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Collapse of mathematics education in Korea

Posted February. 28, 2017 06:59,   

Updated February. 28, 2017 07:04


A total of four mathematicians won the Fields Medals at the 2014 International Congress of Mathematicians in Seoul, when Korea hosted the event for the first time. The Fields Medal, which is dubbed "the Nobel Prize in mathematics," selects mathematicians aged 40 or under with outstanding accomplishments every four years to present the honor. Of the four winners, Maryam Mirzakhani of Stanford University was different from the others in many aspects. Hailing from Iran, she became the first woman to win the Fields Medal. She was also the first among female mathematicians hailing from the Islamic region to be invited as a keynote speaker at ICM. What she tipped as key to achieving excellence in mathematics was self-confidence, a simple answer that was hardly expected.

At ordinary high schools in Korea, nearly half of the students lean on the desk and take nap in math class. They are so-called "supoja (math delinquents)." Three to four best-performing students, who already studied the lesson being taught in the class, study something else. Math teachers teach mathematics to cater to some students of intermediate-level performance, but they just feel grateful only if students don’t take nap in their class. Considering that mathematics education at Korean high schools is in such a pitiful situation, it is doubtful whether Prof. Mirzakhani’s advice on methodology suggesting that "parents and teachers should complement students for performing well in math to motivate them” will work for those students at all.

For the College Scholastic Ability Test in Korea, students should solve problems as fast as one possibly can without making error within the timeline. At informational meetings offered by "famed math lecturers" from private cram schools, those lecturers time and again emphasize the effectiveness of the technique of countless repetition of problem solving. Students are advised to solve questions from past tests repeatedly to reach the degree in technique at which they can instantly figure out the type of questions the moment they encounter the questions and recall the method to solve the questions like an automated robot. People argue that math is the study that helps students strengthen the ability to think, which makes little sense at least when it comes to preparation for CSAT in Korea.

Once a student makes it habit to do simple repeated problem-solving in math study, it is very difficult to change the practice later on. After supervising his first math test after assuming professorship at a prestigious university, Prof. Kim Jeong-han at the Korea Institute for Advanced Study expressed despair, saying, “Students are only skilled in solving specific types of questions. They do not think by themselves.” That is, students solved the most difficult and complex questions, but they got wrong answers to questions that can be solved by thinking at the intellectual level of a middle school student. Many experts agree that mathematics education in Korea is currently on the verge of collapse. In this circumstance, can we expect that Korea will take the lead in the Fourth Industrial Revolution wherein math is the cornerstone?