Category Archives: korea

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.


Leave a comment

Filed under korea

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under korea

One Man’s Trash

The trash piles on the ground floors of apartment buildings in Korea are veritable gold mines for the visiting foreigner looking to furnish a studio-size room. Everything from kitchen supplies to living room furniture, can be easily found lying on the ground left by the latest resident to move out, into fresh digs. The Urban Crowd Effect is the force that compels people to ditch some of their larger belongings and buy (or find) new furniture to replace that which could not survive the trip. It pays dividends for foreign Hogwon teachers still awaiting their first paycheck but hoping to decorate the apartment a bit to make it feel, you know, a little like a home instead of a few blank walls, a tiny kitchen and a bathroom. While the couch we found this week may be a couch from the trash, it is still a couch. The cushions covers are washable, and the rest of it can be vacuumed; it’s also not too shabby for found furniture.

Goyang is far from the central city in the Seoul urban area—which near as I can tell encompasses most of the north-western corner of South Korea—and it shares many of the properties expected from a sub- or exurban area: disproportionately upper-middle to upper-class, largely commercial, and a highly planned infrastructure. In Goyang’s case this final property is not only true, but amplified to a great extent. A 2006 Newsweek article put Goyang in league with Las Vegas (one of Goyang’s many sister cities), Munich, and London as one of “The Ten Most Dynamic Cities” in the world. The article calls Goyang an “affluent enclave,” that is (or was in 2006 before President Lee Myung-bak took power, it’s hard to discern thus far what has changed since his 2008 ascension, except that the banks of the Hangang River are still completely undeveloped, with what looks like a small buffer of farmland separating the river from the city, save for the ancient fortification built near one of its tributaries) struggling to overcome its status as a commercial-based economy filled with commuters leaving for their jobs in Seoul or other Seoul-area cities. From the little bit of reading available about this place I get the impression that while there are many bars, clubs, restaurants, and cozy coffee shops, it is the type of place Koreans would say is not a place to work, but a good place to raise a family and little else. In a word it’s a suburb.

Perhaps it’s the novelty of living here still not quite having worn off, but Goyang does not feel like a suburb in the way I thought of Burnsville, MN as a suburb. Much like when I was in China and told that Zhuhai was a small city comparable with Mankato, MN by Chinese standards, the sheer volume and density of people living in Goyang makes the city feel more urban by American standards than by Korean standards. For example, an urban area in South Korea is a county with more than 150,000 people, and a town has 20,000 or more. In the United States, an urban area is an area formed around a core urban city of at least 50,000. In other words, a city like Goyang in the states with just over a million people would be in the top ten largest cities, just beating out San Jose, CA, and landing just south of Philadelphia, PA by population density. The Seoul area—housing nearly half the country’s population in just 12% of its area—with 24.5 million people would be far and away the largest metropolitan area in the United States. The sheer size of this place makes it nearly impossible to compare with anyplace back home.

There is something to smaller places that is attractive. Places with a history of industrialism and natural emergence opposed to state forced growth and expansion are just more attractive. While the incredible population growth in places like Goyang and Zhuhai, China is impressive (the former growing from a small town [20,000] to the nearly 1.1 million who live here today in something like 20 years, and the latter growing by similar margins in 30 years), it is hard to really find it as interesting or compelling a history. A place like Minneapolis/St. Paul, after learning its history, really feels like it has earned every one of the 3.5 million or so people who live there, whereas here, in Goyang, the people are here because this place was set aside, planned, or engineered, as it were, to have each of these people here.

Like any city, Goyang has local shops, small bars, cafés and locally owned dining establishments—many of which turn over weeks to months after opening, due mostly to the aggressively competitive nature of such a densely packed population’s economy—it has parks, clean streets, and all the elements of a very comfortable and livable community, but for some reason all of it ends up feeling fake. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if there were some kind of tax holiday for opening a café in Ilsan, or some kind of small business quota Goyang’s municipal government must achieve to preserve the city’s economic well-being. Even the entrepreneurship here feels fake, planned or somehow engineered. It’s this lack of purpose apart from human storage that makes it difficult to really call Goyang a home in addition to a nice and comfortable place to live.

Leave a comment

Filed under korea

When it Rains, it Pours

When it rains it pours. While this old saw usually refers to a series or chain of bad events each subsequent event getting worse and worse as the event or moment in time proceeds—like when an organization suddenly sees four of its six VPs resign in quick succession, when it rains it pours—during the South Korean monsoon season it is quite literally true. Work is only about a twenty minute walk from home for me, and though many of my co-workers take a roughly $3 cab to work each day, lately Danielle and I have taken to walking. The only real problem with our it’s-only-a-twenty-minute-walk-why-would-we-take-a-cab approach was exposed on our second day of work at the Jeongbal campus of Korea POLY School when a little bit of what looked like manageable rain turned nearly instantly into a downpour so heavy it was as if the air had suddenly turned to water. Thus began my first full day as an English teacher.

To say that I live in Seoul is a bit disingenuous—that way that saying someone who lives in North Branch, MN lives in Minneapolis or St. Paul, or someone in Crystal Lake, IL saying they live in Chicago—but the urban sprawl that follows the Han River as it winds its way between the mountains on the northern half of the southern half of the peninsula makes everything just sort of blend in as Seoul. I live in Goyang. A suburb about an hour east-northeast from Seoul proper, situated in a district called Ilsan, on the southwestern side of the city; the side closest to the river. Nearby attractions to my apartment include Ilsan’s famous (at least within Korea) Lake Park, Lafesta Shopping and Entertainment Center, and Western Dom, an open-air shopping mall, and, of course, the school. I was told early on that while the streets have names, few of them are marked, and the best way of giving directions is in relation to these attractions, and the subway stations, which Goyang has the outermost four of on the impressively convoluted Seoul subway map’s orange line: Madu, Jeongbalsan, Juyeop, and Daehwa. To Seoul Station it is roughly a dollar and an hour through the tubes, or a little shorter, but more expensive, by bus or cab.

While exerting a facade of economic and urban spontaneity to the uninitiated, Ilsan emerges as a highly planned community upon closer inspection. Particularly when it comes to the massive Lake Park. The park, which at first glance looks like any ordinary park built around a lake, is actually part park, amphitheater, recreation center, and botanical garden. Features include a singing fountain with nightly light and music shows reminiscent of the massive fountain shows seen in Disney World, a cactus conservatory with the widest variety of cacti I’ve ever seen in one central location (and yes, I have been to Arizona), a crane cage which is, as it sounds, a large cage housing a live crane and another housing several peacocks, some of the most massive catfish I have ever seen, a plentiful garden of water lilies, an artificial waterfall, and two “folk swings,” which are swings large enough to stand on suspended from about 40 feet, and nearly 5km of biking, walking, and running trails (each a separate trail to at least attempt cutting down interference among the three sports, though the attempt is somewhat futile considering small children and other less-perceptive types are somewhat oblivious or indifferent toward the distinction; as a consequence it is not at all uncommon to see cycling teams nearly miss plowing into inattentively casual bikers, children, and others who have little sense of the de facto slower-traffic-keep-right type of traffic laws) that circumnavigate the man-made lake—the largest in the peninsula. Oh, and how could I forget the outdoor exercise equipment? So, but it isn’t just that these things are in Lake Park that makes it such a stand-out example of the planned city—any city could have a park with all these things in it, especially if there is a lake nearby—but rather it is that they are all so carefully and intentionally placed and organized, that after the first time around it becomes blatantly obvious that it is planned: e.g. the lake is always calm, even in the windiest of monsoon conditions, indicating that it can’t be deep enough to generate wavy conditions, nor can anyone boat on the lake. Additionally, the crystal clear lake-bottom can be attributed to the lack of any natural habitat, the only fauna and flora exit in a completely engineered environment.

The key difference between this artificial or planned environment and other planned communities is that this park doesn’t have any tennis or basketball courts rendered dysfunctional due to the city’s need to cut the budget and willingness to sacrifice a park to save money, and it isn’t new. This gargantuan outdoor recreation facility—to call it a park is really not giving it its fair shake—has been around for at least twelve years, and is easily the most awesomely and thoughtfully put together, cleanest, and well maintained piece of public land I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. The Washington Mall, Boston Commons and any of Minneapolis and St. Paul’s public parks pale in comparison to Lake Park.

To wrap up what for you is, I am sure, a nauseatingly long post about a park, I’ll just say that Ilsan is an unlikely place to end up on the other end of the madness that is applying to and becoming an employee of a Korean Hogwon Academy or a school in the Korean pubic education world, but so far, two weeks in, is one I am excited about, and a place I look forward to exploring as my home for the next 50 weeks of my life.

1 Comment

Filed under korea