Why South Korea's strong students struggle in the workplace

Among many countries in the world, South Korea is first in reading, second in math and fourth in science, according to the 2009 rankings of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. And with each passing year, the Asian country proves how important and rewarding it is to invest in its educational system.

In this year’s International Mathematical Olympiad, Korea won four medals, three of which were gold. Some of the remarkable results were achieved by one top student, Jeehak Yoon, who was the only contestant to receive a perfect score on his evaluation, proudly bringing home a gold medal around his neck.

Screenshot of the ranking of contestants in the International Olympiad in Informatics. Photo credit: Stats.ioinformatics.org

Screenshot of the ranking of contestants in the International Olympiad in Informatics. Photo credit: Stats.ioinformatics.org

Such accomplishments are possible thanks to an advanced and promising South Korean education system that not only keeps offering students qualitative learning at low costs but also helped to add South Korea to the list of the world’s largest economies.

There are several advantages to the education system in Korea. Despite being one of the leading countries in education, Korea’s tuition fees are relatively cheaper than other competing nations. And until 50 years ago, South Korea was poorer than Bolivia and Mozambique, but today, the country is richer than New Zealand and Spain.

With a per capita income of around $20,000, Korea was able to achieve in a short period of time what other countries failed to do over the course of many decades. South Korea’s market economy is now the world’s 13th largest by nominal GDP, according to the International Monetary Fund.

The first step toward reaching this level was changing the education system, which kept evolving for the past 50 years.

But despite the big changes and positive impact on the economy, the current education system still needs improvements. It has been criticized as too competitive. During high school years, students view their classmates as competition, which diminishes social interactions between them and stands in the way of their developing much-needed social skills.

By the time students graduate, they would have neither a sense of teamwork nor social skills. And when thrown into society, they cannot cope with pressure. The reality of Korean students is that they are evaluated at least every two months of their high school years, they know how to study for their exams and they get good scores, but the sad truth is that most fail in the workplace.

Photo credit: Andy Rementer for The New York Times.

Photo credit: Andy Rementer for The New York Times.

Another problem with the current education system is that it doesn't promote individuality. It’s true that students receive great results, but some aspects of the system ignore the potential and creativity of the student, thus relinquishing the individual benefits that each student can bring to society.

High school students have infinite potentials and ambitions, but the education system that tries to make them all fit into one mold turns them into similar individuals that they are forced to be. Therefore, Korea’s education system needs to improve in order to prevent this from happening to society. It should be a system that allows adolescents to choose their own paths, not the ones society imposes upon them.