Gifted Education in South Korea: Part 2


This post concludes a two-part review of gifted and talented education in South Korea.

Part One featured the evolution of South Korea’s national programme for gifted education and how it is managed and supported at national level.

This part takes a closer look at different elements of this programme – built around a tripartite structure comprising classes, centres and schools – and how learners are identified and selected to participate.

It considers in some detail the science schools (and designated science schools for the gifted), which provide one model for those currently developing a new cadre of selective 16-19 maths free schools in England.

It will also review professional development in gifted education, as well as some of the problems and issues that the Koreans have identified within their national programme – and how they plan to overcome these.

Part One established that South Korea is gradually expanding its national programme, with the ultimate aim of supporting 5-10% of its learners, and that it sets out the stages of this process in a series of five-year plans. We are currently approaching the end of the second planning period, so a Third Plan, this time for 2013-2017, is bound to be under development.

By the end of the Second Plan in 2012, the population served by the national programme  should be around 140,000 learners. That is equivalent to roughly 2% of the learner population in South Korean schools, excluding the not inconsiderable private sector.

It follows that a 5% gifted population is equivalent to 350,000 learners and a 10% population equivalent to 700,000 learners. The Koreans will have to increase capacity significantly to cater for such large numbers (though it is worth reminding ourselves that England’s national programme was close to reaching one million learners at its height).

Since the bulk of provision is currently in maths and science, we might expect the Third Plan to concentrate future growth in other areas, especially arts and leadership (and possibly sports). But Korea will not wish to lose momentum in maths and science as it seeks to consolidate its position at the top of the PISA rankings. There will also be continuing efforts to embed creativity throughout the programme.

Kim identifies four current priorities within his 2010 presentation:

  • Establishing an effective system of gifted education
  • Systematic identification of those gifted in science
  • Securing continuity in gifted education through to higher education and
  • Extending gifted education into areas of the arts.

The treatment below will show what progress South Korea has made to date and where there are obvious gaps in provision.

Before we go any further I should warn readers that the quality of English in some of the source documents for this post has left something to be desired. Moreover, aspects of the programme have been undergoing rapid reform and it is not always clear whether documents are describing current or previous arrangements.

This may have caused me to misinterpret some details, for which I apologise. One strategy I have adopted to increase the reliability of this record is to rely more heavily than usual on explanatory diagrams.

Definitions and Identification

Part One included Kim’s translation of the definitions within the 2000 Promotion of Gifted Education Act:

A gifted learner is ‘a person who possesses extraordinary innate abilities or visible talents requiring special education to nurture them’; and

Gifted education is ‘providing education with the contents and the method tailored to the characteristics and the needs of a gifted child’.

The Gifted Education Database (GED) website adds that the Act defines the purpose of gifted education as:

‘to promote self-actualisation of individuals and have them contribute to development of society and nation by scouting for gifted and talented persons and carrying out education suitable for ability and aptitude in accordance with regulations…so they can develop innate potential.

In addition, the gifted education is aimed at helping gifted and talented persons to acquire expertise, creativity, leadership, morality and self-directed learning attitude in accordance with [other legislative provisions]….which say that all members of a nation shall have right to education according to ability and aptitude to promote self-actualization and contribute to development of society and nation.’

It also notes that the Act expects ability to be manifested through one or more of the following: general intelligence, specific academic aptitude, creative thinking ability, artistic ability, physical talent and ‘special talents’ (a term that is not further explained).

So the legislative conceptualisation of giftedness is relatively broad, even though initial development of the national programme has been very tightly focused on maths and science.

Identification processes were significantly revised between the First and Second Plans, adjusting the balance between written tests on one hand and classroom observation and teacher nomination on the other.

Under the First Plan it was typical practice for schools, centres and classes to follow a three- or four-stage process, beginning with school nomination but relying principally on subsequent testing rounds, followed by a personal interview.

