All Articles Education What can we learn from a middle school in South Korea? Focus on the whole child

What can we learn from a middle school in South Korea? Focus on the whole child

4 min read


While spending time in South Korea, I had the good fortune to visit Sinsu Middle School, led by the accomplished principal Lois Chunok Choi, who graciously guided me around her school in Seoul. A big “thank you” goes to Ned Kirsch, superintendent of Franklin West Supervisory Union in Vermont, who arranged an introduction for me.

Perhaps what was most surprising was how similar Korean schools are to American schools. For example, principal Choi shared her 3C Education framework: Collaboration, Creativity and Customization — remarkably similar to the Partnership for 21st Century Schools’ 4Cs:  Collaboration, Communication, Creativity and Critical Thinking. In fact, in addition to her 3Cs, Choi stressed communication and critical thinking multiple times during the visit. Her third “C,” customization, is essentially personalization, a key theme in current American education circles as well.

In temperament, the students could have been transported from American schools. Students were a similar mix of shy and outgoing, and their social lives shared prominence in their lives with academics. Students did exhibit a more respectful interaction with their teachers than I’ve seen in some American schools.

Recognizing the similarities, I was still struck by what we could learn from some of the differences between our two systems, especially the attention paid to the emotional and physical development of young people in South Korea. This echoes a renewed focus on the whole child in some parts of the U.S. education system.

  1. All middle-school students have physical education every day to help “burn off energy” and to “clear their minds.” Some of the specific activities were different than the US — table tennis and fencing, for example — but the concept of recognizing that students learn more effectively when they have a physical outlet is the key takeaway.
  2. Similarly all students participate in daily art classes. Art is seen as important for personal expression, as well as a way to convey Korean cultural heritage to the next generation.
  3. Principal Choi also shared her focus on teaching students how to be happy. They literally teach students to be happier. This is not a philosophy where every student is a winner; rather, the emphasis is on a core happiness that comes from working hard, knowing one’s strengths and weaknesses, and challenging oneself. One of my favorite phrases on the wall was “you can’t be happy every moment but you can have many happy moments.” Many U.S. students are searching for an elusive happiness and meaning in their lives. Clearly it is not the role of American schools to teach religion or even spirituality, but there’s definitely room in our schools to introduce students to developing a sense of well being.

On the more academic side, South Korean schools have a few enviable traits.

  1. All schools have high speed Internet. There’s even a Korean Ministry of Education plan to roll out Wi-Fi country-wide. Imagine what could be done in the U.S. if teachers did not have to worry about connectivity and slow speeds. Related, Choi recognizes that it takes time for teachers to learn how to integrate technology meaningfully into the classrooms.
  2. Students spend time learning about their own heritage to develop a love of country. Sometimes in our efforts to show students balanced historical perspectives, we forget to teach students that they can be proud of what America has accomplished and what it can represent for the rest of the world.
  3. The specific middle school I visited was a magnet for English, but most Korean students learn another language early on. U.S. education begins the process of teaching students a second language far too late to be truly effective.
  4. Community members are invited to share their personal and professional journeys to provide models for students, to make various career options come to life for them.

Our schools have significantly more diverse students than most countries, including South Korea, but all middle-school students could learn to be more centered, take pride in working hard and develop skills for attaining true happiness. South Korea is onto something as it embraces and supports the developmental stages of young people preparing for high school.

Katrina Stevens (@KatrinaStevens1)  has over 20 years experience as a district leader, professional developer, principal, adjunct professor, consultant, academic dean, department chair — and throughout all of these roles — a teacher. She has worked in public and independent schools, from elementary through higher education. Stevens publishes via her blog where she writes extensively about professional learning, educational technology and lean thinking.