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Teaching Students to Hate School

With the focus today totally on the academic performance of students, it's easy to forget that in doing so we run the risk of winning the battle but losing the war.  I'm referring specifically to the importance of non-cognitive outcomes.  I was reminded of this by what is taking place in South Korea ("An Assault Upon Our Children," The New York Times, Aug. 3).

Known for its high ranking on tests of international competition, South Korea would at first glance seem to be a model for the U.S.  But there is a dark side to South Korea's track record: Teachers there are teaching their subjects well but at the same time teaching their students to hate the subjects in the process.  When that happens, it's highly unlikely that students will become lifelong learners.

Worse yet, students are under such unrelenting pressure to post sterling scores on standardized tests that 51 percent of them in 2010  expressed feeling suicidal.  Only sixty percent said they felt content in school.  This compared with an average of 80 percent in 2012 among the world's wealthy nations.

These are extremely disturbing findings that call into question whether South Korea is engaging in a cultural form of child abuse.  I'm not talking now about physical beatings and the like.  But forcing young people to define their entire self-worth strictly on the basis of their test scores is tantamount to psychological abuse.  The cram schools known as hagwons mean that students are studying up to 13 hours a day.  That sounds a lot like sweatshops.

Education is supposed to be a source of pride and pleasure.  I realize that some South Korean students may feel such positive and healthy emotions, but I submit that the real price for the vast majority will not become apparent until many years later.

Public schools in the U.S. have been lambasted for their inability to post results like South Korea's and other high-ranking countries on PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS.  But I submit it's time we give far more attention to non-cognitive outcomes.  I think the U.S. would stack up far better than South Korea in this domain. 

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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