Why do Korean university students look like zombies?

This was the question that was on my colleague’s mind. Bradley Smock (check out his blog Bradley’s English Blog) teaches English composition to 3rd and 4th year English Literature students at Keimyung University. As the semester went on, he started noticing that his students were coming to class looking lethargic and lifeless: like zombies. In an attempt to understand them, he posed the question:

What is causing the low motivation of many students at Keimyung?

As part of their next essay assignment, his students wrote responses, and I will be posting* their responses here. I hope this offers insight into what life is like for many Korean students.

Today’s theme revolves around student competition, and not having personal goals and dreams.

Essay 1 

When professor asking how are you, usually students say tired. Despite there was nothing happen last night, they always feel tired and gloomy. To foreign students or teachers maybe do not understand this normal happen in Korea. Also this happen arise to most of Koreans. Most students are zombie at the class because they are not doing exercise, they just follow Korea’s competitive atmosphere and they do not know what they want to be or like it.

Most students are not doing exercise. Few of students are exercise themselves but exercise is not familiar to Korean students. when they were young about elementary school students they started to go to academy(Hakwon) after school. So exercise was second to them. Even they learned exercise at the hakwon such as Teakgundo or Judo. Maybe people understand these exercise should learn at the hakwon however they have less time to hang out with other friends. Most highschool do not have PE class because of study. Even if students have a PE class, it was time for sleep not a exercise to students. Therefore all Korean students need exercise for their physical strength.

Most Koreans are just follow and attend on Korean’s education system. This is kind of psychological problem. Korea society make a competitive atmosphere which means playing is wasting time and not studying is considered becoming loser. I always feel, Korea society said “you must be a winner at the competition to live comfortable. There is no friend in this society.” I’m sure every Koreans are feeling this. This kind of feeling make them anxious even when they are hanging out with their friends. Thus, Korea’s society make a competitive atmosphere and people are tired to following this.

Last reason is related above paragraph. Most Koreans ,age 17 to 24, do not know what they want to be, what they like it. This is happened because of blind education system. Every highschool teachers or parents said “Do it whatever you want when you become University student. But now is for study.” I also listen this sentence when I was middle and highschool student. Theoretically, middle school and high school age is looking for their interesting and what they are good at. In Korea, it’s opposite. Most students study with short knowledge about them and just attend on university with their highschool score and Korea SAP score. Shortly most students attend on university do not have exactly what they want to be and like it.

Do not excercise, competitive atmosphere in Korea and Do not know what they like or want to be, make spiritless to students in the class. It’s kind of sad thing in Korea. This reason, happiness index is the lowest in the world. Although Korea education system make Koreans smarter than other countries, they have less happiness and creativity.

Essay 2

The students at Keimyung are being zombies in class these days. They seem to have no enthusiasm for what they learn and what the teachers say in class. They also have no emotion on their faces and do not respond to the teacher. Due to this fact, teachers are having really hard time teaching in most of their classes. The reasons that many students at Keimyung are low motivated are because of the pressure on the grade, getting no immediate benefit, and not knowing what they like or want.

Most students are under pressure to have good grades. Since the beginning of the semester, they start to fight with assignments and exams. It is likely to be released from the pressure when the midterm is over, but assignments go on and on. They consider the grades very important because they believe that the grades affect their future when they try to have a job. That is why they are so stressed on assignments and exams to get good grades in class, but they do not, so that makes students less motivated.

Since students study to prepare for their future, they do not see immediate benefit ahead of them, so they are low motivated in class. What they study in class seems useless in daily life, so they might think that these studies are useless overall. They, however, do not know what they study in class now will be used when or where in the future. Not knowing all of this, students do not see a point of studying in class and keeps complaining that they do not want to study. They lose interest in studying while they do not see the future.

Whether they think the study now will be helpful in the future or not, the worst problem they have is that they do not know what they really like or what they really want.

