Test-free Semester System and Lesson from David's Five Smooth Stones

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Tuesday, January 12th, 2016
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Seol Myoung-hwan, a member of the operating committee of the Career and Vocational Education Division at the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education (SMOE)

In South Korea, the newly-coined term “earthen spoon” is definitely among 2015's Words of the Year. The term “earthen spoon” (a self-deprecating term referring to those without wealthy and influential family backgrounds) symbolizes the frustration of many Koreans in their 20s while serving as a symbol of fear for Koreans in their 50s and 60s.

Korean parents in their 50s and 60s bear the burden of paying for their children’s pricy college education and preparations to get a job. However, for fear of their children muttering about being born with an earthen spoon in their mouth, parents always say sorry for being unable to do more for their children. Korean parents also have to take care of their children’s marriage expenses, which reach, on average, 238 million won. With huge financial burdens on the shoulders of parents, people sometimes say that a marriage is as fearsomely expensive as a divorce.

In the midst of persistent high unemployment among young people, both younger and older generations have been trapped in Hell Joseon (South Korea). One out of every 10 college graduates is out of job. Three out of every 10 job seekers are studying to take civil service exams. Many others are competing fiercely with one another to get a job at a large company. Since job openings are so limited that many job seekers drop out of the competition, gradually sending the entire nation into a downward spiral.
In 2016, Korean society and the industry badly need a restructuring. However, we cannot sit on our hands, simply wait for a sudden change to take place. The key to addressing this crisis is to change the game rules, bucking the trend of channeling all the energy and resources to becoming a public servant or landing a job at a large firm. We can take our cues from 21st-century tales of David vs. Goliath. Twenty-first-century Davids defeat Goliaths with their flexible way of thinking as a weapon, which corresponds to David’s five smooth stones in the classic tale of David and Goliath.

Apple was David to IBM's Goliath in the IT world. Apple, which started in a garage, refused to make mobile phones the same way as then No.1 cell phone maker Nokia did. Rather than following in the footsteps of the Finnish tech giant, Apple created a new market with the iPhone and offset its lack of financial power with technological prowess. Google Inc. co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin also dreamed of starting a search engine business in a garage and finally carved out a niche market.

To the chagrin of Korean society, we lack 21st century David vs. Goliath stories. One of the reasons for that is our test-centric education system. Education should move beyond simply producing students excelling in math or with good English writing skills. Under an education system whereby students are rated based on their test scores, students naturally accept the existing rules without questioning them. Young people are engrossed in building up their CVs to impress large employers and end up finding no other alternatives. This is largely because of our rigid education system.

It is desirable not to have a vague longing to be in the loop. Young people have to figure out what kinds of occupation they are interested in, what is emerging as a new business and what they have an aptitude for. Korean society has to offer young people the chance to have various experiences and provide an environment where they can find a career better suited to their skills. Young people can develop their interests through such experiences and turn them into passion.
Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, who led the flowering of the IT era, were adolescents when personal computers started to come out and entered college when the growth potential of personal computers began to bask in attention. In particular, the father of Bill Gates bought his son a personal computer as a gift, which wasn’t common at that time, and encouraged his son in his interests. As a matter of fact, it is not easy for parents to find out what their kids are interested in and provide support at home.

Fortunately, all the Korean junior high schools will introduce a mandatory test-free semester system this year. Schools will make one of the first three semesters exam-free and let the students search for what they want to do without teaching to the test. I have an interest in career and vocational education for students, so I have worked in the field of career and vocational education over the past three years. The Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education and school officials told me many times that they drew disappointing participation from enterprises in various sectors. It is important for students to have hands-on experiences in the field, so it is regrettable to see companies showing a lack of interest in the test-free semester system.

Companies need to roll up their sleeves in helping schools run the test-free semester system, which is the very first step we can take towards nurturing talent. Rather than lamenting the collapse of human resources, which used to be the pride of the Korean economy, companies should introduce to students various types of jobs and industries at their operations and help students lay out their own vision. There is no such thing as a free lunch. I hope that companies look ahead into the future and take part in the test-free semester system for 21st-century Davids.

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