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Suneung 2011. D-0

Posted in Comparative, customs, Education by 노강호 on November 18, 2011

‘Suneung Jackpot’

Early morning, 7.30 am and I’m outside the local boys’ high school to watch the ‘suneung’ students arriving for the most important exam of their lives; an exam which for most students will have been their sole goal for the last three years, if not longer. As always, a few students arrive with just enough time to run into the school before the exam begins. You ask yourself how students can be late on the suneung morning, an event they have been counting down towards for the last year but of course no matter how significant the suneung is in the Korean psyche, the unplanned and unexpected problems of life get in the way; an alarm clock that suddenly ceases to work, the parent’s car that has a problem starting, the unexpected traffic jam.

The school stands on the brow of a hill, its front entrance, in the common tradition of poong-su (feng-shui, 풍수), faces east. Behind the schools lies the Warayong Mountain in which the infamous ‘frog boys’ disappeared in March 1991, their murdered bodies being discovered in 2002 (Five Boys Meet Death Where the Dragon Dwells). In the distance, at the foot of the hill, the wail of a police car cuts through the murmur of morning traffic. Unable to meander through the congested traffic, it mounts the pavement and drives up the footpath towards the school. The car, lights flashing, stops outside the school and to a round of applause by parents and congregated well-wishers, a boy jumps out and hastily runs towards the examination rooms.

a student being delivered by police car

As much as I try to avoid making comparisons with my own country, suneung always forces me to acknowledge the immense ideological abyss that separates Korea and the UK in terms of education.   Suneung is an event which has a profound impact on Korean society and is reflected not just in the annual countdown to its manifestation, but in public regulations, guidelines, a host of gifts and items to aid exam success and a range of ‘gimics’ popularly ‘believed’ to aid exam performance. And after the exams, post suneung students are enticed, rewarded, with a host of reductions and offers appearing in shops, health clubs, cinemas and restaurants. Most profound and quite different to my western experiences however, are the attitudes to education.  Try explaining to Korea kids that in your country it isn’t cool to be clever, that intelligent students are often bullied and the cult of anti-intellectualism rife, that a teachers dare not leave their coffee mug on a classroom table for fear of it being spat in, smeared with a pair of testicles or ladled with drawing pins or paper clips (Metro, Feb 2011).   And then try explaining that achievement is leveled so that those who do well or are exceptional go unrecognized while those who were bone idle and lazy hide. In recent years one teaching organisation suggested removing the word ‘failure’ from the teacher’s diagnostic lexicon and replacing it with ‘deferred success’ (BBC News July 20th,2005).  My university, Essex University, no longer awards graduates’ degrees in academic rank from 1st class honours to pass, and instead, degree ceremonies are ordered alphabetically. The graduation ceremony allows for no distinction between degrees earned by three or four year’s hard work and those the product of a permanent party. In the politically correct world of the UK, we are compelled to down play success and hide failure behind Mickey Mouse courses and useless qualifications both of which are given the veneer of parity with subjects that demand hard graft.

juniors students give the exam students support

However much British politicians and school mangers blab about the importance of education, it is mostly hogwash. Most school are more alike than different and innovation is curtailed rather than encouraged. The quality of the teaching staff in schools, where some excellent teachers do exist, is basically bog-standard because job specifications, in the pursuit of politically correct ‘fair-play,’ castrate all applicants who have qualifications or skills not asked for by the specifications. It is totally irrelevant that an applicant can miraculously turn failing students into ‘A’ grade students, or is qualified to teach any subject on the curriculum, if such a skills or abilities aren’t requested on the specifications. Though rules can be circumnavigated they cannot be seen to do so and in the politically correct environment ‘fair-play’ and notions of ‘equality’ are dictatorial. It is a contradiction that any institution can have the ‘best staff’ when those with skills, qualifications and experience beyond the remit of the post’s specifications, have been rejected.

more prostrations

I can’t name one Korean celebrity who I would say is a dimwit but there exists an army of British celebrities who not only aren’t particularly bright, but whose lack of ability is celebrated. A good number of our football players lack a decent education and some are so repugnant and base they are detrimental to the boys who idolise them.  And not only does British society tolerate celebrities who abuse themselves with alcohol and drugs, it financially rewards them!  After being exposed as a cocaine snorter in 2005, super-model Kate Moss’ earnings between 2005-2006, increased by 3 million dollars. (Forbes. cited in Wikipedia) And in dumbed-down Britain, we love to celebrate mediocrity and stupidity. Jane Goody was a prime example of the failings of British education; despite eleven years compulsory education she was probably one of the most ignorant and dumbest adult humans ever to appear on TV. But more alarmingly, despite her tartish behaviour, foul mouth and racist attitudes, an enormous fan base developed even prior to the time she was diagnosed with cervical cancer (Jane Goody, Wikipedia).  For many Brits, Goody was an idol and an example of how brute dumbness, lack of class and vulgarity can triumph. Forget education, manners or decency, just behave like a stupid slag and you too can become a millionaire. And I know it’s pitiful and sad, but once diagnosed with cancer and the mostly moronic public were even more willing to both idolise and defend her.