This approach was rejected for the Second Plan because it stimulated excessive competition to succeed on the tests, fuelling South Korea’s obsession with cramming and private tuition. Successful students were typically high achievers, rather than those with high potential, as yet unfulfilled, and this resulted in under-selection of those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The Second Plan stipulated that initial nominations should emerge from teacher observations focused more on potential than achievement. Tests were still to be used, but evidence from that source was given relatively less weight.

The process is illustrated by this diagram, which can be found, with slight variants, in two or three different online resources.

Stage 1 is the collection of information about the student: references from teachers, parents and fellow students; assessments against a checklist of gifted behaviours; the student’s family background; a portfolio of work undertaken in school and the outcomes of any school-based assessments;

Stage 2 involves use of rubrics to assess the student’s competencies and likelihood of success within a gifted programme. At this stage, between two and three times the required target number of students are typically identified.

Stage 3 is based on class observation and interviews – student performance is assessed in a classroom context and interviews are used to gauge interest, attitudes and motivation.

Stage 4 is to identify those students that will benefit most from the relevant programme, typically by convening a placement committee which considers all remaining candidates.

Stage 5 is post-placement assessment, to check whether or not the student is coping – and whether he should be transferred to a more demanding opportunity if necessary.

A sequence of recommendations gives access to the different layers of the national programme. The GED website describes the process thus:

Recommendation by Individual Nominator (Nomination 1): A homeroom teacher, subject teachers, gifted education teachers and related professionals could recommend students with giftedness and talents. Based on diagnostic assessment on the giftedness of the students through observations of behavior patterns and psychological characteristics which the students show during instructional hours, a form of teacher recommendation letter is written out for submission to “School Recommendation Committee.”

Recommendation by School Recommendation Committee (Nomination 2) : School recommendation committee organized by a school unit could recommend students. The committee review teacher recommendation letter as well as various documents displayed a student’s talents and then, recommend the student to “Selection Review Committee.” In case of the gifted class of a unit school, school recommendation committee functions as selection review committee.

Selection by Selection Review Committee (Identification): Final selection of candidates for gifted education is conducted in selection review committee organized by gifted education institutions. The committee utilizes diverse identification criteria such as school recommendations, various documents, personal interview, science camp, and test results on giftedness and academic aptitude of the students.’

In effect, the programme has moved away from a focus on identification as an end in itself and towards identification through provision.

The Gifted Education Database supports this process. It seems likely that South Korea will move identification fully online within the next few years, so integrating it closely with data collection and analysis.

Three Layers of Provision

Part One outlined how South Korea’s differentiated curriculum operates within normal classes and how there are three different levels of ‘pull-out’ provision beyond this to meet the needs of gifted learners:

  • A gifted class, normally located in the pupil’s own school, or a neighbouring school. The GED website suggests that this is typically offered outside normal school hours: ‘It is operated by elementary, middle and high schools in the form of extra-curricular activities, discretionary activities and after-school activities during weekend and vacation, which are carried out in each school unit or in the form of community-based class through joint participation of neighbouring schools.’
  • Courses provided within a dedicated gifted education centre also typically (but not exclusively) outside  school hours: ‘It can be installed and operated by a university, government-funded research institution, and public-service corporation. Since gifted education center is not a regular school, students mainly use this facility after school or during vacation. However, they can receive education after obtaining permission from the principals even in school hours. In such case, it is operated in ‘pull-out’ system so that school attendance of the students can be recognized by schools.’ Some of the other online authorities draw a clear distinction between centres operated by district education offices and those operated by university-based centres, the latter having significantly higher status.
  • Attendance at a dedicated Gifted High School, a form of provision that – currently at least – is almost entirely restricted to maths and science. It is important to distinguish between two levels here as well: there are 18 science high schools (SHS) spread throughout the different provinces of South Korea; there are also four national science schools for the gifted.

The KOFAC website carries a very useful map showing the location of both types of school, plus university-based gifted education centres. But, before we consider this higher-level provision, there is more to be said about gifted education classes.

