NOWHERE IN the world can you find students studying so many hours, and rarely do you find a country delayingbusiness hours on the day of national exam. The passion for education is a unique, renowned trait of Korea.Hakwons can be seen almost every corner.Students, parents,and teachers alike are extremely attentive to education policies and curriculum. For this reason, the recent announcementby Korea Institute for Curriculum and Evaluation (KICE) to integrate mun-kwa* and ee-kwa** starting from the year 2018 has brought up a much heated debate.
How was it divided in the first place?
The recent announcement of thechange in curriculum is receiving exceptional attention since the integration of mun-kwa and ee-kwa is a diversion from a tradition that goes back centuries in time. The tradition of the two divisions began in the medieval ages in the west, where liberal arts included subjects related to the human mind, such as composition, dialectic, and rhetoric, and science included subjects related to matter such as geometry, music, and astronomy.
As for Korea, a series ofeducation curriculums were set up since the establishment of Republic of Korea, and is now at its 8th curriculum. Starting from the 2nd curriculumin the 1960s, the division was clearly divided into mun-kwa and ee-kwa. Since then, the partitionof two sectors has persisted.The 1960s was a period when Korea’s budding industrialization could be observed. During this period of early industrialization, only 5~10% of the population attended high school, and there were not much variety in the types of jobs. Due to a less competitive employment market, andcomparatively simple jobs, the need for a person to have“integrated” capabilities was much less intense than that of today. Rather, the emphasis on efficient, swift workforce necessitated specialization.
Now, the situation is quite the contrary. Rapid economic growth and emphasis on education has enabled many students to graduate high school, and Korea’s university entrance rate has becomeone of the highest in the world. Industrialization has reached its peak, and jobs have become much more diversified than before. This had led to a demand for more unique, “integrated” qualities in the workforce, rather than just simple skills. Despite the changes in society and the consequent demand for different qualities in a workforce however, the Korean curriculum has maintained the same two-way system as before, even afterseven revisions since the initial one. Now, the current situation requires yet another improvement to be made. The necessity to reflect the increasing demand for a creative, “integrated” workforce rather than a simple, specialized one has brought up the discussion of a curriculum revision.
What Will Be Changed?
Reflecting the changes in society, the voices of those who feel the necessity to convert to a more integrated curriculum is on the rise. According to a survey conducted by Korean Federation of Teachers’ Associations (KFTA), the majority of the teachers are positive about the curriculum revision to integrate the two divisions. More than 70% supported either partial or complete integration, while the other 26.1% preferred the division as it is now. While the necessity of integration is being disputed, there are also mainly three controversies on the methods of integration.
Firstly, there are different views regarding the applicable scholastic year of the integrated curriculum. According to the survey conducted by The Journal of Curriculum Studies, most teachers think that two semesters of integrated curriculum for the high school first graders is adequate, at 42.9%. There were also other opinions, from those who think that four semesters are appropriate, to those who argued for three whole years of high school.
The second different view is regarding how to integrate.Designating mandatory liberal arts and science subjects was preferred by 46.4% of the teachers. The creation of a newly designed integrated subject was the next preferred method, chosen by 26.6%. 15.9% suggested inserting the“integrated” views in all chapters, especially in the introduction and concluding parts of the chapters.This means that the textbook will approach the concepts and topics from a wider perspective, not only providing specific knowledge about the topic, but also locating the meaning it holds withinthe whole society. 9.9% spoke ofinserting a separate chapterin each textbook for the purpose of learning the perspective of the other division. If this option is selected, a mun-kwa subject will have an ee-kwa chapter inserted among many mun-kwa chapters, and vice versa.
The debate over which subject to include in the common curriculum is the third point of contention. This may be the most important issue, as this decision would decide which subjects that any Korean student should learn. As for the social science field, opinions that history, geography, ethics and general social studies should be included are the most common. As for natural sciences field,physics, earth science, chemistry and biology are the most popular subjects.
