I had a feeling of helplessness that I hadn’t experienced in a long time as I stepped out of the taxi.
I was in a city of more than a million people, but it felt like we were alone. It was 10 p.m. and we were surrounded by highrise buildings plastered with brightly -lit signs in Korean writing.
This visit was going to be as much an adventure as it was a professional experience. We arrived earlier that day after a 20-hour commute from New York City. Leaving at midnight on Sunday, it was noon on Tuesday in Korea when we walked out of the Busan airport. I had been invited by the Gyeongsangnam-do Office of Education (GEO) to speak at their Future of Education conference.
Representatives had visited some of our Cheshire Public Schools in the spring and were really impressed by the work that they observed our students and teachers doing. They subsequently invited me to meet with their leadership team, classroom teachers, and local professors, and to provide a keynote presentation at their conference. While I was hoping to share what our goals and practices were in Cheshire, I was looking forward to learning more about Korean education as well.
It felt like a sign that things were going to go well when upon arrival at our hotel I noticed the buses parked outside. The local Korean Baseball Organization team where I was staying in Changwon was playing a series against the Hanwha Eagles. This is the same Hanwha that has an aerospace manufacturing plant in Cheshire. All of the Korean sports teams are named after their company sponsor rather than the city they represent. LG is actually in first place with other familiar companies like Kia and Samsung trailing in the standings. Seeing Hanwha there was a reminder of home.
While there were some cultural differences, like the naming of professional sports teams or the overwhelming number of shopping channels on local television, it was striking how similar the educational focus is in Korea. There is a tremendous emphasis now being placed on social-emotional learning. The Korean culture has a longstanding tradition of the mind-body connection, but it was only relatively recently that those practices have been adopted in the school setting. In my opening remarks, I led participants in a mindfulness exercise that we use with our students at Cheshire High School before exams. It was apparent that every member of the audience was actively participating. This comfort with mindfulness would be very rare with an American audience.
There was a recent protest of approximately 30,000 teachers in Seoul. Teachers across the country are very concerned about the pressure being applied on them by parents seeking higher scores for their children. In spite of the tremendous cultural emphasis placed on education and the esteem with which Korean society views teachers, they are experiencing difficult challenges. While not a local issue in Cheshire, the concerns raised about parental intimidation of teachers sounded familiar against the generic American experience.
The GEO is also focused on teaching students to navigate emerging challenges in the face of artificial intelligence and the next technical revolution. In a country dominated by technical industry, their education system is considerate of the skills their population will need to be successful for those companies. This extends beyond the technical skills such as coding or programming to the intellectual skills and traits like curiosity and creativity.
After a series of more formal meetings on Wednesday and Thursday morning, I delivered my presentation on Thursday. That in itself was a unique experience as only about 60 people were present in the room to listen in English while several hundred were online listening to a Korean-translated simulcast. Even the English presentation was different in that there were frequent pauses for Korean translation. I was honored to share the work of the incredible teachers, administrators, students, and members of our community who helped shape our goals. We have been focused on supporting students to become complex thinkers and strong social-emotional learners long before they were buzzwords. In doing so, our students have gained the skills to better position themselves for success by any measure.
The Smarter Balanced Assessment is given to all students in Connecticut in grades 3-8 and through its measurement of six grade levels of students in Math and English Language Arts, it is the most comprehensive apples-to-apples comparison of student achievement that exists.
Before focusing on complex thinking and social-emotional learning, Cheshire Public Schools performance was the 35th highest district in Connecticut. As of 2023, Cheshire has the 8th best statewide performance while spending approximately $3,500 per student less than the towns that are narrowly outperforming us.
As part of their visit in the spring, the GEO and Cheshire Public Schools entered into a Memorandum of Understanding to engage in a cooperative exchange. They are preparing to send teachers to Cheshire as early as this winter to see American education in person. They have also extended an invitation for our educators to travel to Korea to do the same. While there are significant cultural differences that make replicating systems difficult, there is much to be gleaned from seeing how others engage in educational practice.
After spending a little more than 48 hours on the ground in South Korea it was already time to return home. The trip was exhausting but worth the time I spent cooped up in a plane to see the educational approach and culture on the other side of the globe. We (Cheshire and the GEO) share a common goal to do whatever we can to support our students toward the fulfillment of their dreams. We look forward to continuing our partnership with the GEO in the interest of improving the experience that our students receive and increasing the options available to them.