Gifted Classes

Gifted classes are available across all phases, in elementary, middle and high schools. They will be particularly significant for learners in predominantly rural areas of the country who cannot easily access the centre-based provision.

Sessions typically take up 2-4 hours a week and each class is normally restricted to about 20 pupils, significantly fewer than in a typical Korean classroom.

In January 2009, the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education announced that all of its 950 elementary and middle schools would have at least one class for up to 20 gifted pupils by 2012. The press report quotes a school inspector for gifted education:

‘The goal is to lift the ratio of students subject to gifted education to the level of advanced countries of three to five percent from the current 0.8 percent (5,624 students).’

and a concerned parent:

‘Though the purpose of increasing classes for gifted children is said to expand education for the gifted, this will eventually create disparity between the academically competent and those less competent. This will further fuel demand for private education.’

Further insight is provided by this wiki dating from Spring 2011, which sets out planned changes to the gifted education programme in Oh-Ma Elementary School in Il-San New City.

Although the School is clearly exemplary in this field, the description of the changes taking place are a useful illustration of how changes in national policy are impacting at school level.

The wiki describes the School as predominantly middle class with some 1,700 pupils and 65 teachers. It introduced its gifted programme as recently as 2009, but has been more systematic in implementing it than most other schools. The focus is exclusively on maths and science.

Three objectives are specified:

  • to offer differentiated learning activities that will develop higher level thinking skills and creativity
  • to plan and offer a high-quality curriculum built around diverse teaching strategies; and
  • to improve pupils’ self-directed learning through research-based projects.

Prior to the proposed changes, identification still follows the old model:

‘three processes from early December to early February. First, homeroom teachers nominate students based on the achievement test scores in Science and Math and a behavior checklist that assesses students’ attitude, potential, and participation in class. Although parents can nominate their children, teachers can only refer them when the students are qualified. Second, the nominated students take two tests offered by In-San Department of Education. The first test is “The Examination for Identifying Giftedness” and this test is composed of the following parts to identify students’ giftedness: (1) Creativity in thinking (2) Fluency in thinking (3) Diversity in thinking (4) Emotional sensitivity. In another examination, the nominated students take a test called “Academic Aptitude Test.” After combining these two test scores, one and half times more candidates are selected according to the order of their total test scores. Finally, there is a depth interview. The interview is composed of discussion, experiments and practices. The scoring guideline of the depth interview is also provided by In-San Department of Education.’

There is a single after-school gifted enrichment class for maths and science together, for 20 pupils from the Sixth Grade. It consists of a four hour session once a week. The class is taken by generalist teachers who have received supplementary training, since the school does not employ a gifted education specialist.

The course comprises 151 hours divided between: maths (45 hours), science (29 hours), fieldwork (21 hours), English (20 hours), invention (15 hours), volunteering (6 hours), a project with local community mentors (5 hours), a product presentation and competition (4 hours), a special lecture about science and gifted education (4 hours) and technology (2 hours).

The curriculum focuses:

‘on developing research skills, problem-solving skills, creative thinking skills, and leadership. In particular, the enrichment learning activities emphasize projects carried out by cooperative learning and self-directed learning during 10-12 lessons. During orientation of the gifted class, gifted students must submit their own research topics to conduct for one year.’

The wiki explains that the School is preparing to increase its provision substantively, to cater for 10 pupils in each of Grades 3-6 (40 in all) in maths, science, English and creativity classes and 5 pupils in each of Grades 3-6 (20 in all) in a combined music and art class. So 180 pupils – over 10% of the pupil population – will now benefit and:

‘Moreover, all students have opportunities to participate in diverse extension by verifying students’ mastery through pre-assessment in the specific subjects during school time’.

