that one alone, but the fakery bothered me.

A week later the new sofas, ordered in a rush, turned up at school. They were installed in the “student gathering area”, but there was a problem.

“They look new!” the 부장님 said to me. “People will know we made it for the inspection.  Can we change them with yours?”

I said sure. So I got the shiny “new” couches, and my cruddy old ones were reinstalled back in the weird breakfast nook thing, with their authentically aged appearance, ready for the scrutiny of the inspectors.

My open class(es)

I had two classes that would be available for inspection – the fifth and sixth graders. For the fifth grade lesson I prepared something simple – some pair activities and a long, co-operative game that I knew would be met with approval. My fifth graders, honestly, aren’t the brightest bunch, and I usually don’t get ambitious with them. As it turned out, nobody looked at the fifth grade class anyway.

The sixth grade class was different. For one, they’re my favourite class. They were my favourite class last year, when they were diligent and kind fifth graders, and they’re still my favourites now, even though they’ve turned into a bunch of pissed-off teenagers. Now they come five minutes late to class and bitterly complain about everything I ask them to do. One of them complained so much that I really thought he hated the class, until one day the class was cancelled, and he complained about that, too. But you know what? They complain in English, and actually work really hard. So I don’t mind. They’re just doing what they need to do – trying out cool postures they’re not yet experienced enough to pull off. They need to show that they hate studying and are too cool to do any work, but having put up on that de rigueur show, they’re really good students, and do their work. And they respond really well to being pushed.

I’m really proud of what I’ve done with this class. When I came, a series of foreign teachers had left them confident in their speaking abilities, but with an impoverished vocabulary and dismal reading and writing skills, which I think is an accurate reflection of the relative strengths and weaknesses of foreign English teachers and Korean English teachers. I started pushing them pretty hard on reading, writing and grammar – all the boring stuff – and testing them on it once every chapter. They complain about the tests, but since I’ve been here, their average score on the tests has gone from 37% to 86%.

I was further handicapped by the goddawful  textbook lesson I was committed  to teaching for the open class. It was really frustrating. It was on giving reasons – “Why?” and “Because…”, which is incredibly useful. But it did so in a horribly clumsy, frustrating way. Firstly, it taught it, as is typical with the Korean textbooks, as a series of set phrases – “Why are you so happy/sad/angry?” with another set of programmatic answers: “Because Brian broke my robot.”

Even worse, these programmed answers featured a series of irregular past tense verbs that the students hadn’t previously studied, plus one (and only one!) present continuous answer, “Because I am doing my homework.”

What a mess! This is an example of the ineffective “memorise the answers” approach which results in every foreign teacher here’s least favourite sentence: “I’m fine, thanks, and you?”

Learning grammar is, I think, a two step process – firstly, understanding it, and secondly internalizing it through practice. So I felt I had to untangle this grammar for them, and ended up with a prepared whiteboard covered in timelines and diagrammed grammar. .

Fortunately my sixth graders have had plenty of practice with me with this, because when it came time to give the class, an inspector showed up right at the start. He got to see me giving a hardcore grammatical lesson, which my sixth graders worked their way through as a class like champions. He stood there and took notes, and left as soon as I finished going through the grammar. So I don’t know what he would have thought, as “grammar based instruction” is a long way from the sort of co-operative, fun, student centered stuff that innovation schools are supposed to be about.

I then used the textbook dialogue, and we did some reading practice, and then got to the creative, productive half of the lesson. I have a file of a series of surprising photos that I find useful as conversation starters. Here’s an example:


I asked the students how the people in the photos felt, and got them to give answers using the “Because” grammatical pattern I’d taught them. And at this point a second inspector wandered by, and seemed about to continue on, but then saw the interesting pictures I was showing, and decided to stop in. So he got to see my students giving wonderful, creative answers to open ended questions, making use of the grammar that was still on the board, and I looked like the best teacher ever.

Afterwards, I got them to make comics based on the photos. No inspector saw that, which is a shame, because they are really good. But I’ll share one with you here, based on the above tiger and man photograph (click to enlarge). I think it’s really nice.

tiger cartoon

That’s my innovation: taking what is good from both the Korean and Western approaches to education. The creativity of the Western approach; the diligence of the Korean approach. Rote memorization is good for some things. So is creative implementation and communicative activities and small group learning. As I wrote in my article on learning Korean, intensive test preparation is a pretty good method of learning. It helps motivate you. But you need to learn to think creatively as well, otherwise you end up with students who can answer, “Because I lost my dog,” but get panicky and tongue-tied when they need to say that they lost their cat. (Yes, I’ve had Korean students like this.)