suneung gifts

I remember when the Spice Girls were being interviewed ten years ago and one of them joked about the dismal report she received from her music teacher. The teacher’s suggestion that she not consider music as a career, was pathetically dismissed with the response, “and look at me now!”  I doubt any of the Spice Girls could have distinguished a bass clef from a treble clef and other than miming and pouting the lips like a blow-up doll, doubt they had anything but mediocre talent which certainly wouldn’t have survived a facial attack with acid or a vigorous chaffing by a cheese grater.

Parents pray for exam success at the Gatbawi (갓바위) shrine in Daegu

I have probably had to teach in one capacity or another in around twenty different British schools and in all but a couple it was hard and degrading work.  Most British kids need to be force-fed learning and the high percentage of bad attitudes, behaviour and disruption have a detrimental effect on most classes. Most British teachers are highly defensive about such accusations despite having little or no experience teaching in anything but their own country and school managers are quick to defend their schools and berate the competition in just the same manner the boss of a Burger King will slag-off McDonald’s.

Yes, Korean education has its faults but I prefer being in a system where students know where they stand instead being fed a lot of guff that their nail care technology or business studies course is the equivalent to traditional academic subjects such as maths, history or science. In all but two schools in which I’ve taught there has been a pool of retards in every grade. Of course, most are retards because they behave like scum, abusing teachers and disrupting the learning of their fellow pupils. However, I don’t think I’ve really met a Korean retard and I certainly haven’t met a Korean student who can’t read or write or doesn’t know where their country is on a map. And I’d claim that a number of my students have better English writing skills than kids I’ve taught back in the UK.

anxious mothers outside a school gate

Britain has lost all sense of values and the dumbest, least talented and badly behaved are often able to earn huge sums of money. It was only a matter of time before the dregs of society and their middle class chums, the army of do-gooders who form the politically correct brigade, were able to crown a cretin like Jade Goody. Indeed, one tabloid compared Goody with Princess Diana who despite an elite education wasn’t particularly bright but at least she had class. Britain needs a good dose of Korean education to rescue it from its anti-intellectual disposition and in the process it needs to purge itself of its predilection for mediocrity. Moron celebrities, bad parents and dimwit football players need public ridicule and condemnation and bad behaviour, especially in terms of drugs and alcohol abuse, requires termination by censorship.

a suneung watch often given to third year high school students

The whole of society, and most especially those involved in education, have colluded to tell the dregs they are ‘in with a chance’ if only they will apply themselves, which with many of the phony courses and qualifications provided, simply means, ‘attend the course.’  A cabbage has potential but only within the limitations of being a cabbage. You can tell a cabbage it could be an award-winning poet but there’s not much chance of that happening because the poor cabbage doesn’t possess the awareness it’s a cabbage.  What many of the dregs require, other than a massive brain-over, or better, a total brain transplant, is to be told the truth.

‘Hey kid! You’re a fucking brassica, a fucking cabbage head, a total semi minus moron and you’re going nowhere!’  Then they should be forcibly administered a powerful chemical concoction by the Pest Control Corps to prevent the possibility of ever being able to breed.

and now the discount season begins for suneung students

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Related Posts

Suneung 2010 (Bathhouse Ballads Nov 2010)

D Day and Korean Hooliganism (Bathhouse Ballads Nov 2010)

Suneung – A Day of Reckoning (Bathhouse Ballads Nov 2010)

A Video Tour of Suneung (Bathhouse Ballads Nov 2010)

Suneung 2011. D-10 (Bathhouse Ballads Nov 2011)

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The Boy on the Stair

Posted in Diary notes, Education by 노강호 on February 12, 2011

high school students

For the last two years my alarm call has been the footsteps of a high-school boy. I’ve never seen him and the only reason I assume it’s a boy is the manner in which he descends from the apartments, perhaps two stories above; he seems to take five steps at a time and it only takes him seconds from beginning his descent to exiting the building. The head of my bed is against the wall at the foot of which he lands as he jumps down each flight of stairs. And I assume he is a high school student because no middle school boy would be in such a rush to get to school.