This is part of a holistic plan to improve provision for gifted learners set out by the School. The new programme:

  • ‘provides more gifted students with opportunities to develop their potential in various areas. For example, based on the extended giftedness definition, this programme tries to provide diverse after school enrichment classes in creative and artistic areas as well as academic areas’.
  • ‘introduces multiple criteria for identification and special nomination for students with disadvantages or hidden gifted students’
  • ‘because gifted learners tend to waste their time in repetitious lessons which teach concepts they have already mastered…introduces curriculum compacting for gifted cluster groups’
  • ‘allows highly gifted students in specific subjects to participate in advanced-level classes through subject acceleration’.
  • ‘identifies disadvantaged gifted students with high potential under the special conditions by including candidates for screening’
  • ‘tries to hire, place and manage human resources systematically….requires gifted teachers to develop their skills in diverse professional training to meet gifted students’ needs and hires school psychologists to manage the identification process and to counsel gifted learners in terms of social and emotional needs’.

It concludes:

‘Through these strategies, this revised gifted programme will serve as a model that overcomes the many weaknesses of Korean public schools’ gifted programmes. That is, by presenting a leading gifted education model for Korea, other schools will be challenged to revise their established gifted programmes.’

Gifted Education Centres

The Gyeongbokgung Palace courtesy of Brian Negin

I can find very little information in English about the gifted education centres operated by education offices. They typically operate outside school hours, including after school, weekend and holiday activities, though some also offer provision in school time as a ‘pull out’ option. An annual course may be as little as 70 hours or as much as 450 hours in length.

There is much more material about the higher status university-based centres. Once again, the provision is typically made outside school hours, especially at weekends and during school holidays. One source says that classes are typically small – fewer than 15 students – and courses last 300 hour spread over three years.

An article on the Ministry of Education website, dating from 2004, says:

‘The Ministry of Science and Technology currently operates 19 Science Education Centers for the Gifted as part of university programs while the Ministry of Information and Communication and the Ministry of Culture and Tourism operate the IT Education Center for the Gifted and the Performing Arts Program, respectively, to raise human resources in specialized areas and to divide the role according to the nature of the talent.’

Another online article includes a table suggesting that there were indeed 19 centres in 2004, having increased from the 15 in place from 2001-2003, but the number further increased to 23 in 2005 and 25 in 2006-07.

According to this source, the number of pupils attending such centres exceeded 5,700 by 2007, suggesting an average of over 200 attendees per centre.

Confusingly, Kim’s presentation speaks of 84 centres accommodating almost 7,600 pupils by 2009. It may be that this larger number includes centres focused on subjects other than science.

But, then again, the map on the KOFAC website above has only nine science centres marked. This would suggest that the centres are divided into at least two different categories, according to status.

A presentation by KOFAC says courses are available in maths, physics, chemistry, biology, earth science and information science. Pupils are drawn from the 4th Grade in elementary school and the middle school grades. The centres – the presentation calls them SECGs –  produce an annual plan for KOSEF’s approval, which unlocks a budgetary allocation.

A significant minority of pupils who complete these courses move on to a science high school or one of the schools for the gifted. In 2007, some 22% did so.

A chapter in a 2005 publication ‘Education of Gifted Elementary and Middle School Students with University Faculty in Korea’ explains that a typical pattern comprises a year of weekend activities in term-time followed by a camp during the holidays and sometimes additional online activities.

The first year is called the Basic Course and emphasises practical experimentation. Only half of the students move on to the Advanced Course in the second year, which is typically more project-based. A few of those may be assigned a mentor and supported by that means during a third year. Most of the teaching is undertaken by senior academics, though more junior academics and school teachers are also involved.

The budget combines KOSEF and local funding. There is no charge to parents. In 2003, the average sum per centre allocated by KOSEF was around Euros 112,000, though there is considerable variation between centres.

This presentation about the science centre at Kyungam university gives a little more background about the scale and operation of such an entity. We can see, for example, that the organisational structure is complex (slide 7) with five different committees overseeing nine different classes and that the overall staff complement is 68 (slide 8) including 43 teachers and lecturers.

