When a Korean meets the Danish folk high school

Publiceret 27-05-2020

STORY Hannah Lee, teacher at various alternative schools in Seoul and former student at International People’s College in Denmark, tells what happens "When a Korean meets the Danish folk high school".

By Hannah Lee

I arrived in Denmark in the middle of the winter, in Jan­uary 2015. The sun never fully rose all through the seem­ingly endless winter. I found myself scratching my head, asking how these people could be the happiest people on Earth. Back home, youth unemployment was at an all-time high, and it seemed that all the younger generation talked about was “escaping” from their homeland or call­ing Korea Hell. I was jealous of the happy Danes in these times of uncertainty, and so I decided to leave my job to attend IPC (International People’s College). Considering the opportunity cost, I had to find something meaningful, but life and classes there were underwhelming to say the least, and sadly, very disappointing. But looking back now, after a considerable amount of time has passed, the reason behind my dismay was twofold.

First, most of the classes I took consisted mainly of student conversations and debates rather than teachers’ lec­tures. The assignments almost never had correct answers. And they were always completable within class time unlike my expectations of receiving harder, more intellectually challenging follow up assignments.

Second, we had an abundance of free time on the small and quiet campus with its very own picturesque pond and grasslands with critters chirping away. There are no assignments, no exams. We could have as much free time as we liked other than attending the classes. I can assure you, I spent my free time in the most unfree way possible. I was given the freedom to do nothing, but I had no idea what to do with it. I crammed myself into the tiny dark underground library, thinking that I had to learn as much as I could. After all, that was what I came all this way to do. I was always accompanied by a couple of Korean students staring into their laptops with the most serious face imagi­nable, and a group of Japanese students memorizing Eng­lish vocabulary. There was one other group – non-Asian students who were curious of what we could possibly be doing in the dark library on the many beautiful sunny days.

For someone who had internalized the competition-oriented educational system that ranked students by grade, expe­riences at the folk high school felt bland like food cooked without any spices.

Hannah Lee

Only by the end of the first semester did I start to loosen up and open my eyes to a few important facts. For one, I realized that I was much more accustomed to being judged by exams and grades than I initially thought. For someone who had internalized the competition-oriented educational system that ranked students by grade, expe­riences at the folk high school felt bland like food cooked without any spices.

I absolutely benefitted from the elitist education, ranking in the top 3% in terms of academic achievement. The basic education system in Korea is as follows: a strict hierarchy among schools, students fiercely competing to be in the top, and rewards given out according to the results. My first semester was particularly difficult because I had to face my uniform-clad self from a decade ago. I was one of those students who proved how extraordinary I was by always “answering correctly” and hoping to be praised by my teacher.

All classes at the IPC were designed to help every single person in the classroom find and put to action each of their roles, rather than fostering the top few “special” students. This meant that there was no reason for me to be singled out as being extraordinary, nor be better than everyone else. Shockingly, I felt helpless.

The present where nothing is decided

When people ask me what I learnt in Denmark, I answer, “I learnt the wisdom behind all students coexisting peace­fully.” I would like to share a short but memorable story regarding this wisdom. We were all in the big hall, and the teacher was about to explain the rules of a simple warm-up game. One of my Danish classmates raised his hand, and with composure suggested that we wait for a friend who had gone to the restroom. Everyone seemed to agree. The absent classmate returned shortly, and the class resumed.

Some of you may wonder why this particular scene was etched in my memory. In Korea, the competition to get into good universities is much more intense than what­ever you may imagine. The 18-year-old-me who was deeply immersed in my studies was secretly happy when a class­mate was at the restroom or dozing off while the teacher was saying something important. Perhaps I may sound cruel. Everyone is a competitor before they are a friend, and this is the bitter reality that all Koreans face. And so, discrimination and exclusion are deeply rooted in our cul­ture. This is why that moment when we all waited for the one student was so special. To me, it was much more than a simple act of kindness.

I suddenly felt guilty for coming to simply “consume learning”.

Hannah Lee

The true value of the folk high school is not in its main classes. The true value is in the place and time where everyone can enjoy “the present where nothing is decided”; eat, sleep, work, sing, dance, pick grapes, bake cakes, drink beer, gather around the campfire, debate, crack jokes with the teachers, and walk through the forest within a family-like community. It is no wonder the friendships forged here often last a lifetime. I suddenly felt guilty for coming to simply “consume learning”.

After a semester, I had the wonderful opportunity to stay another term as a student teacher and returned to Korea in January 2016. The Korean education system was spiraling towards an even darker future, but there were still small changes that spelled hope amidst the despair. I started to teach 17-year-olds at the Odyssey School.