Problems and Solutions
Although the objective of reflecting today’s trend of integration is positively received by most, there are criticisms regarding the curriculum revision. Someskepticism comes from the frequent change of Korean education system. Many parents are concerned that it will be yet another trial-and-error in education, merely switching back to the original curriculum after a failure from the revised version, creating unnecessary hassle and confusion. KimEun-ha, a mother of two children, aged 16 and 13, disapproves of yet another change in the curriculum. “According to the new curriculum, my younger child will take the new integrated suneng. From my perspective, I cannot make out how to guide my son. Frequent change in the curriculum is very frustrating.”
Hong Won-pyo (Prof., Dept. of Education), identified the reason behind this frequent change with the “government’s desire to differentiate itself from the previous power”. “Since education is the cheapest but mostapparent method to ‘illustrate’ a change in direction,” said Hong, “this accounts for the change in curriculum every time there is a regime change.” Professor Hong proposed a separate curriculum committee independent from the influence of the government, or setting a certain regular time period that prevents a haphazard change in curriculum, as the solution to this problem.
Another aspect of criticism comes from the possibility of a decreased level of education for Korean students. The Foundational Academy Organization stated that there is a possibility of a virtual abolishment of the ee-kwa, since the integrated curriculum will inevitably reduce advanced topics in mathematics and science.
To this perspective however, some express the need for compromise from all fields. Yang Il-mo (Vice President, Open Major, Seoul National Univ.) argued in his speech in the KICE curriculum forum that if each subject fields exhaust their energy over the quantity of allocation of their own subject in the new textbook, it would not be productive inenhancing the Korean education curriculum as a whole.Professor Hong also expressed his views on this point of contention: “We should not be overly focused on which subject gets to be included in the common curriculum for how many pages. What’s really important is how students can choose their additional fields of interest on the bases of the basic integrated common curriculum.”
Despite the possibility of sacrifice that some may have to face however, supporters of the revision express the necessity for revision, referring to the impending demand for workforce with integrated abilities. Regarding especially the science and technology policies today, many decisions involve the consideration from the perspective of both liberal arts and natural sciences. Lee Sang-wook (Prof., Dept. ofPhilosophy, Hanyang Univ.) says that not only do we need to involve the professionals from specialized fields, but we also need people who can understand those diverse fields and help reach a consensus reflecting those views. Therefore, we need to break away from the prejudice that mun-kwa and ee-kwa are fundamentally different, and raise integrated human capital.
The majority of parents and students also agree. According to a survey conducted by the Ministry of Education in 2013, 61% of the parents surveyed agreed on the revision for integration. Lee Soo-ae, a mother ofa 12-year-old daughter, views the change positively. “I think it is good that my daughter can learn diverse subjects in school. I am not concerned about the difficulty issue, because I heard that the revised version will lower the degree of academic difficulty a little. My daughter likes biology and geography at school, so she wishes to continue on learning these instead of having to choose one.”
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The worldwide trend of a need for flexible, creative and integrated human capital coupled with the positive views of teachers, students and parents on the curriculum revision brings a positive focal point between the demand and the supply of integrated education. Concerns over the failure of such good-intended curriculum revision, due to the lack of preparation and sufficient prior research, is also abundant among Korean citizens. As much as the expectation for the new revised curriculum is high, the government should urge the KICE to discuss issues comprehensively,as well as sufficiently fund research, to establish an effective curriculum that would eventually guide students to navigate their careers and become intelligent, responsible citizens.
*Mun-kwa: the division of liberal arts. Students in *mun-kwa* study liberal art subjects such as history, geography, ethics and so on, in addition to the mandatory common subjects like Korean, math and English.
**Ee-kwa: the division of science. Students in *ee-kwa* study advanced math subjects and natural science subjects such as physics, biology, chemistry and so on, in addition to the mandatory common subjects.
***Suneng: the national college entrance exam