Going Seoulo

29th June 2007 at 01:00
Scottish educators could learn a thing or two from South Korea

THE PROBLEM with learning a foreign language at school is that you never seem to learn the one you end up needing most.

When I asked a taxi driver at the main railway station in Seoul to take me to my hotel, I couldn't understand a word of his response. I replied "OK"

and he drove me across the road, pointed to the hotel, then clicked his meter to show a pound;7 minimum fare!

South Korea has an exam-dominated education system which is criticised for crushing original and creative thinking. But changes are being made. In one school, pupils were working in groups to explore ideas for using human energy to power their school. Ideas were literally bursting from them and included harnessing energy from the treadmills in PE and placing motion-sensitive pressure pads below corridors and staircases.

South Korea's goal is to be the world's leading technology superpower and there is a clear conviction that a well-resourced education system, with special emphasis on science and maths, is the means of achieving this goal.

There is also consensus that the nation's wealth should be spent on educational resources rather than military ones, even at a time when North Korea is developing nuclear weapons.

"Reason, rather than bombs, will change the North," my South Korean teacher friend suggested. "Anti-communist lessons were once the norm in our schools, but are no longer necessary; our friends in the North are short of everything except dogma!"

"But what about their nuclear weapons?" I asked. "Don't they scare you?"

"No," my friend said. "The North already has all its artillery pointing at us. Nuclear weapons don't make that much difference."

One of the tasks on my travels is to note practices that might have some relevance for Scottish education. South Korea's ideas for flattening the educational playing field for the benefit of young people from poor backgrounds are worth noting for Scotland, where substantial advantages can still be purchased in the competition for the best university places.

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