Learning. Laughter. Fun. These three words are just some that I would use to describe our day in Seoul.
Beginning first thing a few of us found ourselves wandering around in search of a delicious breakfast. They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day, right? So what do we choose, why McDonalds of course! We went conduct high-quality research on whether Korean McDonalds are similar to American McDonalds. What can we say it was important contribution to science. Our findings were that for the most part it is very similar!
After our “healthy” breakfast we began our daily walk to Ewha Womans University where we took a tour of EWU Kindergarten. This kindergarten exemplified child-centered learning (John Dewey based principles) from the moment of walking (without our shoes) through the inviting front doorway. The Assistant Director of the school provided our group with an enlightening introduction before conducting some classroom observations. We learned that this school serves around 144 3, 4, and 5 year old children and hosts 20 teachers with additional aides.
This particular kindergarten also serves as an internship and practicum placement for those undergraduate students majoring in education at EWU. The school focuses on student-driven thematic units. For example, in one classroom we were caught-up in a web of learning centered around spiders. We were awed by a student-designed spider web in a classroom web backed by a green screen. This allowed the class to create animated movies and videos about spiders.
The classrooms at each age level were bright and filled to the brim with learning tools and resources. Every classroom was equipped with musical instruments, paints, papers, building blocks, manipulatives, work stations, plants, animals, etc. It exemplified in my mind what an ideal learning environment would look like. Our group arrived in the students’ classroom right at snack time. Sweet potatoes and milk. Not bad, right? Interestingly enough, you don’t see teachers serving the 3-5 year olds but the students serving themselves. They pour their own milk, fix their own trays, cut their own food, and clean up their own area. I believe that our entire group stared speechless for a few minutes before gathering ourselves enough to move on. The amount of self-discipline and autonomy is instilled at such a young age is just baffling.
Another unique aspect of the school was each class was equipped with one-way mirrors for observational purposes. The school seemed to be meticulous in design and thought. The walls in the hallway were adorned with student work or student problem solving activities. One unique aspect of the school was a slide down the side of a staircase. Of course several group members wanted to give the slide a test, but unfortunately it wasn’t an option. This slide down the staircase was only to be utilized if there was a fire or if it was a fire drill. I won’t name names (Ha!) but some of us decided to become Ron Clark “Slide-Certified” in South Korea.
Another key area was the beautiful outdoor learning area. We witnessed apron-wearing students taking part in a lesson about liquid volume. They were filling containers with different amounts of liquid and measuring per the teacher’s direction. This area also hosted a small field, playground, student garden, etc.
This observation definitely set the tone for the rest of our day. The Kindergarten along with the rest of the EWU has a rich history. It opened in 1914 with only 16 students in a hotel across from EWU. The Kindergarten has moved locations as well as reconfigured several times from Jeongdong Kindergarten in 1921 to Shinchon Ewha Kindergarten in 1936. Strong emphasis after the school’s conception was placed on the involvement of mothers in their student’s education. Due to this, a Mother’s Association was created. In 1958, both Kindergarten campuses merged together to create one cohesive learning organization. The campus we visited today was constructed in 1985 and continues to instruct Korean children from the surrounding area. One quote that shows the philosophy of this school that was seen in our presentation about the school said, “Under the principle that children can discover and learn by them selves having the unlimited potentials, all teaching staffs of Ewha Kindergarten are doing their best in order for them to be a truthful wise child, good children, and beautiful-natured children. This passion will go on continuously.”
Our second stop of the day was to the world-renowned EWU Elementary School. One of the first things that captured our attention was the bible verse, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” up on the wall in the front lobby area. This school like the others was founded by a Christian missionary. The principal and vice principal of the school prepared a delicious Korean snack for us before we began our tour.
