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Beware ‘busywork’ and grammar geeks

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As part of an occasional series about the quirks of teaching different nationalities, Seoul-based teacher and trainer Michael Griffin outlines some useful things to know if you have Korean students in your class

South Korea is now the fourth largest market for international students in the US and Australia – and learning English is exceedingly popular on the peninsula. So as numbers grow, it is all the more important for teachers to understand how their Korean students tick. All statements are based on my personal impressions from working with Korean students, and the usual caveats around stereotypes and generalisations apply.

1 School is a big deal
This might be obvious to some but education is valued by society as a whole and parents specifically. Education is seen as the driving force behind Korea’s rags to riches story and is seen as the ticket to succeeding in life. The amount of time Korean students spend in school (both during and after regular school hours) is legendary.

2 Expectations are high for teachers
Teachers are highly respected, but this respect comes with great responsibility and a lot is expected of them to do right by their students.
Tip: Consider doing something you might not normally do as a teacher just to help students see you are on their side and ready to work for them. Examples include spending more time correcting their written work even if you are not totally sold on the pedagogic value of it.

3 Hard work is valued (differently)
My sense is that in Korea hard work itself is valued in a different (stronger?) way than most Westerners are accustomed to. A good friend and former training course participant mentioned that she was confused when I kept talking about ‘working smart’ rather than ‘working hard’ because I didn’t seem to value working hard as a goal in and of itself. Tip: Don’t be afraid to highlight how hard your students are working.

4 Busywork is almost expected
It is my impression that Korean students have a much higher threshold for what I might consider ‘busywork’ – work for the sake of it, rather than any great pedagogic value. Tip: Don’t feel guilty about assigning a lot of work. Students might expect many assignments so you don’t need to worry about giving too much. Students will be accustomed to doing a lot of work.”

5 Plagiarism is different
In my view, this is closely connected to Point 4. If schoolwork is busywork and not really connected to learning but just something that the teacher has to assign and the student has to submit, why not copy from someone else or the interwebs? Tips: Do your best to ‘plagiarism-proof’ your assignments. Make sure you are not assigning busywork. Show students the value in what you are assigning. Give useful feedback on students’ written work.

6 Tests are a big deal
This is another one that might seem obvious to those familiar with the education system in Korea. The possible cultural difference I see here is that tests are seen as much more ‘valid’ than my sense of how they would likely be viewed in the West. This is to say that I don’t see nearly as much skepticism about tests as I might expect.

7 English is a big deal
Understatement of the year. What some people call ‘English fever’ has spread all over Korea. In order to get a job at a big company students must have a high enough Toeic, Toefl, Ielts score. From my view, English ability is a (newish) measuring stick used to determine the suitability of people to enter schools and jobs.

8 ‘Native Speakerism’ is alive and well in Korea
Native speaker English (specifically North American) is highly prized. This ‘native speakerism’ also correlates strongly with issues related to race.
Students might expect white teachers when they go to Australia.

9 ‘Face’ matters
Of course, face matters everywhere. Students all over the world don’t respond well to feeling humiliated. However, I can’t help but think that the concept of keeping face is especially important in Korea. Tips: Give students thinking time, and use the ‘Think-Pair-Share’ technique. Give students ample preparation time before they are expected to speak in front of others. Continually preach the importance (through a variety of means which might include quotes and anecdotes) of using mistakes as learning opportunities.

10 Pronunciation can be a sensitive issue
I mentioned previously that English is a big deal. I mentioned that people are judged and feel judged by their English ability. There is a lot of pressure to be ‘perfect.’ My sense is that many Korean students feel judged or worried or self-conscious about their pronunciation (including suprasegmentals) but sort of have the expectation that simply being in contact with ‘native speakers’ will sort out these issues.

11 Koreans are supposed be good at grammar
Before I’d even set foot in Korea I heard a great deal about how Korean students excel at grammar but just have a hard time putting sentences together orally. I will easily agree with the statement that the average Korean high school student has been exposed to copious amounts of grammar. However, I can also safely say the grammar ‘rules’ that they have been studying are not always aligned with what I would consider to be modern appropriate usage. Tips: Gently help students see that perhaps many of the ‘rules’ they ‘learned’ are in fact rules of thumb or might not be applicable in all situations. Teachers might want to tread lightly on this, rather than implicating every teacher the students have previously had in the crime of teaching the wrong grammar.

12 Koreans are not supposed to be creative or critical thinkers
I think it is one thing to say that creativity is not focused on in standard public schools and quite another thing to say that a whole nation of people are not creative! Tips: Disregard this stereotype. Give students time to think and plan. Be clear about your expectations. Consider exactly why you are expecting creativity or critical thinking and what you mean by it.

Michael Griffin is an English language teacher who works at a university in Seoul. This article has been adapted from a post on his blog:

Pic courtesy: USAG- Humphreys k2