With the winter vacation, his footsteps and my alarm call have been absent but with the start of the ‘prep’ week during which students return to school and settle into their new classes, his feet once again provided a noisy reveille. The ten-day spring break now begins and their will be a short respite before he returns, all the more frantic as I would assume this is his third year (고삼) and the most frantic year of a  Korean student’s life.

 

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Suneung Countdown

Posted in Education, Uncategorized by 노강호 on October 30, 2010

D Day minus 18 

a cup marking D Day minus 100

Suneung

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A Day of Reckoning – 'Suneung' (수능)

Posted in bathhouse Ballads, Education, Korean children by 노강호 on October 28, 2010

D Day countdown

As I write, across Korea thousands of third year high school students, known as ‘go-sam’ (고삼), will be religiously counting down the days. Some began the count  at ‘D  Day  minus 365,’ others, more traditionally, began at  ‘D Day minus 100.’ Today, is ‘D Day minus 21.’ And within the space in which I have written this post, in exactly three weeks time, the futures of thousands of teenagers will have been significantly determined.

‘D Day’ itself will present about 600.000 of the nation’s ‘go-sam’ students,  with one of,  if not the most, important experiences of their lives and certainly their most important exam. The suneung (수능) or CSAT (College Scholastic Ability Test) is the Korean, standardized test taken by all final year high school students and although some alternatives are now offered, and more are supposedly on the way, for most students it is the sole qualification required for entry into Korean universities.

Of all the standardized tests globally, the suneung is seen as one of the most rigorous. The path towards that moment of academic reckoning begins in elementary school and every step in the development of academic ability from infant study onwards, is a preparation for the suneung.

 

a late arrival is given a police 'escort'

Taken on the second or third Thursday in November, the suneung temporarily transforms the face of Korea and on the day there is a sense that  the entire nation is backing the candidates. The transformations are a reflection of  the pivotal role education plays in society and despite the  professed importance other nations give to ‘education,’ in most, only a national catastrophe or war would be sufficient to suspend capitalism or national defence. In Korea education stops everything, back in Scumland UK, it stops nothing and I can remember sitting the equivalent of the suneung exam to the accompaniment of persistent rifle fire from the nearby military base.

 

The Korean equivalent of Room 101

The exams last one day and are divided into a number of periods during which exams are taken in subjects such as: maths, social studies, English, sciences, vocational studies and  foreign languages. The exams are largely multi choice. To guarantee candidates arrive in school armed with equipment, entry permits, a ‘fighting spirit’ and ready to do their best, a range of national procedures and contingencies come into effect:

♦All other students begin school after 9.am.

♦To help ensure transport system work to maximum efficiency, many businesses begin work at 10am. This includes the Stock Exchange! Yes, there’s only one Stock Exchange, it’s in Seoul and probably nowhere near a school,  but it’s the thought that counts. For a few moments the success of students is of more importance than the economy.

♦During the periods when listening test are being conducted, planes cannot land at airports and those waiting to land have to circle above 10.000 feet. Even air-force movements are curtailed, within reason, to ensure silence at the appropriate times.

♦Korea Electric Power Corps places 4000 workers on standby in the event of power failures and each examination center, of which there are about a 1000, is sent a technician to monitor power supplies and await any emergency.

♦Police assist on the roads approaching schools and are also on hand to transport students who’ve encountered problems. Nerves thwart the plans of the best intentioned candidates.

♦Since 1993, there has been no evidence of  suneung questions being leaked. In the days immediately  prior to D-Day, specially selected professors are imprisoned in a hotel, denied any form of contact with the outside world, the hotel windows blacked out, and equipped with a library of resources, they  formulate the exam questions. No doubt the hotel is 5 star, but nonetheless, they are kept in  solitary confinement  until the exams are officially over.

♦Schools are also supplied detectors with which to scan students for devices, hand-phones etc, which could be used to cheat.

♦Female teachers in high schools on the day of Suneung are not allowed to wear high heeled shoes or perfume.

 

'suneung exams transport support' provided by the military

 

Police support

Beyond official and bureaucratic procedures adopted to ensure both fairness and a conducive examination atmosphere, a host of other  practices have developed aimed to improve the chances of success. Eating anything sticky on or before ‘D Day’ is believed to enhance ones luck. Sticky things cling to the wall and do not fall and so by chewing on toffee (엿), or sticky rice cake (찰떡),  it is hoped you grades will hold fast and not slip into the gutter. Conversely, eating anything slimy, such as seaweed soup (미역 국) might incur bad luck and see your chances for the university of your choice slipping away. At the same time, one must avoided uttering any word expressing failure, falling, dropping, sinking, sliding or slipping.  The reason obvious; if it’s muttered, it might happen. Parents and relatives will travel to mountain temples to say prayers and leave slips of paper on which are written the names of loved candidates, or they will attend special services in churches where small Bibles can be purchased in which you stick a photo of your son or daughter, all in the hope of currying divine favour. I doubt many believe success or failure is determined by the consistency of ones food,  use of language or  even prayer but anything which can be used to bolster the spirit is a valid psychological  weapon in  the quest for exam success and highlights the desperate measure to which the importance of exam success drives individuals.

