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Korean schools slowly embrace IB curriculum

July 26,2018
Kim Na-ra, a teacher at the Gyeonggi Academy of Foreign Languages, looked on as her 10 students conducted their own chemistry experiments last month, one week before their final exams.

Each student was working with different materials and equipment. One student was extracting iron elements from seaweed. Another was comparing the vitamin C content of baked and raw tomatoes.

Kim did not intervene. When students did not get their desired results and asked for her help, she recommended revising their experiments and using other methods.

After finishing the assignment, each student carefully recorded results from the experiment and individually consulted with the teacher. Such hands-on work in the middle of exam season is rare in a country where rote memorization and cramming are still the norm.

The chemistry class is an International Baccalaureate (IB) course, which some schools in Korea have begun adopting. Instead of taking tests in the form of multiple-choice questions and short answers, students conduct their own experiments, engage in discussions and write essays. The curriculum was first developed in Switzerland in the 1960s and has been adopted by schools around the world.

Since last year, nine of Korea’s 17 metropolitan and provincial education offices have been considering ways to fit IB courses into the Korean education system. Lee Seok-moon, the superintendent of Jeju, and Kim Ji-chul, the superintendent of South Chungcheong, attended an IB conference in Singapore in March and discussed plans to implement the curriculum.

Teachers, though, have not been happy about it. “The focus seems to be just introducing IB,” the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union in Jeju said in a statement. “What about students’ GPAs and how disadvantaged they will be when applying to colleges?”

A principal at a private high school in Seoul noted that universities in Korea still heavily weigh students’ grades, and the discourse-heavy IB program might not be compatible with the numbers game.

“Korean high schools are not implementing the IB program because it just doesn’t fit with our education system,” the principal said on the condition of anonymity.

Still, some cram schools are preparing to fit their services to the IB curriculum.

“We are actively conducting IB-related studies centered on essay cram schools,” said Kim Eun-sil, an education consultant. “A few cram schools even formed task forces to discuss the IB program and recruit instructors.”

The conflicting responses from schools and private academies about the effectiveness of IB have elicited complaints from parents.

“When I asked my kid’s school about the IB curriculum, they had no idea what it even was,” said Kim Ji-youn, a 42-year-old mother. “Cram schools actually told me what’s good for my kid’s education, like reading books and the newspaper. If schools aren’t going to budge even when our government is trying to change the education system, the only place an anxious parent can rely on seems to be cram schools.”

There are also concerns that private tutoring costs will skyrocket if the IB program is widely implemented.

“IB classes are as difficult as university-level courses, and there are way too many assignments for my kid to handle,” said the parent of a student who attends Hong Kong International School. “Every break, I spend at least 2 million won a week on IB cram schools.”

“IB cram schools in Gangnam are expensive because they’re taught in English,” said one education expert who supports the implementation of IB. “I see the importance of restraining private tutoring, but we need to look at the IB curriculum in terms of what education methods are appropriate for the world we live in today.”

BY PARK HYUNG-SOO, YEO YOO-SOO [enational@joongang.co.kr]