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Education in the Republic of Korea and the UK: National Treasures or National Headaches?

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The recent invitation to my arts education company from the South Korean Government to support the quality of creative education in their schools felt somewhat ironic. Whilst the UK Government is looking to Korea for pointers on how to excel in international league tables, Korea is beginning to recognise that their top ranking status comes with its own challenges. As a result, their focus is beginning to shift from rote learning to developing an education system that incorporates creativity and independent thought. This is why they are now looking at our approach to learning.

In a fascinating speech, "Education in the Republic of Korea: National Treasure or National Headache?", Byong-man Ahn, a former Korean minister of education, science, and technology, reveals what he believes to be the pitfalls of the Korean education system. Ahn has been frequently astonished by the outside world's lavish praise for a system in which the central mission is to gain high test scores and secure a place at the most prestigious colleges and universities. He notes the widespread practice of parents and students devoting themselves to memorising immense amounts of information, committing to memory more than is conceivable, and suggests that all this has brought about great stress in Korea's educational system. It has also been reported that this stress has played a part in the country having one of the highest suicide rates, lowest birth rates and a growing number of so called "wild geese" families who leave the country due to the demands of their rigid educational system.

Korean students inarguably excel at passing tests. The majority of their education has been focused on knowledge-based learning and testing, and securing university places rather than on building essential core skills such as imaginative thinking, empathy, flexibility, innovation and risk-taking. The government now wishes to modify their focus and to build a more rounded and inclusive system that is not only academically rigorous but also encourages creativity. To think that academic study and creative learning can't coexist is a dangerous false dichotomy. It is interesting that from the top of the global league tables Korea has realised that rote learning and exam drilling aren't sufficient to produce confident and innovative students. It will be an effort to change the system; throughout the course of our work in Korea, we found talented learners who were reliant upon directional teaching. They craved answers to commit to memory, and struggled with being asked to explore a proposition and form possible solutions about their learning.

It is great news for Korean students that their government and schools are beginning to encourage "creativity, character and collaboration". Their national arts education programme run by the Korea Arts & Culture Education Service (KACES), is one of the ways they hope to achieve this. A recent article in the Korean Herald also details plans for "two new secondary schools, in Incheon and Sejong City, offering cross-disciplinary education". These schools will teach arts alongside more traditionally academic subjects, and there will be more like them.

The addition of these two schools is part of the ministry's "new STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) project, which aims to include multidisciplinary curriculums to foster creativity". So there is a widespread sense that ministers and educators want students to start leading more varied and creative lives. Indeed the Principal of an elementary school I visited in Seoul told me that "the arts give my children character education that opens their senses". The plan is also for college admissions not just to depend on entrance exams, but to take into account factors such as "individual students' talents, creativity, and growth potential".

As Sir Michael Barber rightly said in Pearson's recent Learning Curve report, a truly successful education system must equally value both creativity and the acquisition of necessary knowledge and skills. The two are not mutually exclusive. Yet as Korea is starting to develop integrated learning methods in direct reaction to the drawbacks of rote learning and attainment focused education, our government has been taking lessons from the traditional Korean system, including its flaws. Bringing arts and creativity to education in Korea is where east meets west. In addition to looking to Korea for how to climb international league tables, we should also be taking into consideration what they seek to learn from us. If we can strike this balance, then we might be one step closer to developing a successful global education system. So whilst our government believes they are tending to a national headache by trying to improve our ranking, it has been forgetting our internationally recognised national treasure: creative and cultural learning.

Artis was invited by KACES to introduce mentoring skills to Korea's most experienced arts educators so that they could begin supporting and developing other arts educators working in schools.