 

Parents praying for the exam success of their children. I did the same thing here with a friend's family in 2001.

 

messages of good luck at the start of the final 100 day countdown

 

'go-sam' students being greeted by their juniors on exam day

plenty of rousing support

supporters

On D-Day, parents will crowd around school gates, some will pray and other will hold their Buddhist bracelets in reverent anticipation.  Candidates are often greeted by 1st and 2nd grade students as they arrive. Colourful banners wishing students good luck are waved and sometimes juniors will perform the full bow at the feet of those about to be tested. It is also common for juniors to rally the spirits of  their stressed seniors by singing rousing songs before the exams commence. My last high school had almost 2000 students and it raised the hackles to hear 1200 boys singing in unison from all the classrooms under the 3rd floor, where the suneung candidates waited for their exams to commence.

 

Boys singing after the completion of exams

 

a mother prays at the school gates

The exam

And when the exams finish, all the text books and notebooks used by the students throughout the year are unceremoniously tossed from the go-sam windows, often on the 3rd floor.  Of course, the pressure isn’t off as from 6pm onwards, newspapers can publish exam questions and the agonizing process of  self assessment begins until the results are finally released. And of course, as with every exam in Korea, only those with perfect scores are allowed to feel any satisfaction and even this is down played.

 

legitimate vandalism

relieving stress

 

Finally!

Undoubtedly, Korea has one of the best educated populations globally and though we might want to qualify the nature of that ‘education,’ we cannot dispute their success in terms of literacy and the sciences. Objective subjects and languages are much easier to assess. When it comes to the arts and subjective thinking, Korea has problems but however flawed or misguided we might perceive the Korean education system, it has facets worthy of admiration and parts perhaps worthy of emulation. Coming from Scumland UK, where dumbing-down is fashionable, bone-idleness excused, and the fruits of study and erudition watered down into a melee where belly dancing becomes an academic pursuit which has parity with mathematics or physics,  it is  refreshing to work in a culture where  education has too much significance rather than little at all.

 

results

To all 2010 go-sam (고삼) students about to face the suneung, ‘fighting’ (화팅!)

For a selection of video clips giving a general idea of the various suneung activities

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Giving Summer the Finger

Posted in Comparative, Diary notes, Education, Korean children by 노강호 on September 3, 2010

Goodbye to all that!

The summer holidays finished last week and one of my students notes in his diary.’This week school finished and we had to change our hair and faces.’ Gone are the ‘poodle perms‘ the vibrantly painted finger nails, ear-rings, temporary tattoos, and dyed hair. Unlike many western countries where teachers battle with hair styles and make up, in Korea it’s all removed before the term starts. Of course, Koreans will tell you the same battle ensues in their schools but they are skirmishes in comparison.  I’ve taught one boy who was forced to run 10 times around the sandy ‘parade ground’ in only his boxers because his trousers legs were too narrow, and a beating because your hair is a centimeter too long isn’t uncommon.  And the ‘budgerigar club’ that exists in every British secondary school (ages 12-16), little cliques of girls who sit for hours on end brushing each others hair, moronically starring in mirrors and slapping on cheap make-up like little Jezebels, all during lessons, is in its infancy.

Painted nails

A little re-touch needed

The irony, of course, is that school never really finished and the vacation that was, was never really a vacation. One of my students spent the entire summer at a cram but claimed he loved it. Packing your son or daughter off for the entire summer isn’t what I’d do if I was a parent.  Another boy spent two weeks in a military boot camp,  ‘thanks, mum!” Another three students, siblings, spent the entire summer in an English school in the Philippines but their English is no better than when they left. So, with summer drawing to a close it’s back to the study routine, constant tests, the after school classes and reading rooms and don’t forget piano lessons and taekwon-do! As for the poor the third year, high school students (고삼), they have the biggest exam  (수능) of their lives looming. An exam which will not only determine their academic future but very possibly the background of their future partner as well as their occupation. DD (‘D’ Day), and that’s exactly how Koreans identify it, is 76 days away and every third year student will be counting. Their vacation was great! They didn’t have one!

 

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