Skip to content

Is the Korean hagwon system completely insane?

November 9, 2011

a few hagwon students (not mine) get a little rest

The Korean hagwon system is the only aspect of Korean culture that I have the right to have an opinion about, since I’ve worked in one for a decent amount of time now.  (I thought about writing a post about the relative lack of irony in Korean culture when compared to the US since many Koreans thought this silly commercial for a Korean pizza chain was insulting to the national character, but then I realized that I probably had no idea what I was talking about.)*

I teach younger students, so I get to leave my hagwon at 8 pm, but as I’m leaving, middle school students are pouring in.  They will be in the school until 10pm, and then they can go home and do homework.  It is normal for a Korean student to be in some kind of school for more than 12 hours in a day.  English hagwon, math hagwon, piano hagwon, and more.

At first, I did think that this was all completely insane.  Don’t children need free, unorganized play time to be able to develop into well-adjusted adults who enjoy their lives?  Whenever my students weren’t able to pay attention, I thought, “Of course this kid can’t pay attention.  He’s been in school for 10 hours already today.”

My hagwon has a reputation for being very challenging.  The students, even the youngest ones, are tested everyday, and they memorize huge vocabulary lists.  I was frustrated by how much our school expected young kids to study, but then I realized it actually works.  A few of my 3rd grade students who have been at the hagwon for three years are fluent in English.  Fluent.  Their vocabularies aren’t huge, but neither are most American third graders.  I can have completely natural conversations with them, without having to slow down my speech, or think about the fact that they aren’t native speakers.  I think that their writing skills in English are only slightly below most American third graders.  They seem exceptionally smart, but their success in becoming fluent in a foreign language before the age of twelve is mostly due to lots of hard work.  After taking Spanish for a couple years in middle school, all of high school, and a few semesters of college, I’d say my Spanish proficiency level is somewhere between incompetent and embarrassing.

It’s always good to realize that when a different group of people does something that you find bizarre, or unsettling (such as East Asians spending up to 50% of their income to send their kids to school for 12 hours a day), they probably do it for reasons that make sense to them.  It is not because they are callous or stupid, or completely insane.  People generally know what they are doing.

Koreans send their kids to hagwons because education is really, really important to Koreans.  For the lazy cultural critic, there is an easy way to explain all of the things that seem incomprehensible to a Western person about Korea: Confucianism.

Q: Why do Koreans put so much time, effort, and money into education?

A: Confucianism.

Q: Why is there such a big gender disparity in Korea?

A: Confucianism.

Q: Why are there seven different levels of politeness and respect imbedded in Korean verb conjugation?

A: To infuriate foreigners trying to learn Korean Confucianism.

And so on.  In Confucian thought, education is not principally about learning something that you will have to use for a job later.   It’s about making yourself more disciplined, challenging yourself, making yourself a better person.  That’s why almost all of my kids also go to some kind of music hagwon.  It’s not because their parents think that they will all become professional pianists. The act of studying is inherently good, it builds character and perseverance.  (For a much more detailed and knowledgeable explanation of Confucianism and Korea, read The Korean’s series on it).  Usually, if our school gets complaints from parents, it’s about playing too many games in class, or drawing too many pictures.  The parents pay money to our hagwon because they want their kids to be studying.

So, education is really important to Korean parents.  But, are the kids miserable?  Recently, I was told that one of the students in one of my 2nd grade classes was dropping out.  She is a swimmer, and has to spend a lot of time in the pool, and her mother decided that our English hagwon was too difficult and taking up too much time.  Her mother decided to move her to another English hagwon that was less challenging, so that she would have more time to swim.  The next week, the student had reappeared in my class.  Apparently, she cried and cried after her mother moved her to an easier hagwon, and so her mother decided to reenroll her in ours.  Why did my student cry after being given less school work to do?  I doubt it’s because she’s so Confucian that she sees education as means to self-creation.  The student wanted to come back to our hagwon for the same reason that kids have always endured school: because that’s where their friends are.

If the Korean kids weren’t in hagwons, I don’t think most of them would really spend most of their extra time playing outside and using their imaginations with their friends.  One of the Korean teachers at my school said, “If they weren’t here, they would be playing computer games or watching TV.”  I know that this is true, because I have to do “phone teaching,” in which I call my students at their houses and have a five minute English conversation with them.  I usually ask, “What are you doing now?”  The answer is almost always watching TV or playing a computer game.  I imagine that if more of their time was unstructured, more of it would be used playing computer games.  They are more child-like (being goofy, laughing, playing) when they are with their friends in school than when they are completely absorbed in a computer game.

One of my students is stressed out by her homework assignment

When I was a kid, I played a lot of video games.  A whole lot.  If I could go back in time, and convert half of those video game hours into piano practicing time, or time studying a foreign language, I definitely would, because I would still have the benefits of that hard work.  I could be a really good piano player, or be fluent in Spanish, instead of a guy who once beat a Zelda game in one 24 hour marathon.  (When I apply for future jobs, should I keep that on my resume, or take it off?  Discuss.)