I never did get any feedback on my lesson. As it turned out, the inspectors were teachers’ union cronies of 부장님, so the re-certification was never in much doubt anyway.

So, how about Korean innovation schools?

I think the supposed “crisis” in Korean education is a reflection of other problems in Korean society – they are the problems caused by the rapid transformation from a poor, agrarian economy to a developed economy. Korea managed to make that transformation so quickly in large part due to its traditional Confucian concepts of valuing education, hard work, and obedience. The education system reflected those values.

And it worked! For all the talk of a broken system – by both Koreans and foreign teachers – Korea still routinely comes out at or near the top on tables of international educational achievement.

But there are aspects of that which sit uncomfortably with a modern, developed society full of wealthy, only-child children. And then, too, there is the vicious competitiveness of Korean society, which has little time for those who come in second, and leads to a brutal educational arms race, with insane study hours,  an iniquitous rich/poor gap, and a culture of wangdda. And “innovation schools” are attempting to find a solution to all that.

There is a lot that is wonderful about my school. The teachers are uniformly committed to doing the best they can for their students; unlike at other schools I’ve worked at in Korea, there are no teachers who just show up to do as little as possible and pick up their paycheck. There are weekly meetings about the welfare of the students as a whole, and as individuals. There is a lot of time devoted to allowing the students to learn about the local environment, there is a week each semester when regular classes stop and students are allowed to learn something different, creative, and fun – last semester I taught a ukulele class for that week; this semester I will be giving a class in movie making. There is a strong effort to give students a voice in creating school policy.

But I say “attempting to find a solution”, because based on my experience of my school, they haven’t found the perfect solution yet. Students at my school really like the school – the kids cry when they have to leave it. On the other hand, I find some of the criticisms quoted at the start of this article valid. One thing which is different about this school, compared to other Korean schools I’ve taught at, is that the students don’t seem to expect excellence from themselves. At my other schools there were many students who had very high expectations of themselves. Some of this no doubt came from pressure from parents and teachers, and I don’t doubt that in some cases it was damaging to the students’ psyches. But that expectation of personal excellence is something which I think, if properly instilled, is an incredibly valuable lesson. At this school, students don’t particularly care whether or not they do well in their studies. And I think that is a problem. That is something which has been lost.

Is the school a hot-bed of liberals from the teachers’ union? The only reasonable answer to this is yes. At the start of this school year there was a massive changeover of teachers. I don’t know exactly why so many left, but many of the new teachers were 부장님’s teachers’ union friends. They do share a similar outlook, and it is definitely a fair way to the left side of the political spectrum. Look, I’m generally pretty left-wing myself, but when I talk to 부장님 about education on the way to school, I generally find myself taking the more conservative position.

So, I see good and bad in the innovation school program, at least as seen through the lens of this one school. The “bad” comes from them reacting so strongly to the negative aspects of the Korean education system. Because they are themselves Korean, I think they don’t see the good that is also present in the system. Having gone through the Australian system, which at all stages values protecting a child’s supposedly fragile ego and creative spirit above everything else, I think they’ve gone too far. I think children are far more resilient than they allow for. The social programs are good, and the after-school care is wonderful, but there is something missing, as well, and I don’t feel the kids at my school get as good an education as the kids at my previous schools, for fear on the part of the teachers of them “feeling stressed”. And so I believe those statistics from the Dong-A Ilbo.

The suicide problem amongst Korean students is one of the prime motivators for all this. The teachers at my school are terrified of this, and a lot of what they do is to try to solve the problems that they feel lead to this.  And it is a problem. I’ll never forget the feeling when I read something written by a quiet, studious boy at one of my old schools, where he wrote in English about how he couldn’t cope with the hours he had to study, but he had to work hard so he could be a doctor; how he was scared to go to middle school the next year, because he knew the workload would get so much tougher, and how sometimes he thought about running away or killing himself.

