The Open Class and How Korea Gets Things Wrong


I have just performed my second open class since moving to Korea to teach. I hesitated after the first three words of this post and I was racking my brains for a more appropriate verb to use when it struck me that ‘perform’ was perfect – because on reflection the programming and practice (before) and the posing and the precision (during) make these open classes pseudo-lessons: performances. I have noticed here that a robotic predilection to avoid deviation from directions that come from above permeates the Korean education system – whether these directions are effective or not – and this manifests itself in such things as co-teachers’ biblical devotion to the elementary school textbooks. Of course I’m generalising massively, but my point is that a satisfactory open lesson does not a good teacher make, and the belief that it does is representative of some common misconceptions that I believe certain teachers, parents and head honchos hold.

An open class is a lesson (or a segment of one) observed by people with a vested interest in the quality of the teaching. There are a few different types. My first was held at a different elementary school, and I was one of about four or five different teachers (some Native, some Korean) apparently selected randomly to teach a grade 5 class the same 10-minute lesson, alone. It was pretty nerve-wracking, especially given that one of my co-teachers had prepared a lesson to present too and had worried non-stop for the three weeks previously about it. I was instructed to email a plan of what I intended to do during my 10 minutes to one of the senior observers, and I did so. I received a reply the afternoon before the class advising me that I should “seriously consider why we are doing the micro teaching” and that she should be able to “find my superior teaching skills”. When I asked for a little more specificity I got “I just hope you will change your activity. Bye”.

I heeded her advice and did seriously consider why we were doing the micro teaching. Clearly it wasn’t an experiment to investigate how teachers would tackle certain topics, as my plan had to be changed and suited to their criteria, whatever they were. It wasn’t designed to provide insight into how actual lessons are run, as there was no co-teacher present, as there would be at school. The feedback we got about our open class indicated that the aim of the exercise was to give the observers peace of mind that lessons were being taught ‘correctly’ – if this teacher’s 10 minutes ticks all our boxes it means s/he is adequately qualified to educate our kids. Actually there was a full 40 minute demonstration by a Native and a Korean teacher together as well, and it really was like watching a play. It seemed as though the Korean teacher, aware of the importance of these events, had organised everything almost down to each individual word. When asked to criticise her own class the Korean teacher blushed and admitted she had forgotten to tell the students what they would be learning about next time, as though any lesson ever must fit a certain predetermined structure, with strict behavioural guidelines, otherwise it is doomed to failure. One complaint of my lesson was that I moved my shoulders too much when I explained my activity, which is distracting for the students.

One lecturer at one of the many ‘learn how to teach’ seminars I’ve had to go to remarked on the ability of even the vagrants of Asian countries much poorer than South Korea to speak better English than the richly-educated students here, and I think – in part, anyway – it’s a result of this strict reluctance to teach, as opposed to perform. There is an attitude here that progress is reaching the end of a textbook, and it’s problematic. Elizabeth has to teach after-school classes of mixed ages and abilities, and the prescribed material is too advanced for some students. But a kid being moved to a lower-level class is seen by parents as a backwards step – despite the fact that he can’t understand what he’s being taught and will make no real progress in the class he’s in.

My open class today was a full-length lesson with my after-school guys that I see every day, in front of a few of their parents and a couple of other teachers. It was very much for their benefit, as I have received no feedback whatsoever from anyone who was there. I thought it went well – although because adults were there the kids were exceptionally behaved and raced through the material quicker than they usually would do, and so this lesson wasn’t really representative of how one normally is. Not one of the parents attempted to speak to me. I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a parents evening in Korea, but surely they would be a better method of parent/teacher communication. Today seemed more like an assessment of me and the textbook than it did of the kids’ learning, or of lesson as a whole.

There’s an attitude here that can be alluded to with one word – 빨리 빨리 ( pronounced “bally bally” – basically “quickly quickly” or “hurry up”) . A number of Koreans have explained to me that since the division of the Korean peninsula into North and South in 1948, education and economy have prospered at incredible rates thanks to this attitude. One co-worker told me that “in Korea, we have few resources given to us by the land. So we use the people as our resources”. A combination of everything necessarily being done at 100mph and the willingness to work for the country has transformed South Korea from one of the poorest countries in Asia to one of the richest in the world. But this accelerated level of advancement and a desire for its continuation is not compatible with learning practical, usable English. Students can successfully handle English exams necessary to progress to the next stage of education, but surprisingly few of them can actually hold a conversation with you. These open classes feel very much like the fruits of a nation fixated on achieving statistical results, but learning a language should not be judged on the percentages of passed exams. Just because a teacher seems capable of structuring lessons so as to finish a textbook in the most efficient way, it does not mean students will leave school capable of – and excited to – continue English education. It shouldn’t be the case that you can go to city centres in Korea and find successful graduates of  private English institutions that can’t string English sentences together; but you can travel to the heart of the jungle in northern Thailand and find groups of people having meaningful English conversations – but it is.


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  1. #1 by Jane Hughes on November 10, 2011 - 17:03

    Very interesting, Joey, and explains a lot about some of the many Korean students I have taught. They seem to have a different mindset to learning when compared to other nationalities. We’ll have to chat.

  2. #2 by jdhughes89 on November 10, 2011 - 18:06

    Yeah definitely! Some attitudes to teaching/learning are mental here. There’s a phrase that goes something like “4 pass 5 fail” in relation to how many hours of sleep a student should get.

  3. #3 by Bethany Joy Tweeten on November 10, 2011 - 22:17

    Great post Joe! And glad your open class is over! I’ll have to do one next semester…my co-teacher is already talking about it, saying we will stay at school until 9PM working on it…! haha I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it I guess…

    • #4 by jdhughes89 on November 11, 2011 - 07:44

      Thanks BJT! Haha it’s insane how much they mean to the Korean teachers here. Luckily I’ve had to do both of mine on my own so I could just prepare for it like any normal lesson – i.e. a day or two beforehand 😉

  1. Open Class | travel light

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