13 April 2016 at 9:00 am

New approach for Korean middle schools

The introduction of an “exam-free semester” in all Korean middle schools may provide New Zealand schools with an opportunity to encourage studying abroad.

The Korean government wants to improve levels of student happiness, and move on from students validating their success and self-worth only in terms of academic performance. A priority is to support students to pursue “non-core learning areas” (such as music, arts, physical education, career exploration, club-oriented activities, etc). Each school will now designate a semester that is exam- and test-free to allow students to experience a wide range of these activities.

This approach represents a big change in the Korean education environment. To date these students have relied heavily on simple memorisation and rote learning instead of thinking creatively or critically. The government now expects students to freely discover their competencies and capability, free from the stress associated with exams. Korean President Park Geun-hye describes this initiative as a “key task to fundamentally change Korea’s education system”.

Under this new initiative, schools will teach students using diverse and engaging methods such as discussion, experiments, outdoor activities and team projects. Opportunities for students to engage with activities that may inform their thinking about future career options and/or future subject choices is also encouraged.

The initiative began as a pilot in September 2013 with 42 Korean middle schools (1 percent of all Korean middle schools). It was expanded in 2014 to around 800 schools (25 percent), and to 1,500 schools in 2015 (nearly 50 percent). This year, all 3,204 middle schools – and their 1.5 million students – will implement this approach.

Opportunities for NZ schools

This new way of working not only requires a significant paradigm change in thinking for educators and parents, it also requires Korea to develop new infrastructure outside the classroom. It may therefore take some time to fully develop.

This new initiative presents an opportunity for New Zealand schools; two groups of Korean parents may be interested in sending their children to study abroad during the exam-free semester:

  1. Families that wish to take advantage of the New Zealand curriculum, teaching expertise and existing infrastructure in terms of these broader subject areas (especially opportunities to learn outside of the classroom that are available at New Zealand’s intermediate schools); or

  2. Families that have a more traditional Korean academic education preference and wish to provide their children with an intensive learning experience (such as significantly develop their English language skills).

New Zealand schools may therefore wish to reframe their marketing collateral for parents to demonstrate the strengths of their school’s programmes to deliver quality educational outcomes for Korean middle school students during these exam-free semesters.


What age and year level are Korean middle school students?

Students in Korea start school at age seven, rather than five, the usual age in New Zealand.  Korean middle school students are in years seven and eight and aged 13-14 years. The table below compares the age and year of the two school systems.

What are the Korean school semester dates?

Korean school year is divided into two semesters, running from 1 March to mid-July, and from mid/late August to February.

Who decides which semester will be exam-free? Will it be the same semester for all schools in a region, for example? 

Individual principals, in consultation with their school staff decide which semester will be selected as the ‘exam-free’ semester. This could be any semester between the first semester in the first year and the first semester of the second year.

Korea graph

Would this be an opportunity for students to spend the whole semester away from Korea, or are we talking about short (say 2-3 week or 4-5 week) programmes for groups?

This will likely be predominately an opportunity for individual students to study for a full semester in New Zealand.

That said, it is possible that schools with MoUs with Korean schools could promote an exchange or short course study abroad programme, but New Zealand schools who are interested in this should carefully canvas existing sister schools first to confirm whether this approach would meet the requirements.

What does experiential learning mean in Korea? 

The following four types of activities have been recommended by the Korean Ministry of Education:

  • Topic of interest: students choose topic(s) of interest and participate in a programme of activities around the topic, such as: entrepreneurship, design, animation, film, barista skills, smartphone app development, robotics, cooking, science etc.

  • Arts and physical education: students undertake activities that are not part of their regular school curriculum such as: participating in a musical or in a band, curating, industrial design, or physical education activities such as sports leisure industry experience or exploring career options around soccer, dancing etc.

  • Club activities: student clubs can be organised by students around topics of interest. These could be linked to other activities such as sports, career or volunteering such as a hospital volunteering group of 20 students who go to local hospitals to help out.

  • Career: students discover what employment options await; giving a chance for them to begin thinking about the sort of work they would like to do in the future and to gather information that will help them make good decisions about the courses they will undertake when they enter secondary school. This could include going into workplaces to experience, observe etc. and could also include a career counselling component.

The New Zealand curriculum, teaching techniques and education outside of the classroom experience and infrastructure appears to be a good fit with this initiative.

What's in it for me?