My Two-Fold Theory on Self-Destructive Study Patterns in Korea

sleepingToday in class, all my students were asleep. Teaching them was like pulling teeth: not pleasant at all. I’m constantly discouraged by the educational system in Korea, particularly hagwons. But more than the system itself is the mindset that drives and encourages the system. Hagwons in and of themselves are not evil or even bad. They are present to fill a need (real or perceived) and they generally succeed in what they strive to do. Rather it is the “need” that drives much of the success or failure of schools and hagwons in Korea. The need is: to receive high quality education, learn enormous amounts of material quickly, pass difficult high school and university entrance tests with flying colors, graduate from an “Ivy League” (or at least upper-level) school, and ultimately have all money, wealth, and fame lavished upon them for their accomplishments. However, in their rush to get a jump on the competition and increase their own standing, I feel that many students (with their parents’ strong encouragement) are actually doing themselves more harm than good. Often I feel, the very goals these students are attempting to achieve are hindered by their own self-destructive study patterns.

In Korean education, it’s become quite common for students to go to both their regular school and also after school academies designed specifically to “fill in the holes” left by standard education, and also to help students excel and get ahead of their peers. Korean education is quite competitive in this way and some people who don’t have enough money to pay for the expensive after school academies feel discriminated against and less competitive due to their lower incomes. For those families that can afford the extra education, it is not uncommon for their children to go back and forth between academies all day, from 8am to midnight. Some students do get breaks in the middle of the day for an hour or a few, but most of those breaks are not used productively as many of my own students have admitted to “taking a nap in study hall” to catch up on their regular 5-7 hours of sleep. Because of the school and hagwon schedules themselves, many students are forced to stay awake until 2 or 3am to finish their homework, but most school days begin at 8am. All this to be more competitive.

However, it is my feeling that all this schooling does not in fact make Korean students more competitive. In actuality, I think that this over-education actually detracts and hinders their own efforts. I have two ideas about this which I’ll illustrate below: both of them are (seemingly) endless circles of self-destructive (or at least unhelpful) behaviors.

Sleep Deprivation

Numerous studies have linked sleep and memory, immune function, attitude, performance, and a variety of other human functions. In my last look at sleep deprivation I also mentioned its effect on learning difficultiesstress, irritabilitydepression, and even some psychiatric disorders. There is also evidence linking sleep deprivation to obesity and one BBC article also declares “no sleep means no new brain cells.” This article also makes note of disciplinary problems, poorer grades, troubles with alertness, cognition, and understanding, and even attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), besides the obvious sleepiness in class and lack of concentration I so often see. Specifically, they note:

In a 1998 survey of more than 3,000 high-school students, for example, psychologists Amy R. Wolfson, PhD, of the College of the Holy Cross, and Mary A. Carskadon, PhD, of Brown University Medical School, found that students who reported that they were getting C’s, D’s and F’s in school obtained about 25 minutes less sleep and went to bed about 40 minutes later than students who reported they were getting A’s and B’s.

The survey was taken in 1998, but in the past eleven years I’m sure that sleep among teens (particularly in Korea) has not improved much and has probably in fact gotten much worse. This BBC News article from 2007 clearly illustrates that point:

A third of 12 to 16-year-olds asked slept for between four to seven hours a night. Experts recommend eight hours.

The Sleep Council, which conducted the poll of 1,000 teenagers, says gadgets in bedrooms such as computers and TVs are fuelling poor quality “junk sleep”.

Almost a quarter of the teens surveyed admitted they fell asleep watching TV, listening to music or with other equipment still running, more than once a week.

And here in Korea, (nearly) every student from elementary school and beyond carry cell-phones and electronic media players (which are cleverly disguised as dictionaries), while their families own flat-screen TVs and computers. You can’t raise your head in Korea without spotting a handful of people doing something electronically. In entertainment-craving, electronics-saturated cultures, sleep surely takes second place to these digital friends. But electronics is another soapbox, what’s important to note is the fact that they tend to increase sleep deprivation and poor quality sleep.

