The following perception of success, which I consider flawed, is not something that is unique to Korea. But since I’m a teacher here in Korea and not in the United States, I’m noticing it more here than when I was back home. Also, working at a private school, it becomes pretty obvious where some parents’ and students’ priorities are when it come to academic success. Again, this isn’t every Korean student or parent, but I’ve noticed a lot of them do have this attitude.

The best way that I’ve been able to condense their approach to success is that success for these Koreas is quantitative, not qualitative. On the TOEFL exam that they must pass to show their English proficiency, parents care about their reading and listening scores because, since they are scored based on multiple choice answers with only 1 “correct” answer, they are quantitative. For the writing and speaking sections, even though there is a strict formula that students should follow (which has become even more formulaic recently, perhaps because of this issue I’m about to mention) there is still a lot of room for variations in student answers so results are much more difficult to compare against other students. These results are qualitative, and therefore either less worthy or even worthless.

I’m not saying quantitative success is not important. It has its place. ITS PLACE, next to qualitative results rather than over top of and overshadowing qualitative results. Too much stake is put into the value of test scores, and then if you have a bad day or just aren’t a good test taker, oh well! That’s starting to change in the United States. I hope it starts to change in Korea too.

Here are some of my observations of this pro-quantitative phenomenon in CDI Yeongtong.

Exhibit A: Emphasis in classrooms for more levels are on tests scores, which are reading and listening questions, not their writing or speaking work which is mostly homework (however, Yeongtong branch recently added a writing and speaking section to our lessons, so we’ve got that at least).

Exhibit B: I had to add a test to my winter newspaper intensive class so that parents could see that their students were actually learning (or some justification like that). Because going from writing only one copied paragraph to being able to write several paragraphs in mostly your own words does not demonstrate learning. (And yes bitterness. Those tests were a pain to make for 36 separate lessons). Also, I’m extremely proud of the progress by students made and I don’t like the idea that it’s belittled.

Exhibit C: Most of the time for iBT class (where students learn how to take the TOEFL exam) goes toward reviewing reading and writing answer, not improving their speaking and writing ability. Which means you get an awful lot of iBT students who can’t speak or write well enough to save their life or pass that section of the test.

Exhibit D: My student Helena (who is by no means alone in her thinking. I just had the most enlightening conversation with her.)

Helena was my student last term in Birdie Listening. She lived in the US for some time and actually started CDI at Dongtan. However, she moved to Yeongtong because she heard the teachers were better (Sorry Dongtan). During level up test time, she talked to me a lot about how she better level up to Eagle this term. I asked her questions to try and get at the bottom of this desire because it wasn’t like she was saying that she wanted her English to get better and finally being in Eagle (which is the first of the upper level classes) would show this. She just wanted to level up.

As it turns out, when she first came back to Korea from the US, she tested into Eagle but for some reason they put her in Par, which is just below Birdie. Odd. Not sure why they did that. My guess is she didn’t have the test taking skills she needed and they wanted her to learn them in Par and level up, rather than get stuck in Eagle, where the focus is less on test taking skills. And she said that in the three (ish) terms since then, her scores on the level up have actually gotten worse. Then she told me that if she doesn’t level up this term she’s moving to Dongtan because it’s easier to level up there since the other students aren’t as skilled. (As in she’ll level up quickly because her scores will seem good compared to the other students in her classes.) Then she told me, she’ll stay in Dongtan until she gets to Masters level, which is when she’ll come back to Yeongtong so she can have a good teacher.

As the Masters Reading teacher (and soon to be Master Listening teacher for the last two or three weeks of this term), I kind of laughed and pretty bluntly asked her, “Helena, if you level up with easy students in Dongtan, what will happen when you come back to Yeongtong and are in a class with students who’s skills were better than yours were to begin with?” As in, if she doesn’t challenge herself by being in classes with students who are better than her, how will she improve? She had no answer for this and deflected it by saying that her mom wants her to level up and thinks she needs higher test scores, which is the argument she had been using to defend her level up arguments from the beginning.

Helena’s in Dongtan now, which is a shame. And she did level up last term (Of course she did. She was my student.)  Most students associate leveling up with better English skills, which makes sense but isn’t true. I’ve had Birdie and Eagle students who were better and more capable than my Albatross/Albatross+ students, who are also more capable than some of the Master students I’ve taught. In the end, I think it’s very heavily dependent on the classroom culture and the attitude and drive of the individual student.

But those are qualitative factors.