Korean kids do get to do other things besides go to school.  When I ask the kids what they like to do, they say that the like to go to parks, play soccer, play badminton (why do Korean kids love badminton so much?), and draw pictures.  They apparently have some time to do all of these things at some point, despite their busy schedules.

When Korean students get into high school, the hagwon system does seem to go overboard in preparing students for the University Entrance Exam. Students have to be constantly working on all of their subjects to stand a chance at doing well on the exam, which turns most Korean high schoolers into sleep-deprived zombies, who are usually at school from 7am until 11pm.    There are three top schools in Korea that every Korean parent wants their kid to go to, and a degree from any other school in Korea isn’t nearly as valuable.  If a student stays within the Korean education system through college, the trajectory of their entire life is pretty much determined by one test. Which is why many Korean parents want their kids to skip out of the Korean higher education system altogether and go to an American college, which is why they get them to start studying English in difficult hagwons when they are seven years old.  People generally aren’t completely insane.

*I should also note that the only Korean pizza I’ve had had almost no tomato sauce, was topped with corn and had a sweet potato and walnut filled crust.  How far Italians and Americans have wandered from the original.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. it's interesting... permalink
    November 9, 2011 1:37 am

    interesting but quite exact perspective I think..

  2. Terri Ivey permalink
    November 30, 2011 5:52 am

    Andrew–If you don’t know who this is, I am your Dad and Kim’s neighbor, Terri. I found this blog post amazing, mainly because our daughter is a middle school science and math teacher here in Lexington, and how frustrated she gets with the lack of motivation from her students and either nonexistent or “every excuse in the book for their kid” parental support. I have forwarded this to her (with your Dad’s permission). She will be dumbfounded at the dedication these students exhibit.

    I enjoyed reading your other posts as well….sounds like you are definitely making the most of your experience while in Korea.

    Take Care– Terri

    P.S. We LOVE your Dad and Kim!!

  3. Benaya permalink
    June 14, 2012 6:26 pm

    Hi, Just found your blog, I also held your opinion as I started teaching, but have also seen the finnish education system and some other methods, that make me think the system is extremely wasteful – and as I teach older children, I notice enthusiasm and creativity declining. do you still hold the same opinion these days?

  4. Amadis Daiwess permalink
    January 20, 2015 12:01 am

    As most native English teachers in maddening South Korea, you started your post with something we all can relate to. But then you start (as most politically correct liberals) to find reasons why it is o.k. And I say, “No it is not!” I live in Asia for 16 years and in Korea for many years, and no…pushing a kid in that manner is not o.k., it is not advisable and it is not healthy. Of course kids will produce. But that’s not the way teaching should be nor is it the normal way to raise kids. Nadia Comanecci was an Olympic star. You may not know this as it was before your time, but when she was a full-grown adult she went to Canada on a vacation and spent all her wake-up hours buying toys and dolls. When they asked her why, she said she had never had a childhood. That is the whole of Korean chidren for you. Yesterday, I was talking to a Korean friend of mine who is a journalist. She speaks several languages and lived in the West most of her life. She also lived in Russia. Exceptionally bright girl. When I asked her about the Hogwan System…she did not hesitate to say, (I quote her): “All of Korean society along with the madness of Hogwans is all ***ked up!” I would not have been so strong, but this is coming from an educated, intelligent, beautiful Korean woman. She further said: “I am trying very hard to get out of Korea so my kids don’t grow up in this sick culture.” (She doesn’t have kids but she meant when she has some.) I can vouch to that. My Master thesis was on “The Impact of an International Education on the Emotional State of K-12 Korean Kids” So I had to do a lot of research on Hogwans and that whole madness. And guess what? IT AINT NO GOOD. Foreigners will tell you and Koreans themselves will tell you the same. It is a sick sick sick system. And I’d rather have our American system. I was part of the American system. I don’t think I ever studied 1/3 of what Koreans ever studied and I speak 5 languages, I’ve been in 70 countries and I can speak about Carlos Fuentes and Jose Marti. I have read Balzac’s Comedie Humaine in its entirety and I can sit with you and talk about Nelson Mandela, the crisis in Venezuela, the Ottoman Turks and their influence on Middle Eastern politics in the XXI century and we can sit down and talk about minerals, geography, biology and archaeology. Am I a specially bright person? No sir I am not. I consider myself very normal and very average. Education is not what your parents and school system shove down your throat in 12 years. I am 57 years old and I study every day. Every day of my life I have read. I educate myself every single day I am on this planet. So no…I cannot agree with the way you reason that Koreans are right or you try to make sense of it. It is not normal and it is not good. PERIOD. I will tell you that. You know that deep down. And Koreans know that and will tell you that.


  1. How to find a job at a Hagwon (pt. 1) « the map is not the territory
  2. Top 10 Worst Things About Korea – OBJECTIVE INTERNATIONAL

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: