A table in a classroom with pens and post-it notes

Did you catch School Swap: Korea Style on the BBC last Sunday? It was a typical education-swap programme where three teenagers from the UK go out to South Korea and attempt to spend three school days (yes, not long enough for a real analysis!) with Korean students and live with their families.

On first thoughts, regardless of how well Korea do in the PISA tests, the test of 65 countries’ 15-year-olds’ ability in Maths, Science and Reading (7th in Maths, 10th in Science and 7th in Reading compared to the UK’s results of 27th in Maths, 14th in Science and 22nd in Reading) from a British point of their school day is just bonkers. They work from 6am to 12pm, with school in the day, extra curricular learning in the early evening, and cram schools at night, all in preparation for an eight-hour national college entrance exam, the Suneung, which determines where they’ll go to university. Actually, it more than determines where they’ll go to university – it makes or breaks a teenager’s entire future, and they clearly work too hard for I t– there were many images of students falling asleep in lessons. I can’t imagine how well their brains were actually functioning on such a lack of sleep!

However, what the South Koreans have achieved is absolutely astounding, and something we British can certainly learn from. After World War II illiteracy was the norm, and less than 5% of the adult population had more than an elementary school education, and the incoming government placed a concerted effort to raise this standard.

They raise the standard through the respect for teachers, with an old Asian proverb saying that the king and the teacher are both equal in status, and being a teacher in South Korea is a dream job for many – they work 16 hours a day for three years to enter teacher training college.

Furthermore, parents are avidly involved in their children’s education. Mums go to the temple to pray for their children; they have prayer books dedicated to each child and a light for them at the temple. This light only goes off once their child has gone to university. Parents also spend their income on their children’s education, with one boy’s father commuting five hours to work just so his son could be in a good catchment area, and many never seeing their children grow up.

Swapping school with Korean kids 2

Despite all this achievement, and perhaps because of it, South Korean is also rated the lowest in happiness in the world, and has the highest suicide rate in the developed world, with suicide being the top cause of death for people under 30. By the time they reach university, most students will have sadly already lost two or three friends.

Their life also leaves them no time for any extra curricular activities, such as sport, music, art or drama, which plenty of students might excel in. These activities also give students confidence and the soft skills they’ll need when they enter the workplace.

The documentary definitely left me asking what’s next for these teenagers. With so much emphasis on test results, what happens when you get there? And what happens if you don’t make it? And even if you do get there, will it make you happy? If you do get there, with Seoul National University being the place of choice, and only 2-5% of the population getting in, is everyone else just seen as a failure? And what happens to very able students who might just have happened to mature at a different time? It’s almost unfathomable to have one test determining the rest of your life.

Having recently, and finally, got round to reading Carol Dweck’s Mindset, one thing that did strike me between the programme and the growth mindset point of view is that both offer (at least during school) ambition and aspiration for every child. In the Korean school every one seems to display a work ethic and a belief that they can improve if only they work a little harder and put in the effort, and they achieve the results.

Likewise, Dweck notes that, regardless of initial and innate ability (which may be different in different people). those with a growth mindset where, for example, students believe that they can improve on their test score by taking charge of their motivation and learning, to promote better learning strategies and better outcomes, will improve those test scores more than those who don’t believe in growth mindset, who instead believe that their ability is fixed.

Both the book and the TV programme concluded that, for students ‘with the right mindset and the right teaching, [they] are capable of a lot more than people think’ and that teachers needed to ask ‘how will [their students] learn best?’

Indeed, Benjamin Bloom, an eminent educational researcher notes in the book ‘After forty years of intensive research, […] my major conclusion is: What any person in the world can learn, almost all persons can learn, if provided with the appropriate prior and current conditions of learning.’

In the UK currently, without a growth mindset, on the assumption that students can handle any more, many are given dumbed-down material (just look at the Foundation GCSE maths paper!), and when they fall behind, or don’t do as well as expected, they can be told to leave the school or college.

However, the book tells a story of a better way deal with low-ability students, and found that teachers that practice and promote the growth mindset in the classroom can help students end their year far more capably than they were both in reality and though, regardless of their initial ability.

We really need to heed to the advice of both Korean test scores and Carol Dweck to improve our children’s education and their ability to perform the job roles they might be taking on in the next ten or twenty years.