Now, take all that as it pertains to Korean students. I mentioned before that parents send their children to hagwons often from dawn until late night. They add more schooling in an effort to learn more and be more competitive. However, more schooling also means more work; more work and longer hours of study often means less sleep. Less sleep for students makes them drowsy in class, more prone to fall asleep or not pay attention, and less likely to retain much pertinent information. Let’s look at the chart I’ve made to show this pattern.


The chart shows that with an increase of study, a decrease of sleep follows. Decreased sleep amounts to less focus, memory and retention, as well as increased stress, depression, and irritability. Less focus, memory and retention becomes evident in lower test scores and poorer performance which in turn prompts some parents to seek additional tutors, additional homework, or additional academies (their scores must be low because they don’t know enough and can’t learn fast enough). Increased stress, depression, and irritability decreases motivation and competitiveness among students and prompts less effort in school and academy. Less effort, motivation and competitiveness obviously also leads to lower scores prompts additional tutoring. And the cycle begins again. However, this cycle may not be exactly linear, but rather a kind of dark, downward spiral, away from the competitiveness that all this effort (and money) hopes to bring about.

Poor Bodily Health

I mentioned before that sleep deprivation has been linked to obesity. We don’t see many obese children in Korea these days, but the numbers are increasing and the weight and body fat percentages of Korean children these days are higher than they were decades ago. Part of the weight gain is due to the richness of Korea’s economy (now the 15th largest in the world), the increasing abundance of packaged and fast-foods (think American-style), and also the decrease in general fitness and exercise coupled with the ever-increasing desire for electronic entertainment. The fact that there aren’t many outright obese children in Korea probably has something to do with the generally healthy and vegetable-rich diet and the fact that, what with all the schooling, many students don’t have, or take, time to eat full meals.

Many of my students stay in our academy for 3 hours each day they come, one class of students stays 4.5 hours. Nearly every student complains of hunger from the time they arrive at school until the time they go home. Some students even come late because they eat a rushed meal at home before hurrying to catch the academy bus after school.

Snacks in this academy aren’t allowed although students occasionally sneak them in. And who could blame them? My own teaching schedule only allows ten minute breaks between my four classes, taught over a span of six hours. That’s a long time to go without a meal. But snacks aren’t exactly healthy food items. Ramen may contain a full-meal’s worth of calories at 500 calories per package, but that doesn’t mean that the calories significantly benefit the students’ minds or bodies. Cookies, chips, and soda are obviously less beneficial.

Additionally, students in school and hagwon don’t get nearly enough good physical exercise. The majority of sports are pushed out of the way in favor of other more intellectual pursuits. Even though TaeKwonDo is the “national sport” of Korea, it is not as common an activity as one might expect. In any class of 20 middle school students, I might find only one or two who do TaeKwonDo or any other form of organized sport. Some students do play basketball on the weekends and in their free-time, but most would prefer electronic entertainment: games, videos, music, or the Internet. And with increasing amounts of study, especially as students get older, time for exercise and a proper diet decreases significantly.

Many studies have linked good bodily health with high mental performance. And we all know that bodily health is significantly benefitted by a proper diet and enough exercise. However, since Korean students’ intellectual pursuits and incredibly competitive scholastic environment takes up so much of their time, it seems they don’t have nearly enough time to maintain good diets and exercise or strengthen their bodies. Due to this, intellectual performance can be hindered unnecessarily because the mind performs best when the body is in peak condition. Consider the following diagram.


This chart shows that with an increase of study, a decrease of time necessarily follows. Less time overall means less time for both exercise and less time for a proper diet. With less exercise, students bodies don’t develop as strongly or as quickly as they could; with less time for proper eating, more “convenience” foods are allowed into their diets. A combination of those, less diet and more convenience foods may add to increased body weight, or at least decreased energy. And with decreased energy, students academic performance suffers. Because of low grades, they are often entered in to more study times and academies in order to improve their grades, but doing so further decreases their time which is where this circular pattern of behavior begins again.

What do you think?

Is there  some truth to the fact that students in Korea need more sleep and exercise and less academies? Isn’t it time to give these kids a break?

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