Caveat: IIRTHW Part I – What is an English hagwon?

[In the form of various unstructured entries with fairly random thoughts, I’ve been working on this project for several years, and it’s come to have the name “If I Ran The Hagwon” (abbreviated as IIRTHW). This topic seems to be evolving into my first effort at something resembling long-form journalism on my blog. Here is Part I. Additional parts (number to be determined) will follow.]

Part I – What is an English hagwon?

To talk about this topic, first we need to define some terms, and provide some context and background. “Hagwon” is a transliteration for Korean 학원 [hagwon], often translated as “academy” or “institute,” but I’m not at all comfortable with those translations. In fact, a hagwon
is not an academy or an institute in the way we understand those ideas – both words convey a different although overlapping set of concepts that fail to exactly match up with what is conveyed by the Korean word “hagwon.”

A hagwon is an after-school supplementary educational institution, sometimes specializing in a particular subject area or sometimes more general. Sometimes they are focused on “exam prep” (in the style of what are called 学習塾 [Gakushū juku = “Cram Schools”] in Japan), but not always. In Korea, there are hagwon offering almost any subject you can imagine: I’ve seen chess hagwon, baduk hagwon (baduk is the game that is called by its Japanese name of “go” in English), computer-game design hagwon, lego hagwon, and robot design hagwon. The most common type of hagwon, aside from the broad-based, multi-subject test-prep sort, seems to be in the following topics: math, science, English, Chinese, and 국어 ([gugeo] i.e. Korean writing and literature for Korean native-speakers).

Hagwon serve all school grades, but the high school ones tend to be more strictly in the “exam prep” style (because the 수능 [suneung] is king – which is the Korean SAT-analogue), while the elementary and middle school levels are more diverse. (As a minor note on usage and linguistics, I have opted to treat the nativized word “hagwon” as an uncountable noun, hence the plural is also “hagwon.” I think this sounds more natural than putting an “-s” on it – e.g. “hagwons” – given that Koreans don’t make much use of plural markers.)

For the purposes of this essay, I will mostly talk about “what I know” – that is to say, I will focus on talking about hagwon specializing in EFL (English as a Foreign Language) instruction for the elementary and middle school levels, essentially grades 1 through 9. Before going into specifics, however, it’s worth the effort to make some more general observations about the “hagwon market”
and the nature of South Korean education.

South Korea has been ranked near the top of all the world’s countries on many lists of quality of education. The UN Education Index from 2007 puts South Korea at number 8 worldwide. A recent report by the Economist Intelligence Unit put South Korea at number 2, after only Finland, which includes data from OECD’s PISA project. But as someone who has worked in Korean education for the last 5 years, I find it remarkable – even inconceivable. My gut reaction is: are all the other countries really that bad? How does Korea do this?

The fact of the matter is that Finland and South Korea are almost diametrically opposed on most matters of education policy. Finland essentially bans private (tuition-charging) schools. In South Korea, private education flourishes, and, if you take into account the hagwon system in its broadest brush strokes, South Korea is arguably one of the most privatized and capitalistic systems of education on the planet: it’s an Ayn Rand fantasy version of education policy, given how lightly
the hagwon system is regulated by the government.

My personal conclusion has been that Korean education is good not because of matters of policy but rather because of Korean parents and culture. Korean culture values education, and Korean parents value education, and so they jump into the education market (on their children’s behalf) with both feet forward and with their wallets wide open. Without having been there, my suspicion is that Finland, in its almost diametrically opposed way, is successful for a similar reason: Finnish parents and Finnish culture value education, and they demand quality education from their system. Beyond such generalizations, I can’t really figure it out.

With that in mind, though, the conclusion is obvious: education policy isn’t as important as people make it out to be. Otherwise, how could two countries at such opposite extremes of policy both be at the top of the charts?

Korean public schools aren’t really that good. The year that I spent in a public, rural elementary school in South Korea was eye-opening. That time led me to understand that in point of fact,  education in South Korea doesn’t take place in public schools. Public schools are more about socialization and building cultural consensus, and education, to the extent that it occurs, is mostly peripheral. It’s a sort of side-effect, or hoped-for outcome. And hence we find the flourishing
hagwon system. If you want your kid to learn English, don’t count on the public schools, despite their requiring English from 3rd through 12th grade – it won’t happen. Instead, send them to a good English hagwon. Likely the same applies for other subjects as well.

The hagwon, then, is the real epicenter of Korean education. The main thing that schools do that is related to education policy is give tests.

These tests, standardized in the extreme and mostly centralized by the government, are the engine  that drives the hagwon industry. Parents don’t, in fact, enroll their kids in hagwon for the purpose
of education, but rather, their explicit purpose is that they want to improve their kids’ test scores. Even here, education, to the extent that it occurs, is a sort of side-effect.

It’s worth pointing out that this is hardly new. Since the beginning of Joseon in the 1400’s (and  probably well before that in some form), ambitious families have been sending their kids to various academies and institutes with the goal of getting good scores on various types of tests. In pre-modern times, it was mostly the various civil-service exams, which when executed successfully could lead to government work and sinecures. This is how ambition has been fulfilled in Korea from time immemorial.

The hagwon system, then, is merely a sort of modern expression of this ancient system. Indeed, looked at in this way, the hagwon system is Korea’s native education system, while the public school system, introduced mostly by the Japanese during the colonial period, on Western models,
is just a sort of Western cultural window-dressing, and a convenient way to administer tests.

This is my effort to summarize what a hagwon is. In the next part of this essay [maybe next week?], I want to explore how the unapologetically capitalistic nature of this hagwon system determines what is possible and what is not vis-a-vis various educational methodologies, and vis-a-vis the
presumed purpose of English education – which is to provide some degree of competency in English.

[Part II]

[Part III]

One Comment

  1. Peter J.

    I wonder why you don’t like the term “institute” as a translation?
    About those high rankings of South Korean education: There may be something similar to the “North Korea Threat” phenomenon. I mean, the reality on the ground is totally at odds with what foreign observers seem to (often) think. I mean, NK seems like a threat more to someone sitting in London or New York than it does to someone in Seoul. SK education may have a similar thing going on. (I float this idea at the risk of ignorance, because I don’t know the parameters they use to create the rankings). It’s easy(ier) to think SK education is great, from afar.

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