In my case, I am majoring in English language and literature and taking classes to complete a course in teaching training. I like English, but frankly, I do not know exactly why I am trying to complete a course in teaching training. I am not even sure if I want to be a teacher. I actually more interested in planning performances or exhibitions. This is the problem. Like me, most students do not know what they like and want, and they keep studying what they are not interested in.

Students at Keimyung are not much enthusiasm in class, and the teachers know and have difficulties in getting the students’ attention and the class going smoothly. What are being the problems in this situation are that they are so pressured, that they do not see what is ahead of them, and they do not find their own interest. The most important thing among what they can do now is to find what’s their interests are sooner rather than later. Finding it, it will give them more motivation in studying and help them to be more active in class.

*My intention was to post more essays and create a series, but I decided against it. I think this post was enough to create a valuable discussion.

Feedback in the hallway

During the three years that I’ve taught in this teacher training program, I’ve managed to find a comfortable balance between the two roles I play: teaching Korean English teachers how to improve their writing skills, and also teaching them how to teach writing.  Although this division may seem clearly defined, the teacher-trainees have different needs compared to their students, so making space for these two contexts has always been something I’ve been conscious about.

However, my level of consciousness seems to have shifted this semester. Due to my position in the pecking order, I’ve become the lead trainer/teacher (the previous lead trainer moved back to England), which means I have new responsibilities and courses to teach.

Today I realized how much this has put me off balance.

The Scene

In the hallway between classes:

“Josette, I feel like a mess and I’m depressed. I’m really not comfortable with this essay assignment due next week. I’ve never really seen an essay until this week and now I have to write my own by next Thursday. When you asked us to write a paragraph last session, you taught us step by step so I felt like I could do it, even though I still thought it was challenging. But now I don’t really understand the different elements in an essay and I need to write one so fast. My ideas don’t feel organized. “

The realization

In my head:

“Wow, ___ ‘s right. Could she/he have said that more clearly? That’s amazing feedback. I usually take them through each part (introduction, body, conclusion) much sooner than this. I usually spend a whole class on just one of these parts! I also usually ask them to read a few essays so they can get comfortable with the format. This time I just showed them one essay. Then in the second class I introduced all the parts of an essay and said “write.” Barely any support.* What was I thinking! This is so not cool. And I’m supposed to be a model for their own teaching? Man.

The interpretation

  • Maybe I did this because during next session (starting in one week) I won’t be teaching my usual writing methods class, so I tried to compensate for that loss of hours by combining that syllabus to this session. This took away some of my usual essay intro/teaching time.
  • Maybe I read their abilities wrong.
  • I haven’t asked for my usual feedback so I really don’t know how they feel about my course so far.
  •  Maybe I took into account the feedback I got from last semester’s participants when some said the course was “too slow”.
  • Maybe I just thought that was enough exposure for them to be able to write an essay.
  • Maybe this person is the only one who feels this way.
  • Maybe I’m super tired and have been spending too much time staying in the office writing observation feedback and feedback on other writing assignments. I’m not giving myself space to plan and reflect as usual.

More possibilities? I’m sure.

Now what?

  • This participant and I have sent texts back and forth. We are going to work through this together. They will send me an email this weekend with what they’ve come up with and we’ll go from there.
  • I’ve written this post. I really needed the space to think about this interaction. Typing this description and interpretation has given the relief and distance I need to look forward.
  • I still need some time to think about how I approached all this and how I want to change things in the future.

All I know is that I am grateful for this moment in the hallway. Lately I’ve felt like I’ve been so focused on tasks and projects beyond the classroom. I’ve also sensed that I was becoming complacent about my roles in class. I felt these things, but haven’t been doing anything about it. This little hallway feedback was just what I needed to start.

*I consciously avoided the term “scaffolding” thanks to the reflections in my first iTDi class with John Fanselow. :)

Note to self and whoever out their cares about such geeky things: This was the fastest blog post I’ve ever written: 30 minutes.