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Critical Thinking




Is Critical Thinking an Appropriate Educational Philosophy for Korea?  by John Michael McGuire, Hanyang University, South Korea, Academy of Korean Studies 1st World Congress proceedings, 2002.

Note: This is a vastly shortened version of the original.

In many Asian countries and in Korea in particular, critical thinking is not an important part of the curriculum or standard teaching methodology. The dominant pedagogical model in Korea is unabashedly paternalistic: teachers, who are regarded as experts, deliver knowledge to students, who are expected to absorb it. Students are not, in general, encouraged to challenge their teachers or what they teach. From a historical point of view, this pedagogical model derives, at least in part, from Confucianism, which has led to the development of a number of paternalistic structures within Korean culture. However, what sustains this pedagogical model in the present era, more than anything else, is the Korean university entrance exam. Indeed, so much of the educational system in Korea revolves around this one exam that Michael Breen has recently described it as the tail that wags the educational dog (1998, p.66). The exam is of enormous importance to the life of every Korean student; for it, above all else, determines a students personal relationships and future position in society. For this reason, students spend most of their pre-university educational period preparing for it (and the subsequent period living with the consequences of it). But it is an objective-style, multiple-choice exam that allows no room for shades of grey, for disagreement, or for debate. It is therefore not surprising that the education that prepares students for this exam does not promote or encourage critical thinking—there is neither the time nor the need for it.

At the university level in Korea, there is much more opportunity for instruction based on critical thinking, yet even here it is not widely practised. One reason for this is that the majority of university instructors in Korea, having themselves been educated by a system that does not encourage critical thinking, have little experience or training in using it in the classroom. But even for those instructors who do have experience in critical thinking pedagogy, there are serious difficulties involved in using it at the university level. For after eighteen years of instruction that is decidedly uncritical, it is unrealistic to expect students, at that point, to adapt to a methodology that encourages them to think for themselves, to challenge their teachers, and to debate with other students. Moreover, for many students in Korea, once they enter university, the hitherto purpose of learning—to prepare for the all-important entrance exam—has vanished, and along with it, so has much of the motivation for learning of any sort. 

However, things are beginning to change, and there are several reasons why we can expect to see critical thinking become a more conspicuous part of education in Korea in the near future. One reason is that there is, within Korean society, a widely felt need for educational reform, including, in particular, an overhaul of the university entrance system. Sooner or later, most Koreans believe, the system will change, and when it does, there will be greater room for changes to the high-school curriculum and teaching methodology.

In the meantime, thousands of students each year travel abroad to receive what they believe to be a higher quality education. This is especially true of those students seeking graduate degrees. In many fields now, a degree from a foreign university is considered to be of greater value than one from a top Korean university. For this reason, faculty positions at Korean universities are increasingly being given to those who have completed their graduate studies abroad, including foreigners. The majority of these holders of foreign graduate degrees complete their studies in the U.S.; a smaller, though significant number return from Britain and Canada. During their graduate studies, most of these students are educated with the critical thinking pedagogy that permeates the western educational system. When they return to Korea and begin teaching at universities or elsewhere, the educational philosophy that they have experienced abroad naturally affects their teaching styles. Thus, these holders of foreign degrees function, whether intentionally or not, as missionaries for the cause of critical thinking. 

Yet another reason why critical thinking pedagogy is on the increase in Korea is simply that in embracing the ideology of globalisation, Korea is now absorbing western—especially American—culture. Critical thinking is an integral part of that culture, not only in terms of the formal education that westerners receive, but also in terms of the public debate and other patterns of communication shaped by critical thinking. So as it absorbs western culture, Korea is bound to absorb the philosophy of critical thinking as well.

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Last modified: 02-11-2013