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The South Korean Elite: Teaching and Learning at Seoul Science High School

Seoul, South Korea— Monday morning begins, with my hands cupped around an Americano. I watch students pour into the upscale computer room. Each station is equipped with MATLAB, Origin, and the full Adobe Creative Cloud suite–an academic dream. Dressed in dark long padded coats, we face the Korean winter head-on. Some shake hot packs, which will emanate warmth for the next twelve hours. It is time to begin.

I had the chance to teach at Seoul Science High School (SSHS) this year. It is one of the most elite schools in Korea, accepting only the top 0.01% of middle school graduates. The SSHS was established in 1989 to serve mathematically and scientifically gifted students in the Seoul area. It was the first school to implement an acceleration system, which allowed students to complete their high school education in two years and enroll in the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST). KAIST is considered one of the best universities in Korea, specializing in science and engineering. Many Korean educators did not welcome this system at first because there was no general acceleration system in place. However, this program continues to be very successful and around half of the SSHS students pursue studies at KAIST after graduation.

Every year, the SSHS sends students to the International Math Olympiad (IMO) and other science Olympiads with astounding results. In 2017, South Korea won the IMO and all six team members came from SSHS. Competitors solved six non-calculus problems over the course of nine hours. SSHS students continue their education at prestigious institutions within Korea, namely Seoul National University (SNU) and KAIST. Some opt to study abroad, often in the United States.

 

A day in the life

At the SSHS, I taught a Machine Learning course to twelve students. They were nothing short of incredible. My course aimed to introduce mathematical and computational tools used for analyzing neural data. Although students began with no knowledge of neurobiology, their strong mathematical skills enabled them to intuitively understand the data structure. Many of them had prior knowledge in linear algebra, differential equations, and probability and statistics. Using open-access data provided by the Allen Institute of Brain Sciences, I taught basic programming and data visualization skills important to neuroscience in particular, and scientific inquiry in general. Projects ranged from spike sorting to seizure detection.

During lunch, I had the chance to get to know my students personally. And I came to one conclusion: high school students are the same everywhere. My SSHS students eagerly wait to reach the driving age, and long discussions were spent debating Maseratis and Lamborghinis. They add a minimum of four sugars to a cup of coffee and listen to Taylor Swift with fervor. In South Korea, video games are a major social activity. Most games are competitive or cooperative. Among my students, FIFA Online 3 was the most popular. They also enjoy StarCraft, Set, and the long-forgotten MapleStory.

Through a mutual interest in Korean dramas and artificial intelligence, I explored Seoul with my students after class. Over cafe lattes and cappuccinos, I learned about the life of an SSHS student. All students live in quad dormitory rooms. Administrators prepare a set list of energetic dance tracks and ultra-emotional ballads to serve as an alarm for all students and teachers. At 7AM, rooms are filled with the sound of light, fluffy pop music. The alarm plays every ten minutes until classes begin at 8AM. Students are required to sign-in for attendance. Classes finish at 4 PM, followed by club activities until 5:30 PM. After dinner, students have mandated self-studying for four hours, from 7PM to 11PM.

 

Finding familiarity across the world

When I listened to my students recount their days, I thought of my own time at Brooklyn Technical High School. Their experiences felt similar to my own, all-work and no play. The primary complaint among my students was not that they had to self-study for four hours, but that it was required. One of them half-jokingly remarked that he believed America smelled of freedom.

The relentless focus on education has resulted in an unprecedented rising economy. South Korea has in two generations gone from mass illiteracy to being an economic powerhouse. Brands such as Samsung and LG are internationally known. However, this has come at a cost. South Korea has the highest suicide rate of industrialized OECD countries.

It’s a price the country is beginning to consider. Through conversations with my students, it is clear that this is a topic of great interest. During my commute to SSHS, the taxi driver spoke to me in his limited English. “Good students do not always have good character… They so young, so you can mold them. Not too late,” he said. My SSHS students went above and beyond my expectations and I look forward to the day I treat them to a slice of New York pizza.

 

Featured Image: Flag of South Korea.

References:

  1. Choi, K. M., & Hong, D. S. (2009). Gifted education in Korea: Three Korean high schools for the mathematically gifted. Gifted Child Today32(2), 42-49.
  2. Chakrabarti, R. (2013). South Korea’s schools: Long days, high results. Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.com/news/education-25187993
  3. Hu, E. (2015). The All-Work, No-Play Culture of South Korean Education. Retrieved from: https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2015/04/15/393939759/the-all-work-no-play-culture-of-south-korean-education

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