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Speculating on the High Achievement of Korean Students

by Woo Hyung Whang
November 2001 speculating 

A few days ago, I was told that a university in the United States was implementing a project to translate Korean mathematics textbooks into English in an effort to reveal the secret of high accomplishment in Korean mathematics education. Perhaps the Korean textbooks do make a difference in teaching and learning mathematics, but many other reasons seem to furnish more likely explanations for the high achievement of Korean students on international mathematics tests.

I was fortunate to have experienced both the Korea and U.S. educational systems throughout my education, teaching, and research. I went to elementary and secondary school in Korea and graduated from college and attended graduate school in Korea. Then I studied in the United States for six years and received my master's and doctoral degrees in mathematics education. After I went back to Korea, I taught various mathematics content and methods courses at the Korea University in Seoul. I currently teach mathematics and methods courses for elementary education majors in the United States as a visiting faculty member.

From my experiences teaching and learning in two different countries, I have my own interpretation of why Korean students scored higher in mathematics than students in the United States. The high achievement of Korean students in mathematics seems to be a result of a combination of various factors, including the importance given to education in general, parental commitment to their children's education, teachers' preparation, and the significance of mathematics for every student's successful future.

Korea, a country where Confucianism is very influential, values scholarship. It has changed gradually because of the influence of Western culture, but many people still consider "learning" itself to be a valuable outcome of schooling. Accordingly, many students want to study at the college level, particularly at a prestigious university where they believe that they can get a better education and enhance their prospects of finding good jobs after graduation.

Parental dedication to children's education is remarkable in Korea, even though differences exist between cities and rural areas. Most parents want their children to go to a prestigious university. In an extremely competitive society like Korea, parents believe that graduating from a prestigious university can be an important first step for their children's successful future. The belief is that finding jobs and succeeding in one's profession seem to be much easier when the student graduates from one of those universities. This kind of preference may be a universal phenomenon, but it is prevalent in Korean society.

To prepare themselves for acceptance at a prestigious university, students are encouraged by their parents to attend after-school programs that are operated by small private institutions, or in many cases, parents hire private mathematics tutors. Such lessons begin even in kindergarten or in elementary school. In high school, many parents spend a small fortune for their children's private lessons in mathematics.

The role of teachers is critical in children's education. In comparing elementary teachers in Korea and in the United States, the most noticeable difference is their respective preparation in mathematics. In Korea, elementary education majors usually are not required to take mathematics content courses at the college level, since all of them have already studied calculus in high school. In fact, calculus is one of the areas in mathematics that they need before they take the college entrance examination. They may not necessarily become better teachers of mathematics, but at least they have more confidence in teaching elementary-level mathematics, and they can focus more on the methods of teaching mathematics without struggling with elementary-level mathematics itself.

Many aspects of Korean education are used as explanations for the high achievement of Korean students in mathematics, but the main reason could be the importance of the college-entrance examination in a highly populated, competitive society, and the prominence of mathematics on this test. A Korean high school student does not have the luxury of selecting mathematics courses as electives; mathematics is something he or she must master to succeed, regardless of his or her future goals. Simply put, no mathematics means no college education in Korea.


Woo Hyung Whang is an associate professor of mathematics education at Korea University. His research interests are using technology and manipulatives in teaching mathematics and mathematics learning disabilities. 


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