Still, my gut feeling is that Korea has missed the real cause of the student suicide epidemic, which I think is this: they need to shut up about it. Suicide is contagious. And I think a large part of what is causing it is that the media keeps talking about it, making it seem like a noble, tragic thing which draws attention to the student who does it. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen this image on Korean news: grainy security cam footage of a student taking an elevevator to the top floor of an apartment building, never to return. Suicide is on the mind of every student in Korea, and I think the best step Korea could take to reduce it is to stop talking about it so much.

So I do think my school is going too far in trying to make every aspect of a child’s educational experience empowering and fun. Because I think the best way to empower them is to teach them to value their own work, and have high expectations of themselves, and achieve those expectations.

Having said that, I can’t be too criticial of my school, because they are trying very hard to do something good, even if, as is the nature of reform generally, some of it ends up poorly implemented and corrupted, and some of it goes too far or doesn’t work as intended.

One of the first questions I asked 부장님 after I’d seen some aspects of innovation schools was, “But what happens when these kids go off to middle school?” Because I could see that if they went up against the students from my previous school, they were going to get slaughtered.

She sighed and said, “It is a problem. Some of them will go to alternative middle schools. And some of them will work very hard.” Personally, I think it is a bigger problem than she acknowledges.

She often mentions the English school Summerhill, which is famous for its optional classes and student-run governance. I don’t know a huge amount about that school, but I suspect that if it does work, it does so because it first installs in children that philosophy of personal excellence. I do believe that if you can make that an internal part of the school culture, something which the older students teach the younger students, it will work.

As it is, such attempts at my school seem to meet with failure. A few Fridays ago we had a big school meeting where the students were asked to make school rules. The suggestions were then put on a whiteboard, divided into categories.

Well, the square set aside for “play time” was completely covered with proposals for extending breaks and leaving early.

The square set aside for “dealing with trash” was empty.

And an announcement…

This is probably an appropriate spot to make a personal announcement: I decided not to renew my contract with this school, although they really wanted me to stay. Come September, I will be back in Australia.

There are a few reasons for this, some practical and some personal. The practical reason is that I am currently doing a Masters of TESOL, and the scheduling of classes means that I can finish it in six months if I do it full-time, whereas otherwise I would have to wait eighteen months.

The end goal of that is to hopefully get a job teaching English in a Korean university. Ideally, I will be back in six months time with one of these jobs, although that will not be easy to accomplish.

The truth is, I have mixed feelings about this. I really like being a teacher in Korean public elementary schools. But I feel that, with this school, I have gone as far as I can. I am the only English teacher, and am essentially the entire English department. I teach every class, more or less solo. My school has been very good about giving me a voice in the way English is taught in this school, and I am treated, in most ways, as a regular teacher, not a foreign novelty act. They appreciate and respect my abilities, and I am grateful to them for that.

However, the reality is that I am not, contractually, a “teacher” – and I never can be. I am a contract assistant teacher, irrespective of the work I actually do, and I can never formally be anything other than that. There is no career path for foreign English teachers here, and no future here for me beyond a series of one year contracts, which are quite likely to be cut by government decree at some point in the not-too-distant future. This job, truthfully, is designed for people on one or two year working holidays, and there is simply no provision in place for the minority of people, like me, who strive to develop their skills, learn their trade and understand the culture, and who would like to stay in Korea. And that is a shame, because there are a few of us, and I I’m not the only one to end up moving on because of it.

So while I still see my future in Korea, I need to find a better path. And for the moment, that means going back home, hopefully temporarily.

As for this blog: I expect much of my heart and mind to remain in Korea, I usually write in reflection rather than in the moment, and my time home will hopefully be temporary. So I do intend to continue doing this blog – there are still lots of things I want to write about.

Waegukin wrote these 4162 words on July 13th, 2013 | Posted in Teaching |


6 comments on “Working at a Korean innovation school (혁신학교)”

  1. Scroozle says:

    Best of luck in the homeland.

    Any particular city/university you’re wishing to be work in/at when you return?

  2. The Waegukin says:

    I don’t expect I will be in a position to be picky. Anywhere except Seoul, really, although my ideal preference would be coastal Gyeongsang.

  3. TheBoss says:

    Interesting read.

    What would be the added value of a Hyeoksin school vs. the tradionally oriented school?