Another interesting study available online offers insights into how such centres operate. Published in 2007, it is an ethnographic study based on interviews with academics and students at the ISEP Science Gifted Education Center’, which is described thus:

‘a university-based science-gifted education center established in 1998 through the support of the Ministry of Science and Technology. The ISEP science-gifted education center is located in Incheon, a metropolitan area in  Korea…. Approximately two hundred and fifty six students, from first to third grades in middle school, are currently enrolling in basic, intensive, and mentoring courses. Although students choose one of the six subject areas such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, earth science, and information based on their interests, the projects dealt with in class are rather interdisciplinary in nature. Students come to the gifted education center every Saturday after school, and have lessons for three hours, from three to six.’

There is not space here to engage substantively with the findings, though this extract from the abstract gives a sense:

‘First of all, the…center provides differentiated learning environments and teaching methods. Second, through these differentiated learning experiences, students improve their thinking skills and creative problem solving abilities, as well as developing positive self-esteem. In addition, the formation of human networks, the special meaning of the ‘gifted’ label, and the acquisition of personal knowledge were seen to be some of the major educative possibilities on offer…

However, some professors’ low levels of motivation, the absence of individualized educational plans, bureaucratic management, weak student commitment to set tasks, and a lack of opportunity for students’ social activities were clearly limitations…’

The Science High Schools

The KOFAC map shows 17 science high schools and four science high schools for the gifted.

The first science high school was established in Gyeonggi in 1983 (it has since become a science high school for the gifted) and the last – Jang Young Sil in Busan region – in 2003.

These schools are overseen by the appropriate metropolitan or provincial education office.

There is one school in each province, one in each metropolitan city, and two in Seoul. Students can only apply to the school that is located in their province/city, though some do offer boarding places. One source says that the average class size is 23, so again lower than in other Korean high schools.

Most of the school websites are written entirely in Korean, but a few do have a limited number of pages in English. One of the most generous in this respect is Hansung science high school (No.11 on the KOFAC map) commonly abbreviated to HSHS and located in the Seoul Metropolitan area.

HSHS was founded in 1992. The mission statement is:

‘To help students grow to be leading scientists in Korea and beyond:

  • students increase their motivation for leading maths and science
  • students promote their creativity and develop advanced research skills
  • students gain a strong command of English to be global leaders

To help students build their characters:

  • students have opportunities to develop their social skills and interests
  • students contribute to the community by participating in volunteer work
  • students understand the value of respect and responsibility and develop their ethical and moral awareness’

Only about 1,600 students have attended the School since it opened. The current annual admission is around 140, all of them boarders, but the total number on roll at any one time is around 320, because the large majority graduate early, after only two years of study.

There are currently seven classes in the first and second years – for 140 and 155 students respectively – and only three in the third year, catering for just 31 students. Boys are heavily over-represented – there are currently 263 boys enrolled and only 63 girls.

The admission requirements, as described, are relatively simple. Applicants must either demonstrate ‘good abilities of self directed learning and pass an interview test’ or ‘have good scientific creative abilities and pass a ‘science camp’ test’.

There are 58 staff, most with doctorates or higher degrees. They include eleven maths teachers, eight English teachers, six physics teachers and five teachers each for chemistry, biology and Korean.

The curriculum looks like this:

Further insights into the nature of such schools can be gained by visiting other websites with English pages, such as those for Geonggibbuk and Sejong Science High Schools.

Science Schools for the Gifted

The four science schools for the gifted recruit throughout South Korea and are managed directly by central government. They also have the power to set their own curriculum, rather than following the national curriculum that applies to all other Korean high schools.

One source provides the following figures for numbers on role at each school, which appear to date from November 2010.

School A B C D Total
Male 380 (18) 323 235 81 1037
Female 71 (4) 17 23 16 131
Total 451 (22) 340 258 97 1168
Classes 38 24 16 6 84

The school names are not given, but I infer from information supplied by other commentators that their identities are as follows:

A = Korea Science Academy of KAIST which was designated as a school for the gifted in 2003. (The figures in brackets in the table above are international students)

B = Seoul Science High School, designated in March 2008

C = Daegu Science High School, designated in December 2008

D =Gyeonggi Science High School, designated in March 2010

All four schools were previously science high schools.

