Monthly Archives: August 2009

On Hogwons

People outside of Korea might postulate that “Hogwon” is the Korean word for some kind of hog-based commodity. I’ll admit I didn’t have a clue about what a Hogwon was until I started working for one. Nothing quite like it exists back home. The closest thing to it is probably a learning center like Sylvan, but even that isn’t really the education model that can describe a Hogwon.

In the most basic terms, it is an academy designed to augment the education received in public schools. They usually have a specific focus like English (probably the most popular) or Theater, Guitar, Piano, etc., and are private businesses that charge a premium for their services. The school I work for is one of Korea’s oldest and largest Hogwons. They serve primarily students who have lived abroad in an English speaking country for a significant period of time, and those possessing a high aptitude in speaking, reading and writing in English. They only hire foreign teachers whose native language is English, or those who have developed English skills comparable to a native level (though it is considerably harder for the latter to be hired). That is to say, none of the teachers at my school ever had to take a Test Of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL).

The key difference between a Hogwon and a place like Sylvan back home is that whereas Sylvan proudly brands itself as a center providing a “tutoring service,” Hogwons are proudly branded as schools (or academies). Hogwons are not parochial, they are not non-profit educational institutions; they are businesses, and the parents are customers buying a product called a well-educated student.

As a business they must have consistent, measurable, and demonstrable proof of their product’s quality. Thus, since their product is education, they must have some way of proving that they are better than their competition and that they are in fact improving their students’ abilities to read, write, and speak English. They do this the way that some people believe is the way we ought to be measuring our teachers’ performance back home: through comprehensive and repeated standardized testing, tracking, and leveling. Teachers at Hogwons like the one I work for are evaluated by their students’ performance on monthly tests and regular, standardized, tracking tests. Administrators are concerned primarily with meeting the parent’s expectations, and continually proving that all the students are improving, even if some of them are not.

This attitude puts the teachers in a peculiar quandary, and one that makes me appreciate the work of Education Minnesota and other teacher’s unions back home more than ever. As an Alien Resident teaching for a school that places the parent’s dollar as their top priority, it is often difficult to achieve any kind of vocational or career goal toward being a good teacher, or even hold myself to the standards I would hold myself to if I were a teacher back home.

This week we were asked by our supervisor to review the vocabulary content on one of the tracking tests1administered by the higher-ups for 40 minutes directly before letting them take the test to some of the classes that said higher-ups deemed need to move up in the world. The motivation for this request came as a result of apparently needing to appease the parents who are skeptical of our school’s abilities. Thus reigning in one of the many criticisms of tracking policy back home: the tracking becomes (or always is) somewhat arbitrary. Tracking students into specific classrooms, particularly when that tracking is guided by income potential and a customer-is-always-right-or-at-the-very-least-should-always-be-pleased philosophy, ignores the students’ innate ability to learn, and the fact that one group of students may start learning at the same rate, but the group’s homogeneity quickly decays as the students begin learning at different rates. That is, students A through G may all be at the same position right now, but students A and E learn quicker than students B-D who also learn at different rates than F-G, and eventually these students are stratified as heterogeneously as a non-tracked classroom.

Many of the critiques of tracking are highlighted at my Hogwon.The upper and lower classes on the tracking strata are stigmatized by, at least, some of the teachers. Once upon a time there was a group of fifth graders reading at a third grade level who were pejoratively nicknamed “The Wizards” by some of the teachers (some of whom were teaching The Wizards) at the school, and assumed to be dumber than the fourth-graders and the rest of the fifth-graders. If these students were interspersed throughout the school’s other classrooms they would not carry the chagrin-laden badge of shame and disdain they carried while students here.

Another critique of tracking systems illuminated in the Hogwon system relates to the effort of students in upper and lower tracks. At my Hogwon the students in the highest levels of their grade’s track are not as apt to put extraordinary effort into their work because they’ve already achieved as much as possible for their grade, and many of the lower level students do not put as much effort into their work because reaching the highest level seems like such a disparate challenge they have no hope of ever achieving.

In addition to being essentially asked to go over the answer key with our students before the test so that they could track up, I also learned this week (and this did not surprise me given the aforementioned business model) that the school is also reluctant to track students down. When the teachers bring forth a criticism of the system, and ask, for example that the school stop pandering to the parents and let the tracking system work so that the teachers can actually teach to the quasi-homogeneous classroom they are supposedly teaching, they are met with a response that essentially says the teachers aren’t important, and what is more important is that the school maintain its reputation with the parents, and continue meeting quarterly profit goals. That is, the teachers clock in at second to third on the school’s list of priorities after their ability to take in the requisite cash for the month.

Some people say there is no such thing as non-profit education, just as some people say there is no such thing as a non-profit organization in a market-driven economy. But the difference between non-profit and “business” education is clear after working for the latter and being educated by the former. The latter is driven by profit first, which often means following the cheaper policy or the one that is better able to produce tangible, repeatable results of product reliability. Non-profit education values the contribution teachers make to the organization, and would have the stones to stand up for their teachers in the face of a parent threatening to take their student to another school.

