Study: S. Korean kids learning too much math too early

Posted on : 2015-05-29 14:14 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Experts say S. Korean students high scores are misleading and nothing to boast about
 located in the Yongsan District of Seoul
located in the Yongsan District of Seoul

Elementary and middle school students in South Korea have to learn more math in less time than their counterparts in Europe, the US, and Japan, a study found. In addition, South Korean students are generally taught the same content at an earlier age than student in those other countries.

The study identifies this as the fundamental reason that math education degenerates into rote memorization and problem solving, even though conceptual understanding is a crucial part of the subject. The study is likely to give momentum to the argument that a major reduction of math education in elementary, middle, and high school is necessary in order to decrease the number of students who give up on math altogether.

On May 28, an education advocacy group called A World without Worries about Private Education held a conference comparing math curriculum in six countries at the main conference room at the Kim Koo Museum, located in the Yongsan District of Seoul. At the conference, the group presented the results of a comparison of elementary and middle school math curriculums and textbooks in the US, Japan, Singapore, the UK, Germany, Finland, and South Korea.

 May 28. (by Lee Jeong-yong
May 28. (by Lee Jeong-yong

The advocacy group and 33 current math teachers had been working on the comparison since Nov. 2013.

According to the analysis, South Korean elementary school students learn mathematical concepts faster than their peers in the other six countries in an average of 23.2 out of 63 cases. For example, South Koreans learn about three-dimensional shapes in the first grade, but Germans learn about this in the second or third grade and Finns in the second grade, one of more than 23 such cases.

This difference is particularly striking in Europe, with South Korean schools introducing concepts faster than the UK, Germany, and Finland in 38, 30, and 24 concept areas, respectively. In contrast, South Koreans are only taught math later than students in the other six countries in an average of 5.7 areas. There were 6.7 areas on average that only South Korean students learn, and 5.8 areas on average that South Korean students don’t learn.

This situation was basically the same in middle school math education. South Korean students are taught more and at an earlier age than in the other five countries (with the exception of Singapore). 17.5, or 29.2%, of the 60 total mathematical concepts for middle school are taught earlier, or taught exclusively, in South Korean schools.

In contrast, the number of class hours dedicated to math in South Korean elementary and middle schools was lower than average among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member countries.

According to a paper published in 2014 by Park Kyung-mee, professor of math education at Hongik University, 14% of total elementary school classes in South Korea were math classes, lower than the OECD average of 17%. In middle school, this percentage was 11%, two percentage points below the OECD average of 13%.

“Since South Korean schools teach more in less time than international standards recommend, teachers have to move forward quickly. We need to reduce the content in the math curriculum to change the paradigm of math education, which currently depends on lectures and rote learning,” said Choi Su-il, director of the math forum for A World without Worries about Private Education.

Choi was in charge of the comparison of math curricula in six countries. For the past year and six months, Choi reviewed the math curricula in the US, Japan, Singapore, Finland, Germany, the UK, and South Korea. Choi’s conclusion is that the excellent math scores of South Korean students result from an unfair advantage.

In an interview with the Hankyoreh on May 28, Choi said, “Many people have complained that the math curriculum for elementary and middle school students in South Korea is too advanced and crams in too much material, but the Ministry of Education has been denying this. When we directly compared our curriculum with that of other countries, we found that it is inevitable for students to struggle with this curriculum.”

 staff photographer)
staff photographer)


“Unfair and dishonest” boasting about math scores


“Teaching South Korean students more concepts at an earlier age than students from other countries and then boasting that South Korean students have higher achievement in math is unfair and dishonest,” Choi added.

The biggest problem with math education in South Korea is that “students don‘t know why they’re learning math, and teachers don‘t know why they’re teaching it,” Choi said. With schools trying to cram in so much material so quickly, students don‘t have a chance to enjoy what they are learning, and teachers don’t have the time to demonstrate why math is important.

Unsurprisingly, bringing math education back to normal must begin with cutting down content. This is not the argument that students should generally be taught less, but rather that it is only by accurately teaching the fundamentals that students can learn the necessity, and the joy, of math.

Choi also expressed concern that the Ministry of Education, which had set the goal of reducing the 2015 curriculum by 20%, had backpedaled in the face of arguments advanced by the math industry.

“During a debate a little while ago, I ran into Deputy Prime Minister and Education Minister Hwang Woo-yea. Hwang told me that math shouldn’t be taught at too low of a level. It has to be taught at a high level if students are to get good at it, he said. I once again felt the influence of the math lobby on the Blue House, the Education Ministry, and politicians,” Choi said.

“If we are to change the curriculum, we need to know what students are struggling with, but the government hasn’t sponsored a single decent study on this. If you don’t know, you can’t be confident, and if you aren’t confident, you can’t change anything,” Choi said.


By Jeon Jung-yoon, staff reporter


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