The Hagwon Environment: Education as a business
First, I don’t claim to be an expert on education or the education system in Korea. I’ve been here for just under a year and teaching for the same length of time. However during this period I have had the opportunity to observe and experience firsthand some of the workings of an English language hagwon, or private academy. I have also heard from the children themselves about their public schooling and education in general.
What I found is what I already suspected before coming to Korea–the hagwon environment is not conducive to learning. The reality is that hagwons are not educational institutes, they are businesses. Because the hagwon’s ability to operate comes from the money they make per attending student, their focus is on gaining and retaining as many students as possible. After all, if they don’t have enough students they will be forced to close. There is a strange combination of needing to please both parents and students–parents with test results, students with enjoyable lessons (or more accurately, teachers they like). I find that these two things don’t necessarily go together. The focus on rote learning in Korea is very detrimental to enjoyment for the students, but generally enables them to ace the tests that are based on this kind of learning. Unfortunately this isn’t the kind of learning that helps students communicate well with native English speakers or helps them to read English language materials easily. Being able to say a speech from memory or recite a list of vocabulary and the translations is not enough to achieve fluency.
The worst for me, is kindergarten. I used to teach a class who have a group of tightly knit mothers who also happen to be… intense. I won’t go into huge detail, but there was one time that stood out. Once when I let the students who finished early do some colouring for ten minutes (keep in the mind this was maybe the second time they had done this), I was told that the parents had complained and there was to be “no more colouring” in class. These kids are 5 years old. They were also of mixed enough level that there were at least two of them who could have been doing a much more difficult book, a lot faster–one of them really loved learning English and wanted “a hard book” but sadly because the parents insist on keeping the class together it’s doubtful she’ll be getting that for a while. I really liked the kids, but I don’t miss having to make them write in their workbooks and do their homework, when all I could think about is how they should be playing and enjoying being little kids.
I find elementary classes a lot easier in this respect. It still sucks, but at least you can communicate to them that you understand that it sucks. Usually the kids have either come from school or a previous class, are going to another English hagwon after my class and then another hagwon for something else (like math or piano) and then home to do homework. It’s no wonder they are constantly playing on their phones in the break times. In the textbooks sometimes we talk about “free-time” and those discussions are usually very depressing for me, as many of the 10 and 11 year olds will say they have no free time until the weekend, and even then they have “a test on Saturday”. But this is normal for them, and that makes it even worse.
However at my new hagwon (where I work part-time) I can at least credit the director with being a lot more involved. She teaches a full timetable of classes most days, and is more approachable and considerate to students needs. She also speaks English well herself, which you would imagine is a prerequisite to run an English academy, but you’d be surprised by how it really isn’t. Still, the tests that they do are very similar. For example, they have to read and translate a short news story line by line, then memorise it perfectly (every word must be identical) and perform it in a video. The kids reel it off like little machines, not fully understanding what they are saying and even if they make a slight mistake which still keeps the meaning of the passage, they fail.
From what I have experienced so far in the hagwon environment I don’t believe this is the way to help kids learn English. The kids that do improve and really seem to learn, are the ones that want to anyway. The kids that are forced to be there by their parents do enough to get by, but don’t put any real effort in and therefore don’t progress as much as they should–or could. While I have not worked in a public school in Korea, I have heard stories from EPIK teachers who have had similar experiences with the kids at their schools. I have also heard drastically different accounts of what is expected of them. Some play the glorified CD-player, simply there for pronunciation. Some are required to be very hands on and teach the entire class by themselves, while others take a backseat to a Korean co-teacher. What I have consistently heard however, is that they do not see these kids more than maybe twice a week, and even then, they are in a class of 30 or more and basically impossible to provide individual attention too. This approach to teaching English is evidently not working, as can be seen by the huge amount of English hagwons present everywhere in Korea.
So what’s the answer? Honestly, I don’t know. However I do feel that the Korean government had the right idea with programs like EPIK and GEPIK (native English teachers in public schools), but they didn’t think through how schools could fully utilise these teachers or set any guidelines as to what schools should doing with them. Because of a lack of planning, they didn’t see the results they wanted and started cutting back on the amount of funding and consequently the amount of jobs. It’s sad to see them wasting what should be a great resource in the classroom. After all, the reason there are English hagwons is because there is a demand for them. If Korean children were learning English effectively during the day at school, they wouldn’t need to be attending so many after school classes. Sure, there would still be a market for extra English education outside of public school (as there always is with every subject) but it would be a much smaller market, and tailored to those who are either falling behind in their studies or those who need to excel more quickly for a specific purpose (i.e. imminent overseas travel). This market could be satisfied by private tutors and a drastically reduced number of English hagwons with classes more focussed on individual student needs.
I think that the Korean education system needs to be overhauled completely. Huge classes, long days at school, heavily-weighted exams based on rote learning… these are not working. It’s not only English hagwons you see on the street (there are even art hagwons). However until the Korean governent takes a good hard look at how public schools are failing their country’s children, there won’t be any changes and you will still be able to find an English hagwon on every street corner.
TL;DR: Public school English education (and education in general) needs to improve and they need to properly utilise their native English teachers. Hagwons are here because there is a demand for them, satisfy that need at school and attending hagwons will be the exception not the norm.