Last week I was delighted to keynote at South Korea’s Education Expo 2012 on behalf of Cisco Global Education. The Korean government is preparing to launch a sweeping set of system reforms, designed to extend Korea’s education lead. The aim is to nurture a generation of creative problem-solvers -- collaborative and digitally-literate with a global outlook.
Korea’s schools have been grabbing commentators’ attention for a while. First it was the excellence of student standards -- the super group of Korea, Finland and Singapore consistently outperform the rest in international tests. Then it was the social cost of flying so high: young people studying seven days a week, an oppressive testing regime, cases of suicide – and at the end of it, with college graduation rates nearing 80%, a shortage of graduate- level jobs to reward all the effort. In contrast, the latest developments have been scarcely noticed.
For some time, Hyundai and Samsung have been complaining that when the world-beating Korean students enter the workforce they lack the innovation and entrepreneurial skills to outpace Europe and America. Which is why the Korean President, Lee Myung-bak brought industry leaders to Seoul just a few days ago to announce that the school system will in future welcome business funding and be responsive to business ideas.
His Smart Education Initiative is already moving forward. It will complement the canonical Korean text book with digital content, introduce continuous online assessment and roll out cloud technology. In addition, the teachers will be offered training and professional development: five hundred of them were in Seoul last week to hear from the President and his Education Minister, Lee Ju-ho.
The reforms are being driven by a small group of internationally-minded Korean educators. Founder members of the Cisco Global Education Leaders Program they’ve spent two years building the plan and look set to be the first to move beyond the staling education programs of the 1990s. The Koreans recognize that the emphasis those programs placed on literacy and numeracy, though valuable in the context of the time, has had a weak and diminishing impact on GDP growth.
Other countries are moving in the same direction, but with less of the Koreans’ vision and willingness to lay down a national plan. Finland agrees on the problem but is taking a slower, more consensual approach. Emerging countries like Brazil and Turkey are fusing basic education reforms with a digital revolution in a much riskier attempt to leapfrog to the top of the league. In the US, the UK and Australia, governments have devolved most of the power to front line schools and are now struggling to orchestrate a coherent, national response to what employers say they need. Indeed the more significant response is coming from students themselves -- iPad-toting and defecting to the online Khan Academy.
So watch Korea. Once again they’re quietly moving ahead. Have they found a new education paradigm to drive a second economic miracle?