Odyssey School

At the Odyssey School, everyone sang together first thing in the morning. I experienced not only my head but my soul being cleared and cleansed when I sang every morning at IPC. I hoped that the students find all the answers within what they already had. I wanted them to have marveling, clapping, smiling, sunshine-enjoying 17-year-old “todays”. We explored today’s scenes where things happened now instead of learning about the past through textbooks in classrooms. We went where street demonstrations were underway, and ground zero of social disasters. We often went on short trips to mountains and meadows. This was not a boarding school, but the students found each oth­er’s hidden charms that even their parents did not know throughout the curriculum. Instead of doing whatever it takes to win, everyone grew to become wiser, to become a member of society, and become the desperately needed new active citizens of Korea. There were many hurdles along the way, but I read in the students’ graduation essays that they gained truly valuable life lessons during the one year without exams.

“The Odyssey School allowed us to think about how we should live rather than specific career paths. Even after I leave this school, I will live life appreci­ating every moment, the process along the way, even if it may be slow rather than aiming to only reach my goal, just as I learned to here.”

Jae-in Kim, excerpt from an Odyssey School graduation essay, 2017

Unlike Danish teenagers, it takes an excessive amount of courage to attend the Odyssey School for a year. Even the lucky few who were able to apply with their parents’ full support and teachers’ recommendations could not help but worry what would be written in their school records. I remember one student who would ask stiffly “How would this activity be reflected in my records?”. One student whose eyes noticeably lit up more and more each day would say “I couldn’t be happier,” but still suffered from severe anxiety from worrying about lagging behind other students who studied the standard curriculum.

I felt there was a limit to what I could do then as a teacher. The Odyssey School was a social attempt that worked at a national level, but the burden cast on the stu­dents was clearly too large to bear as individuals.

In April 2017, the Seoul and Incheon Education Offices held a seminar called We Meet the Denmark Alter­native Education. A Q&A session followed the passionate speeches by the Danish teachers: “If there is no exam, how do you evaluate the students?”, “Why do you not penalize the students if they are late or absent from class?”, “If the students are not penalized in some way, do they not stay away from class?” The wave of questions painted a picture of the Korean education system treating students as sub­jects who cannot be controlled unless they are penalized. The Danish teachers repeatedly answered that the students should be trusted to no avail.

Unless there is a tectonic shift in the Korean Edu­cation system, there is a good chance that it will stay the same for more than just a few decades. We need more teachers who can imagine a new school and education that they themselves never experienced.

Hannah Lee

Unless there is a tectonic shift in the Korean Edu­cation system, there is a good chance that it will stay the same for more than just a few decades. We need more teachers who can imagine a new school and education that they themselves never experienced.

Though I mostly wrote of the dire, gloomy education system in Korea, there are indeed signs of change for the better. More people want to stop for a while and find their own pace, rather than compete in an economy with slug­gish growth. At the beginning of last year, I started work at a different institution that teaches and trains adults between the ages of 19 and 39. We build houses using eco-friendly methods, farm native crops, and even keep a few hens. We cook and eat together. Here, we refine skills and philosophy needed to cultivate one’s life. We return to the “I” that was forgotten during the 16 years of achievement-oriented lives.

I remember what Claus, my teacher at IPC who convinced me to stay a semester longer after spending a difficult 6 months, said: “Here, we don’t expect to achieve anything right away. It can be 10 years, or even 30 years before there is change, depending on the individual. As a teacher, I simply trust and love the students that I meet.” I agree. It will take a long time. I am simply hoping that more people take their time to attend to the things they hold dear, especially teach­ers and parents. With that dream in mind, I will continue to plant the idea of a less competitive school system.

On Hannah Lee

Lee has a bachelor’s degree in painting from the Seoul National University College of Fine Arts. She has been a teacher at various alternative schools in Seoul, e.g. Haja Center and Odyssey School. Former student at International People’s College in Denmark.

Odyssey School provides a transition year programme for 17-year-olds, run by the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, and is a collaboration between the public education system and private alternative education institutions. Every year, around 80 students enroll in the programme. The school opened in 2015, inspired by the Danish Efterskole.

10 Lessons from The Folk High School

This story is published in "Learn for life" by Regner Birkelund, volume 4 in the series 10 Lessons from the Folk High School, 2019.

10 Lessons from the Folk High School is a series of 11 short books published in the occassion of the 175th anniversary of the danish folk high school movevment celebrated in 2019. Each of the subsequent volumes examines one characteristic of the folk high school – its origin and its relevance for the past, for the future, for Denmark and for the world at large – and shows how it finds expression in folk high school practice today.

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