In April 2009 plans were set in motion by the Korean government to implement a 10 pm curfew on hagwon opening hours. This was a reaction to the rising cost of private academy education in Korea. The news this week was that these plans are being met with stiff resistance from all sides and will be scrapped if the majority of hagwons fail to enforce them by June of this year. (http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2010/04/117_63489.html)

Regardless of the financial impact that a curfew would have on a hagwon, keeping kids at school until late in the evening seems not only cruel, but ineffective. Hagwons are private academies that students attend after regular school, usually for 2-3 hours. However, some students attend not only English hagwons, but also hagwons for other subjects such as maths, science and social studies.

In real terms this means that a high-school student might start school at 9am and, depending on how many hagwons they attend, not be done with the day’s learning until 1 am the following morning (albeit with breaks for food and homework and maybe a little r and r). Oh, and this happens every day. Often including Saturdays.

In fairness to the students, they mostly show an admirable degree of commitment and energy at all times, but surely this workload must get to them. At my old school, I often found that by my last classes of the day (at around 8.30) the students were understandably uncooperative and it was not uncommon to find them slumped on their desks in their meagre 5 minute break time.

It seems fairly obvious to me that there’ll be detrimental effects on learning ability if you force students to work that hard. Studies have shown that the average academic attention span of a teenager is around 40 minutes. Even though Korean students are socially conditioned into working these long hours, it’s hard to imagine even half of the things they’re taught sticking in their minds. This becomes particularly true when you take into account that the primary style of learning in Korea is rote. If more of the classes were based on an immersive, practical application of English I would not mind quite so much. But the fact of the matter is, the students are mostly being smacked repeatedly into a wall made from grammar and vocabulary.

I imagine that even someone with a strong intrinsic motivation to learn a language would be turned off by this approach. The best way to learn a language, as with anything, surely comes from a passion for it. What then of the students whose only motivation to learn English comes from being forced to be there? What damage could this approach do to the gusto with which students study English, and by extension, other subjects?

Koreans of all ages work hard (more than any other country), but surely the time to enjoy yourself is when you are young. It seems to me that a little less time spent studying and a little more time spent relaxing would do good not only to the mental well being of the students, but to their prospects of actually learning something useful.

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