  4. The Waegukin says:

    Added value for whom – the students, society at large? The goal, I suppose, is to produce students who are better integrated socially, happier, not monomaniacal about studying, and interested in things other than the correct answer on a test. The problem, of course, is they still have to live in Korean society as it currently exists once they graduate.

    I really like your blog, by the way.

  5. gordsellar says:

    I really liked this post, but I have to beg to differ about “shutting up” about suicide. I know what you mean about the media, and agree the way the media talks about it right now is irresponsible.

    But I have had direct experience from the other side: in my second-last semester teaching at a university in Korea, a student killed herself very publicly, by taking a dive off an upper floor balcony of the dormitory… which overlooks the courtyard just inside the front gate of the university, which is to say: a fair number of students and even several faculty saw it happen in mid-afternoon one spring day.

    Then, as far as anyone could tell, there was a cover-up. Which is not to suggest that the suicide note found in her room was fake: it wasn’t. But I heard that the bar that had bent on the balcony where she jumped was simply bent back into place, and the family, when contacted, turned out to be wealthy and to have been donors to the school; the reportedly told the university that there should be zero publicity, and of course, the university complied.

    Which means: nobody talked about it. It wasn’t discussed in classes, or at the weekly church service on campus (it was one of those unis); neither the President nor his office, nor the campus counseling services, addressed the issue. NOBODY talked about it, not at all. The weekend after the suicide, the dormitories were virtually empty. (The only people who stayed were the foreign students, who had nowhere else to go, and they felt as creeped out as anyone.)

    That month, there were several other attempted suicides by students, both on and off campus. I was seriously concerned that NOT talking about it would be the thing that would facilitate the contagiousness of suicide, and so I pushed and pushed till my Department Head finally addressed the Department prior to one of our annual events that week. I made pamphlets that had phone numebrs of help lines, and we encouraged students to take them with the excuse that, if they didn’t need it for themselves, they never knew when they might need it for a friend in need.

    (And I know for a fact that some of the students who took them did end up using the services mentioned in the pamphlets.)

    The thing is, as a foreign prof, students tended to come to me when they were in crisis. I knew what my Korean colleagues didn’t since students were much less likely to approach them: that far more kids on campus were really on the edge more often than they realized.

    So if you ask me, NOT talking about it is not really a solution either: it’s precisely what a lot of institutions *are* doing right now, and it’s not helpful, because suicide is just as contagious when everyone’s too scared to talk about it at all.

    (Not to mention the other areas in which institutions are refusing to talk about things. There was a troubling trend whereby female exchange students would get taken out for drinks by male classmates, who would insist they drink when told, since that’s “Korean culture”… the setup for an attempted sexual assault,of which I heard a couple of stories personally, and a few more second hand from other profs about students from other places. When I tried to start the discussion about this: making foreign students aware that this was going on, and making Korean students aware that we were aware and there would be repercussions–the administration preferred to shut up about it. The best I could do was to tell foreign students to spread the word informally.)

    Shutting up is not the solution. Talking about it sanely and sensibly is a much better one. Talking about how suicide is preventable, talking about the many resources available, and talking about how to recognize and respond to the warning signs in others is a much, much better solution.

    My, er, fifty cents. Otherwise, this was a great post.

  6. The Waegukin says:

    Thank you so much for the considered and detailed comment. Looking back on what I wrote, I think I was a bit blithe. There is no one “real cause” of the suicide epidemic in Korea, and I wasn’t perhaps as clear as I should have been by saying “they need to shut up about it”, that I was referring specifically to the way Korean media covers suicides – particularly that type of report I referred to, with security footage of a student going up in an apartment elevator, never to return.

    To be more specific – if you look at this from the CDC – Suicide Contagion and the Reporting of Suicide, particularly the section “Aspects of suicide coverage that can promote suicide contagion”, you will see that much of it is things that the Korean media do habitually. And I think this is an often overlooked, and easily remedied, part of the reason for high suicide rates in Korea, particularly among young people. As you say, there are other, more helpful ways to talk about the problem.

    I don’t disagree with anything you say about the tendency of institutions in Korea to sweep problems under the rug, nor of the need for counseling and discussion in the wake of a suicide. So I don’t have much more to add you your comments. But thanks for posting them, they were interesting and insightful.

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