In recent years researchers have produced many reports on Taiwanese and Japanese teaching techniques in an attempt to understand why these two Pacific Rim countries do consistently well in international maths tests.
But for some reason South Korea has been largely ignored, even though its young mathematicians are among the best in the world and develop an understanding of the base 10 number system especially early. Now that oversight has been remedied with the publication of what is believed to be the first comparative study of maths teaching to involve Korea.
The report shows that although the Korean approach to maths instruction is similar to Japan's, it has some unique features. It also has a distinctive pattern that consists of leading questions from the teacher followed by student answers and choral responses.
The study's authors, Janice Grow-Maienza, of Truman State University, Missouri, and two Korean academics, Dae-Dong Hahn and Chul-An Joo, of Pusan National University, told the AERA conference that their findings challenge the stereotyped views that even Koreans have of their own schooling methods.
Grow-Maienza and her colleagues said that before they embarked on their study, Korean graduate students had predicted: "Classrooms will be totally teacher-centred. Teachers will be giving all the information, the students will be giving short answers recited from memory."
Having observed 20 classes in five representative primary schools, however, the researchers have concluded that this is partly a misconception. They found that classes are indeed teacher-centred and that the highly-disciplined Korean children spend even more time in whole-class groups than the Taiwanese and Japanese do. Teachers interacted with the whole class 94 per cent of the time. The focus of attention was on the teacher 73 per cent of the time in the first-year classrooms, and 48 per cent of the time in fifth-year classrooms.
"But we did not find that teachers merely spoonfed information, nor do pupils merely recite from rote memory," the researchers said. "What we found in the intensive case study of one school were sequences of highly organised and systematic patterns of instruction, followed by short periods of practice and evaluation.
"Instructional and practice sequences were dominated by teachers' questionanswer patterns which first directed students' attention to the knowns, to the critical parts of the problem, to the procedures needed to solve the problem, and often to the rationale for using the procedure. Teachers then use leading questions to guide pupils through the procedures using more and more complex and abstract examples.
"Pupils are required to give the answers, often in choral response. When individuals answer, the rest of the students are required to evaluate, in choral response, whether the answer is right or wrong. This repeated pattern seems to keep most of the students consistently on task."
"Seatwork" is usually assigned intermittently during the instructional sequences and evaluated immediately. Often children are instructed to check their answers in the answer book or to compare their answers with other pupils. Seatwork at the end of the class is generally limited to the last five minutes and is monitored and evaluated.
"We saw many instances of students presenting their own problem-solving and explanation to the class," the researchers said. "However, mathematics instruction in Korean primary classrooms is not just like instruction in Japanese classrooms, where student problem-solving and explanation is dominant.
"Nor is mathematics instruction in Korea like typical instruction in the US, though we did find some instances of short instructional sequences with the whole group followed by a long period of individual seatwork while the teacher focused on individual instruction, typical of American classrooms."
But Grow-Maienza and her colleagues acknowledge that Korea's academic success may not be wholly attributable to classroom organisation.
They believe that the 10-minute "vigorous" recess that follows each 50-minute lesson may be another important factor. "Every hour at the sound of the bell, the whole school erupts in a sound of joy. Pupils have what appears to be an unsupervised recess on the huge playingfield, and some children are busy at tasks, cleaning the room, the corridor, the lavatories. After this physical release . . . pupils come into class with a willingness, or perhaps tolerance to sit down and immediately get to work."
The researchers also noted that although Korean teachers are in school for eight hours a day they are in front of their class (of typically 40 pupils) for only three or four hours. The rest of the time is devoted to lesson preparation in the teachers' study room.
And they pointed out that not only do Korean parents place a high value on education, a fact that is now well known, they also spend a vast amount on their children's studies. A staggering 15 per cent of Korea's GNP is invested in education, and less than half of that is spent by the government.
"The rest of educational funding is provided by families and private individuals who support a very large private industry that provides after-school tutorial and supplemental educational services to Koreans of all ages. In Korea, the family of a child who is not learning well is expected to provide the child with help."