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Starting a revolution in Korean ESL

by Allistair Elliott

The great question

I was once asked in an interview ‘how I could revolutionise the teaching of English in Korea’. Having spent 7 years teaching in Korea, I thought I knew the answer. I had argued this very question often. I was sure I had the answer. It was in my head. It was clear. It was simple. It was 3 three words. 3 words that would revolutionise the Korean education system. And I blew it. I mumbled something about parents and the moment was lost. However, the idea persists, and I’d like to share it.


I enjoyed my 4 years in a Korean public school in Gimhae. I remember walking into the school yard; it revealed the school and I smiled. It felt right. This was my school and I belonged there. I was pretty nervous the first day, but by about lesson 3 or 4, I felt much, much better about it. By the end of the week / month / term and year, I guess all went well enough as there was no doubt about staying longer. And so, I began to look around, to try to figure out what was actually happening in the Korean education system.


I guess it was noticeable from early on, that Korean kids are Korean kids just like everywhere. They want to play, have fun. However, you see certain trends emerge. The kindergarten kids were just adorable. Grade 3 and grade 4 had lots of energy, but in grade 5 there was less fun, and by grade 6, the mood had darkened somewhat. What was going on? As discussed many times, the drive of Korean parents to make their children successful is overwhelming. Bec Piesse, an exchange student from Australia National University at Seoul’s Yonsei University in 2015, told how this emergent source comes to bear on five-year-old Hyomin and her family. The burdens, stresses and strains of Hagwon life and constant studying begin to visibly take their toll in grade 5. By grade 6, there seems to be something approaching ennui and dread about school life, that could stay for a very long time.

It’s the boys’ fault

The obvious starting place is to appreciate how Korea’s test and grammar-centric learning, stresses students and stifles growth of hearing and communicating. Korean students discuss their experiences and offer their thoughts in this video. However, there is something else in play which quickly influenced my way of teaching in the school. It was noticeable, highly noticeable, just how quickly the boys were described as naughty, blamed for the trouble and generally wailed upon when things went wrong. The situation didn’t seem to matter; the boys were always at fault. Typically, the girls would complain that ‘he was teasing me’ or ‘he said something to me’. Ok. It happens. Please don’t do that again. Let’s carry on. But no, this emphatically didn’t happen.

Punishment does not fit the crime

What happened throughout the grades was that the boys were often subject to a physical punishment by the girls, and that this physical punishment was indirectly supported by the teachers (mostly female) by being laughed off, agreed with, or, more often than not, simply over-looked. Typically, the girl would find the boy, and, where possible, would administer a hefty whack in the middle of the back. The boy having received this, wanted to retaliate, wanted to even cry, wanted support, but received none of this. Instead, and I witnessed this scores of times, he simply swallowed the evident pain of being hit in the back and carried on as if nothing happened. It was business as normal, the social rules were being followed and all was as it should be. And sure, the pain did go away, but the psychological scars remained. And, the knowledge that the education system was unfair towards boys started to show.

Say sorry

This is what influenced my teaching style, and where the three-word revolution of the Korean education system began.

I was a co-teacher to the senior Korean teacher in class. It was her class, but within this, I had some scope for classroom management and discipline. So, one of the things I began to effect in class, was support for the boys. It became clear to me the need to clamp down, reduce and hopefully stop summary punishments as described above. Every time it happened, I would not discipline the boy for ‘teasing’. Instead, I would reproach the girl for hitting the boy and force her to apologise. Initially, my behaviour was greeted with shock. Nobody could believe that the girl was being told off for her bad behavior. ‘But teacher’, so the refrain often went, ‘He was teasing me’. ‘So, tease back,’ I said. ‘Just don’t hit. Now, say sorry’. And often they did, through clenched, gritted teeth.

Positive improvements

I’m not saying this was a perfect solution to a bad problem. However, it was noticeable that so-called problem boys and classroom discipline improved. Of course, there were still problems, and I did make mistakes of identity or I misjudged the situation. However, the boys began to get positive support, attention and affection which helped their self-esteem and confidence, and so made for a better class. It was certainly a positive thing to do, and the boys seemed to be grateful.

And the answer to the great question is…

In three words then, the revolution in the Korean education system is… Love – the – boys. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less. Love the boys. If a girl hits a boy to the point of tears, discipline the girl. If a boy is agitated by something, support him. If he is stressed by another test, Google. If I could enact one systemic intellectual change to the Korean education system, it would be this. Love the boys. Otherwise, might this always continue to be the case?

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