By Jung Min-ho
JEJU ― Korean schools have a poor reputation when it comes to cultivating creative and self-directed individuals.
The Ministry of Education believes its "test-free semester program," under which middle school students have time to discover their aptitude and talent without worrying about tests for one semester, is a viable option to address the problem.
Education Minister Hwang Woo-yeo visited Seogwi Jungang Girls School in Seogwipo, Monday, to see how students have adjusted to the program. He was accompanied by Jeju Provincial Office of Education Superintendent Lee Seok-moon and Jeju Island Governor Won Hee-ryong.
Seogwi was one of the 42 pioneering schools that adopted the program, one of President Park Geun-hye's campaign pledges, last year.
"I felt the system is alive and well here," Hwang told reporters at the school. "Many students appeared to enjoy the activities and classes they chose."
Unlike a normal semester, where students are required to spend 33 hours learning seven to 10 subjects a week, they only spend 21 hours learning basic curriculum during the no-test semester without the pressure of exams. And for the other 12 hours, they can learn whatever they want to as long as principals allow it.
At Seogwi, students use the time to learn anything from acting to hula dancing. Sometimes, they take a field trip to public and private companies for career exploration.
"I feel like I have grown a lot during the test-free semester," Han Gyu-ri, a first grader at Seogwi, said. "Opportunities like seeing a piano concert and orchestra performance made me confident about my future."
A mother of a student at the school also expressed satisfaction about the test-free semester system, saying her child discovered a new interest in science thanks to the science club activities he participated in. "It would have been difficult, if he just studied in a classroom," the mother said.
According to a recent survey by the school, 91 percent of its students and 100 percent of its teachers are "very satisfied" or "somewhat satisfied" with the system.
Next year, about 70 percent of the nation's 3,200 middle schools will adopt the system. The ministry plans to implement it for all middle schools across the country from 2016.
Despite positive feedbacks, some challenges remain.
"We have difficulty procuring companies and institutions for students to learn about different professions," Han Sang-hee, a teacher at the school, said. "The system could be successful, only if the whole community works together with schools."
Critics say the system will deteriorate the academic abilities of students. Also, they claim the gap of students' academic performance will widen as some parents send their children to private tutors anyway.
Criticizing the government for its hasty push for the measure without enough discussions with teachers, both the progressive and conservative teachers unions have also raised questions about the effectiveness of the system.
"Above all, our biggest concern is that the system might be discarded when a new president takes office," Seogwi official Oh Sang-don said.