Unfortunately, the pages in English on the Gyeonggi School website are not currently live and there are no English pages on (what I believe is the correct) Daegu School website.

Much more material is available about the other two schools which are the best known in the West.

The Seoul Science High School

The English pages on the School website tell us that the school was founded in 1989. Its declared mission statement is:

  • ‘To develop human resources in advanced science and technology;
  • To select students gifted in science and allow them to their full potential [sic]
  • To lay the foundations for an international-level education center for the gifted’

Unlike the science high schools, where there were relatively few students in Grade 12, SSHS seems to retain a large proportion of its students throughout the three years of high school. There are currently around 100 in Grade 12, compared with 120 in each of Grades 10 and 11.

Eligible students must possess ‘outstanding ability and potential in maths and science supported by a teacher’s or principal’s recommendation. Selection involves:

  •  initial portfolio assessment from which
  • 600 students are chosen to undertake a ‘scholastic aptitude test’ in maths and science, from which
  • 180 students are chosen to undertake a second test of ‘problem-solving ability, creativity and high-order thinking skills’ in maths and science
  • final selection is undertaken during a three-day science camp on the SHSS campus during which candidates take part in experiments, presentations, debates and interviews

SSHS has 81 staff, 50 of which are maths or science specialists. The curriculum is described by this diagram:

The notes attached explain that SSHS operates a non-graded, credit-based approach. An interdisciplinary curriculum is designed to develop creativity through the cultivation of research skills and is personalised to meet the abilities and needs of each learner.

It incorporates several special research, leadership and personal development activities :

  • a research and education programme which allows students to undertake research activities under the supervision of university professors. Each is expected to produce an academic research paper.
  • A research assignment, undertaken individually or in pairs, based on a subject chosen by the student(s). They are expected to produce a report comprising a journal and a treatise. The best are eligible for inclusion in national competitions and exhibitions and their reports are published.
  • Field research on the island of Jeju undertaken during a week-long field trip in the 10th Grade. The students examine the island’s geological structure, astronomy and local flora and fauna.
  • A research thesis and presentation based on work undertaken in in-school science clubs, designed to stimulate original work and develop students’ skills in presenting the outcomes to an audience.
  • 10th Grade students undertake an overseas field trip in three teams, each visiting a different leading US university or research institute.
  • An exchange programme with a Beijing high school
  • Participation in international olympiads and other international competitions (SSHS has provided over 40% of South Korean representatives and South Korean prizewinners in international olympiads since 1988)
  • Voluntary service supporting the disabled, a student forum and a series of Saturday lectures given by leading scientists

The Korea Science Academy of KAIST

The Korea Science Academy, which featured briefly in my previous post about Pan-Asian STEM programmes for gifted learners, is probably the best-known of the science schools for gifted learners outside South Korea.

According to the English pages on the website it is the only School for the gifted whose budget is fully funded by the Korean government.

Although designated in 2003 (in fact the website claims 2001), it did not form its official association with the Korea Advanced  Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) until March 2009. Prior to 2005 it was known as the Busan Science High School, becoming the Korea Science Academy in that year.

The declared educational objectives are:

  • ‘To enhance the creativity and scientific research ability of the students
  •  To promote self- directed learning ability that leads to the promotion of new knowledge
  • To teach the skills and ethical attitudes toward science required of scientists of world stature’

These are supplemented by a set of principles:

  • ‘To provide scientifically gifted students with world class education through a progressive curriculum and autonomous management
  • To endow the students with a sense of responsibility that fosters pride in themselves and the school
  • To provide student-centered curricula to strengthen students’ creativity
  • To recruit excellent faculty members and to promote research to enhance teaching professionalism
  • To develop a diverse campus life through various extra-curricular activities
  • To build cooperative relationships with outstanding institutions at home and abroad to enrich students’ educational and cultural experiences
  • To select scientifically gifted students trough multi-phase admission procedures
  • To build desirable educational environment for students through administrative and financial support
  • To build effective advertising system to bolster the status of the school’

At August 2011, the 450 students were supported by 65 teaching staff (including 11 designated international staff) and 10 teaching assistants. The student teacher ratio is given as 6:1. The school also employs 73 administrative staff. Almost two-thirds of the teaching staff have doctorates (including almost all the maths and science specialists).