The celebration of the history of this school is clearly illustrated in the museum that was erected in the school to commemorate their 60th anniversary. This museum rivaled any national museum I had ever been in. Our group was divided into smaller groups where we had about 45 minutes to observe an English class. The English class I observed was 4th grade and had 10 students comprised of 5 girls and 5 boys. I was so impressed with the level of instruction that was taking place. Students were identifying animals and their characteristics from pictures on the interactive whiteboard. Since it was a holiday the day before, the teacher was reviewing over previously reviewed material. Students saw puzzle piece images on the screen and from the pieces had to correctly identify the animal. They then had to read aloud sentences about that animal and its characteristics. Students took a quiz that allowed the teacher to formatively assess their learning followed by a group activity that had students identifying more characteristics of animals. I believe it was a group consensus that we also learned English while we were observing!
We continued our time in the elementary school by observing several other classrooms like music, art, broadcast, and science. One of the highlights of the school is an in-house planetarium. The planetarium was purchased through school donations and can be used by the community as well. We finished our time at the school through a short presentation created by the faculty. This video focused on the values and beliefs held by the school which included: love and service, a solid foundation of basic skills, creative problem solving abilities, pleasure and beauty, dreaming of a bigger world, and become leaders with serving and loving hearts. Our time at the elementary wasn’t nearly long enough, but as I said it is world-renowned so sure enough another group of educators from Hong Kong were eagerly waiting to enter the school as we were leaving.
Our next stop was to have a traditional lunch at the EWU faculty cafeteria. It was a great opportunity for many of us to reflect on our experiences with one another and share them with those we love (post them to Facebook). After full tummies and possibly a little lingering jet-lag we made our way over to our conference room where Dr. Insoo Oh explained to us the Korean student and emerging issues found in Korean schools. There were numerous take-aways from this session however I think one of the most discussed issues was the Wang-ta or bullying taking place and what the government along with schools have done to combat this issue. We learned that Wang-ta or bullying became a prevalent issue in the 1990’s and the Korean government took initiative in 2004 after a critical suicide case. They created a plan that included mandatory school violence prevention education twice a year in every school. These classes are attended by teachers, students, and parents. In 2005, a more comprehensive plan was put in place and it was called the 5-year plan. This 5-year plan came with a manual that divided Wang-ta or bullying into 7 different categories. Physical, Cyber, Sexual, Relational, Forced Errand, Verbal, and Material Theft. After three, five year cycles the government still noticed a lingering problem with bullying. So beginning in 2012, committing one of the seven types of bullying came with pretty severe penalties. The government enacted these penalties in better efforts to prevent bullying. Research shows since 2012 that these efforts have been successful in lowering the amount of bullying taking place in Korean schools. Dr. Oh also showed us through the efforts of EWU a 10-step program was created to promote character education in classrooms. Many of us volunteered to help pilot it in our schools once they had it published in English. Another interesting aspect of Korean education that Dr. Oh shared with us is that although Korean students are some of the highest achieving in the world they are some of the unhappiest according to the PISA survey. To help with this, the government is working towards having guidance counselors in every school. Right now 80% of schools in Korea are without a guidance counselor. Students are now given questionnaires at different points during their school years to evaluate their mental health. This lecture was truly insightful and gave us another great peek into the Korean educational system.
The BIG end to our afternoon was our KPop dance class. The poor ACTION dance team from EWU just didn’t know what they had coming. I am pretty sure we blew them away with our amazing dance moves.
I am not sure our hips, chest, or body knew how to move in some of those ways.
However, in hilarious fashion we all had a fantastic time. It was fun to laugh and have some down time (literally we were down on the floor and had trouble getting up) with one another.
We also decided to even show our Korean dance teachers a traditional American dance. What was it? The Wobble! They didn’t seem as impressed with our cool moves although I’m not sure why. Overall, we definitely have some memories with one another that we surely won’t ever forget! I am also going to hope those videos of us dancing never surface. To end our evening, we all partnered off to have dinner with a Korean student(s) and their family. Some of us were taken to nice restaurants for meals while others were welcomed into homes for dinner. While everything so far has been beyond exceptional this for most of us this was the most powerful as well as meaningful experience. The love, kindness, and generosity we all felt was truly extraordinary. The rapport and relationships built with these families will extend beyond just this trip. We vowed to continue to keep in contact so we can continue to learn from one another.