In my meetings in South Korea, I continue to get the sense that cracks are appearing in the society’s heretofore almost universal extrinsic motivation to pay nearly any cost—in time and treasure—to get ahead educationally no matter how bad or unhappy the education. If this is true, then the need to turn mainstream Korean public schools into better, more efficient, and more intrinsically motivating places is important for Korea’s future. But some have questions about how Korea will innovate.

In a sit-down interview with some parents of students in Korean public schools, a mini-focus group of sorts, I learned much about the past and present—and perhaps future—of Korean education.

The parents spoke of being educated in the 1960s to 1980s. Their parents had had a more limited education during the Second World War and Korean War. In the aftermath in the 1960s, their parents raised them with one clear message: study to get into university. As a result, the parents with whom I spoke did not think about whether their education was good or bad. It was just something they did.

Elementary school was not overly competitive, but middle and high school were much more so, they said. One parent remembered that all he did was study in those years with the understanding from his parents that if he got into university, then he would have the freedom to try things. Even then there were lots of hagwons in Korean society for tutoring. One parent said they were quite helpful for learning English and math.

When they were accepted into university, the relief was big.

But then they experienced a void. They had no purpose for what to do once in or after university because they had never thought about the point of their educations themselves or what they wanted to do with them. Indeed because they had to study so many subjects in middle and high school—the curriculum was both deep and uniform for all—there was a problem they said that they could not begin to customize their education and focus on the subjects about which they were passionate.

As a result of both their own experiences and a change in society, the parents said that they wanted to raise their children differently from how they had been. But it has not been easy.

They said that because society has changed—there are so many more paths to realize success in life and Korean society—they did not want to teach their children that they had to go to college to succeed, as their parents had to them. But by the same token, they knew no other way to parent. This appears consistent with parenting in society at large, as 93 percent of Korean parents expect their children to go to university, according to a recent article in the Economist. The key, the parents told me, is to try and explain why their children should do something, not just that they should do it, which is different from how their parents parented.

One said he tells his children that it is not critical to go to college or even a good college, but doing so makes life easier, which is probably correct. He sees many successful friends with restaurants, coffee shops, and other businesses who have not gone to college, but the networks that people form at college increases the chances of people being successful.

This sense seems to be growing in Korean society. In the early 1990s, according to the Economist article, 40 percent of high school graduates went to college. That number peaked in 2008 around 84 percent, but that number has since fallen to around 70 percent, as of 2012. There are a few reasons that may explain this decline, according to the Economist. It takes college graduates 11 months to find their first job on average. Although college graduates still earn more money than high school graduates, that gap is narrowing. The McKinsey Global Institute says that on average college is no longer worth the cost and the months out of the job market.

Related to the question of how to get into college, one parent said that he finds the hagwon system to be quite good because one can really customize an education for each individual’s particular needs. The downside though of this is that it is very expensive. Indeed, according to the Economist, education accounted for an astounding 12 percent of all consumer spending in Korea in 2012.

Another parent responded that not everyone feels this way about the private educational options if they do not have a child who really excels in education. He tried to avoid sending his children to hagwons completely—to stay out of the college rat race—but his wife made them go out of the fear of the children not being “normal.” This fear of being abnormal—forget about trying to be excellent—is a significant social pressure that he feels still persists and is negative.

In the talk about how much life had changed because one need not go to college to be successful in today’s society, one parent went so far as to say that college is no longer the goal in and of itself, but that he was teaching his children that giving back to society was.

Although this conversation was not with a representative sample of parents, it echoed some themes that I heard in my conversations with Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon.

Michael B. Horn and Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon
Michael B. Horn and Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon

In our conversations, Mayor Park said that children have so many different talents and dreams and that the education system should respect these. Currently the ministry and bureaucrats he said concentrate too much on the old subject matter. Far too many students fail today as a result, and they are ousted automatically from the formal public education system. He sees significant innovation emerging from serving these students in alternative schools, which echoes some of our own findings of where the most promising disruptive innovations emerge. Learning from these innovations in the mainstream system is critical, he said.

A challenge to embracing these types of innovations and transforming Korea’s education system, however, emerged in my meetings with the staff at the Freedom Factory, a for-profit think tank in Seoul. There I heard stories about how the government’s reaction to new or innovative forms of education over the last several decades has typically been to block them—through such things as prohibiting hagwons in the early 1980s, instituting curfews on how late hagwons may stay open, or, most recently, attempting to ban “advanced learning” by essentially saying that hagwons and public schools may not teach students about subjects that they will learn in future years ahead of time.

Talking with the team at the Freedom Factory. From left to right, Lee Yoojin, Kim Chung-Ho, Casey Lartigue, and Michael B. Horn.
Talking with the team at the Freedom Factory. From left to right, Lee Yoojin, Kim Chung-Ho, Casey Lartigue, and Michael B. Horn.

Reactions such as these feel a lot like treating symptoms of the problem rather than the root cause of the problem itself, which is that students have different learning needs at different times, and mainstream schools are not serving each individual well. Rather than block the innovation, creating autonomy for mainstream schools to innovate seems critical. An interesting thought experiment that has occurred to me is given Korea’s emphasis on education across the board, what would happen if education here was not compulsory but widely and freely available? Where would students and parents send their children, and what sorts of innovation in learning would we see? I wonder if parents might cut down on the hours of education their children received in exchange for a more efficient, student-centered education.

This turn of events would rely on Koreans continuing to value education of course, which, when it comes to college and formal education, seems to have at least a glimmer of a question mark. But as one Korean who is connected to the education system told me—in a comment that echoed one I once heard Pasi Sahlberg, the former Director General of CIMO at the Finnish Ministry of Education, say at an Education Week conference, compared to the United States, Korea does not have much in natural resources. All that the country has is its human resources. Therefore, Korea has to invest in the brains of the country, and the people know that. Despite my speculation, that is a cost that the wealthiest continue to pay today, but I still sense that broader changes for Korean education are ahead.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.