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Korean Model Schools: Classrooms on Steriods and Bred for Excellence

What are model Korean schools?

Daegu, South Korea. Kids chirp in unison after the teacher. Maybe they break into song as they break from their row and scurry along, moving their desks into their level groups. It reminds me of an elementary ROTC school.

They call them “model schools” and last month, I got to attend an open observation of one. What’s a model school?  Until now, I’d only heard about the mystique of them:

• Korean teachers who enter endless contests to bolster their point value by taking additional training workshops, employing innovative classroom techniques and are awarded excellence in their styles of teaching…

• Students whose English-speaking levels boosted their own schools’ high ranking amongst other schools…  Model school– a kind of school on learning steroids.

Now, one of these schools was opening its doors to display its proven effectiveness and educators were invited to take a peek at what made its programs “role model” exemplary.


A model teacher introduces the target expressions for a dialogue around the lesson’s subject.

This elementary school in particular, was specially chosen and funded by the Ministry of Education to have a year-round program of immersion English classes- conducted in English- for its entire student body.

“Level Differentiation” is the new word on the forefront.It’s a method being tested and injected into the school structure by the Korean Ministry of Education, with the hopes of making sure all students and their personal learning needs are well-supported.

Basic“, “Intermediate” and “Advanced“, level differentiation attempts to bolster a student’s performance by placing them in groups, based on their ability and aptitude.  Educational tools and activities are custom-tailored to challenge students to meet their group goal.

How hard is the job of the model Korean teacher?

Model teachers work with a diverse resource of tools: from videos, exceptionally crafted Powerpoint presentations using photos of fellow classmates’ performing example dialogue, individual dry erase boards, flashcards, intricate mental games, you name it… They draw every creative trick in the bag to steer students away from boredom and to get them engaged and stimulated towards both, mental and physical learning.

Here’s a brief example:

Basic students focus on speed spelling and the ability to form simple target expressions.
Materials: velcro board and letters, game sticks and a dry erase board to keep score.

(Photo above) Intermediate students must place dialogue in order of the scene (though there’s actually more to this game than meets the eye; those yellow post-it tags with words go with each student’s dry erase boards and are a kind of ordered clue or ‘marking’ used at the completion of each task).

(Photo above) Advanced students must create their own dialogue for given scenarios. The scenes feature popular cartoon characters and Korean celebrities/K-drama scenes.

(Above) Open observation class: Educators, Korean teachers from other schools walk around during the activity time to observe the teaching methods and its effectiveness among the students.

(Above) At the end of class students must evaluate their performance and their ease or difficulty with the activity.

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Article by MyCrazyKimchi

Christine is a Camera Operator & Producer for reality TV in North America. She is currently cutting loose on a hiatus to live & work abroad in Korea & hopes to survive off of Kimchi and tofu, while teaching herself to speak Korean.
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7 Comments

  1. Kelsey says:

    Wow. That classroom looks incredible. Mine were all bare concrete walls and chalkboards!

  2. Laura in Cancun says:

    Sounds very cool! I love the dynamic activities!

    Throughout middle and high school in Virginia, we had different class levels as well. It worked out very well, allowing each kid to perform to their specific ability in each subject.

  3. I just found out that my school was a ‘former’ model school and is attempting to become one again, hence the heavy work load and frequent observations! We also employ many of the same resources that you have mentioned and I think it makes the classes a little more engaging for the kids. Using pictures of the kids or video of hte kids rather them Minsu certainly garners a lot more attention.

    What are your thoughts on the observation? Did you think it was effective lesson plan and something that most schools could do?

    • @julia: I totally have respect for you and the fact you have to lesson plan on your own. Man, that is not an easy task and you must feel so much pressure to keep up w/ your school’s expectations.
      @Laura: Yeah, actually I do remember my old elem. school having a similar way of differentiating levels but I can’t remember how they did it. I think they just had separate classes in some cases. We did have a slow and advanced group for some subjects like math or reading.

      @Chance: As I said, it was a special type of program that the government funded as I think a kind of test to see if it would work, so it wasn’t like the normal kind of observations we get… although you prob get more than we do. I recognized some of the techniques from having done our NET observation group/classes, so I understood the tricks that were being used and the fact the teachers have chosen their best classes.

      Do I think it was effective? Yes & No.

      Level-differentiation is definitely more effective. But the planning for the observation seemed a little much; I realize part of it was “show value”. Most of their materials were “custom/hand made” for these lessons; it’s highly unrealistic for an average teacher to spend that kind of time or effort on a game which has the lifetime of “one” class. There’s an easier and equally efficient way to create these kinds of games, I believe.

      And rather than having 3 different levels mixed in one class they should just level-differentiate by class, as I was telling @Laura. Would make the lesson planning and classroom management so much easier.

      A model school, I’d see as the equivalent of an American private school. The students and teachers there would take on a more serious and professional demeanor, the way my high school did. But overall, the observation was impressive. I think my co-teacher and I walked away feeling like our teacher-ness was hurting. I know I felt it and I really strain my brain for some of my lesson planning!

    • @julia: I totally have respect for you and the fact you have to lesson plan on your own. Man, that is not an easy task and you must feel so much pressure to keep up w/ your school’s expectations.

      @Laura: Yeah, actually I do remember my old elem. school having a similar way of differentiating levels but I can’t remember how they did it. I think they just had separate classes in some cases. We did have a slow and advanced group for some subjects like math or reading.

      @Chance: As I said, it was a special type of program that the government funded as I think a kind of test to see if it would work, so it wasn’t like the normal kind of observations we get… although you prob get more than we do. I recognized some of the techniques from having done our NET observation group/classes, so I understood the tricks that were being used and the fact the teachers have chosen their best classes.

      Do I think it was effective? Yes & No.

      Level-differentiation is definitely more effective. But the planning for the observation seemed a little much; I realize part of it was “show value”. Most of their materials were “custom/hand made” for these lessons; it’s highly unrealistic for an average teacher to spend that kind of time or effort on a game which has the lifetime of “one” class. There’s an easier and equally efficient way to create these kinds of games, I believe.

      And rather than having 3 different levels mixed in one class they should just level-differentiate by class, as I was telling @Laura. Would make the lesson planning and classroom management so much easier.

      A model school, I’d see as the equivalent of an American private school. The students and teachers there would take on a more serious and professional demeanor, the way my high school did. But overall, the observation was impressive. I think my co-teacher and I walked away feeling like our teacher-ness was hurting. I know I felt it and I really strain my brain for some of my lesson planning!

  4. julia says:

    actually, my school is supposedly a model school, but since we’re a middle school and have nowhere near the budget for those kinds of materials, it’s more limited… i do get to teach leveled classes, however. and my big open class is next week!

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