Whereas Korean 1st-6th grade had short days and lasted only 8 months, the academic rigor begins to kick in starting in Middle School and builds to an intense, nearly unbearable crescendo by 12th grade.
I had the chance to interview two, third-year Middle School students at some depth. In the picture on my right is Kim Hyun Sub and the girl on my left is Pack So Jung. Don't be fooled by their facial expressions - in Korea, that conveys wild enthusiasm at being peppered with questions by an old American who had them pulled out of class. You can tell by the sparkle in their eyes they are having the time of their lives.
Both 16 years old, they won't get a driver's license for another two years. Both also go to math and English tutoring outside of school.
Below are the 11 classes they take for the three years of Middle school:
Korean language and literature, Math, Science, Social Studies, English, Art, Music (instrument or singing), Cooking, Chinese Characters and P.E., including soccer, dance and running.
We met with the teacher and learned it is three years of hands-on study of mechanics, electricity and construction of devices.
Its intent, according to the teacher, is "to teach students how products are designed, drawn, and actually made." It reminded me of a much more sophisticated "Shop" class from my high school days in the 1970's
Busan is both a design and manufacturing city and the government has ensured that those elements of the work-world are integrated into the Middle school curriculum. My sense is Government, Education and Industry are very tightly aligned to maintain the city's competitive edge.
In the 1980's, shoe manufacturing was a huge industry in Busan. Today, all but highly specialized shoe manufacturing is done in China. To sustain the standard of living that shoe manufacturing provided Busan, Government shifted to higher-value education as industry shifted to higher-value design and new material development. The State even went so far as to create highly competitive Design schools and two Shoe Colleges (3 & 4 year degrees) and a Shoe High School in Busan. (More in a future post).
The lesson that Korea has learned living so close to China, is when China moves to take low-value work in an industry it is best to let that segment go and shift education, research and resources to adding more value to the process in design, innovation, invention and entrepreneurship.
Busan has achieved that through cooperation between local industry, education and government - working together to lift their students to the next value-added rung on the ladder and raising the population's standard of living.
This model offers America and other countries some valuable lessons in global competition and I will come back to it in future posts.