This is not to say that non-profit education is not concerned about enrollment, rather, that enrollment might be among the institution’s priorities, and that a non-profit institution’s strategies for improving enrollment might be approached more holistically, rather than focused on consistent and incremental increases on a set of standardized tests. A non-profit version of a Hogwon might brag, for example, about the number of students who go on to study at boarding schools abroad or end up studying at a university in the US or Canada, or the number of students who go on to use their English in some applicable way that really demonstrates the quality of education they are getting. They would have to use the virtues of the system as evidence of its success instead of a steadily increasing trend-line created from data gathered through aggregated test scores.

With all this in mind, it is not surprising that these schools have high faculty turnover rates. Not only are many of the teachers coming from overseas, living thousands of miles from their home and native culture to teach English as Alien residents, those who are looking to make a career out of teaching would probably find their pursuit greatly stifled. A Hogwon like mine dictates a teaching style, a curriculum, and nearly everything short of a daily lesson plan, and performance is measured by the customer’s assessment of whether their child has sufficiently memorized enough vocabulary words. Not necessarily a measure of success in my eyes.


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A Diamond in the Rough

Summer vacation came and went this week and, given that we arrived no fewer than three weeks ago, and have not yet seen a pay day, we decided to explore our suburb’s parent city, Seoul. We toured the Changdeokgang Palace in Seoul. A palace rich with history, it is among the most beautiful structures in all of Seoul. It brought back memories of Beijing’s Forbidden City, except that, unlike Beijing—which lost many historical landmarks over the years due to urban planning based on the growth-at-any-costs mantra—it is a city abundant in history: with palaces, monuments, museums and other landmarks that continually remind and immortalize Korea’s long, proud history. In addition to historical significance, Seoul is also a magnificent cultural hub; a city in league with Amsterdam, Paris, London and New York in its internationalism. Classical music, fine art, and Broadway musicals all make their way through Seoul. We learned more and more about the city, and explored deeper and deeper into the nooks and crannies that make up its many districts, we quickly realized that Seoul is probably one of the most under-appreciated cities in Asia.

This got me thinking: much of what I and the people around me knew about Korea was highly inaccurate before I left. “You’ll go to work in rickshaws,” said one person, “watch out, it’s dangerous out there,” said another. A stranger at the dentist’s office offered “stay away from the border, watch out for the North. And make sure any money you make, you can get back whenever you need to,” as if Korea was some kind of corrupt State that will rob you blind if you aren’t careful. The HR person from our school made it seem like I should stock up on supplies, the way some—more paranoid—people stocked up for the year 2000 or a nuclear holocaust. “Bring a year’s supply of name brands,” I was warned “especially deodorant.”

Many people who have never been here assume that because it is a small, peninsular, country next to an Axis of Evil State, South Korea just must be some kind of developing-world nation on the fringe of getting it right and emerging from the antiquated third-world. Perhaps this is because its neighbor to the north—and the only country with which South Korea shares a physical border—is hell-bent on making everyone in the world upset with them by building and testing nuclear weapons, helping rogue governments like the terrorists currently running things in Burma, and starving, manipulating, and playing mind-control games on its own people to keep them loyal to the deus natio Great Leader. Perhaps it is not a South Korea specific problem, i.e., perhaps all people equate all or most of Asia with development-in-progress because it’s largest players like China and India are still very much developing countries, and what development there is is concentrated in the large financial giants of Singapore, Hong Kong and Tokyo. One thing is for sure, there are a lot of people, in a lot of places, know very little about South Korea.

The reality is that Seoul clocks in at number 9 on Foreign Policy’s 2008 Global Cities Index ( and is one of the most developed places in all of Asia. Seoul falls just short of Chicago on the aggregate, and trails all of its Asian neighbors save Hong Kong, Singapore and Tokyo, and surpasses all but Tokyo as the tenth best place in the world for cultural experiences. Seoul is Asia’s hidden gem. It is among the safest and cleanest large cities in Asia and the world; and, with hiking among the nation’s favorite past times, it is a great place for recreation of myriad variety.
All this is not to say that people who don’t know about Seoul should be faulted as ignorant, or uncultured; in some ways it seems like Seoul itself is an esoteric jungle just begging you to come exploring and unlock for yourself the secrets that lie beneath its surface. The fact is that Seoul isn’t like Paris or London or Los Angeles. It hasn’t, for example, existed as a major economic powerhouse throughout history the way that London has; nor has it been the center of attention for filmmakers and designer fashion the way LA and Paris have for so long. The city’s latest incarnation emerged decades after the Korean War and after a long, hard-fought, battle for democratic self-governance and capitalism. The Seoul visited by Americans even 30 or so years ago would look drastically different than the one standing before us today. It probably would not have a Renoir exhibit in one of its many art museums, nor would have internationally acclaimed theatrical performances rotating through its stages, professional baseball teams, two of the largest and most well known electronics companies in the world (Samsung and LG), and one of the world’s largest automobile groups (Hyundai/Kia Motor Group). What was not long ago a developing city attempting to find its place in its own region, is now a major hub of economic and cultural activity becoming increasingly impossible to ignore.

So but again all of this growth is incredibly recent which, combined with the reality that when Korea shows up on the major news networks back home it’s usually prefixed with the word “North”, means that to anyone who is not really on the ball, Seoul is probably just another city in Asia. Anyone up for the adventure will discover a hidden gem; a diamond in the rough.

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