For domestic applicants there is a three-stage admissions process, very similar to that in operation at SSHS:

  • students who are recommended by teachers submit portfolios of their work and achievements;
  • those who pass the first stage undertake oral and written tests of creativity and problem-solving in maths and science
  • 216 students are selected to attend a science camp (one source says this lasts 3 days, another 5 days). Candidates are observed and interviewed before a final selection is made.

KSA accepts a maximum of 150 domestic students annually regardless of where they live.

It has a separate English language admissions website presumably as part of its endeavours to attract international students. There are two application rounds, at the end of May and October. There is a slightly different three stage process:

  • evaluation of documentation
  • evaluation by an admissions committee on the basis of tests in English, maths and science plus an in-depth interview
  • selection from a final field of no more than 18 candidates (so no more than 18 can be admitted)

There were 72 applications from overseas candidates in 2011, including significant numbers from Indonesia, the Philippines Uzbekistan and Vietnam, plus individual applications from Canada, Congo, Nigeria, Russia, Thailand and USA. Just nine were successful – four from Indonesia, three from Vietnam and one each from Nigeria and the Philippines.

Successful candidates receive free tuition, room and board in KSA dormitories (said to be worth around £3000 per year) but they must pay their own travel and personal expenses. They must all pay supplementary costs, which the website estimates at around £650 per year. (In 2011, 160 domestic students also received scholarship support, including 12 who paid no tuition fees).

The curriculum is organised as follows:

The Brochure for overseas admissions says that the mandatory courses required for completion of high school in Korea are undertaken in 10th Grade, permitting Grades 11 and 12 to be devoted to elective courses.

The creative research activities include the following components:

  • Creative Research Fundamentals (10th Grade): students explore their own areas of interest and learn about methodology;
  • Research and Education Programme (11th Grade): students work in a group of four with a research mentor throughout the year, including a summer element which may be conducted at an overseas university, preparation of interim and final presentations and production of a research report.
  • Graduation Research (12th Grade): students complete a graduation thesis under the guidance of a research adviser.

All classes are taught in English. Maths, science, English, PE and arts courses are taught to domestic and international students together, but international students are taught separately in other subjects where the syllabuses are different.

A ‘KSA Honors Program’ permits up to 25 outstanding students to enrol in KAIST in their final (6th) semester so they can begin their undergraduate studies while still attending KSA.

A slightly different description is offered in another paper available online: Gifted Education in Korea: Three Korean High Schools for the Mathematically Gifted by Kyong Mi Choi and Dae Sik Hon (2009).

It mentions that KSA is influenced by similar schools in Israel, Russia and the USA and it continues to enjoy a close relationship with institutions such as the Kolmogorov Mathematics and Science School, the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy and the Israel Art and Science Academy.

Students can graduate once they have completed the required 135 course credits. Students who achieve a GPA of 3.7 or higher in one semester can take up to 28 course credits in the following semester. They can also pursue courses during the summer and winter holidays.

Those who graduate early can enter degree courses at KAIST or Seoul National University. (It says that other Korean universities do not permit this), or apply to universities abroad. Both early completers and other KSA students can enter Korean universities without undergoing any further selection process.

Professional Development

Specialist teachers of gifted education must have teacher certification and must normally have completed an initial specialist course. They will typically attend a professional development workshop at least once or twice a year. These may have a thematic focus  such as, for example, support for gifted learners from disadvantaged backgrounds.

There is a nationally organised system of more substantive postgraduate courses comprising:

  • Basic Training (60 hours recommended) – about identifying and understanding gifted and talented learners and providing an introduction to gifted education. This is typically delivered through a combination of online course and face-to-face training  where teachers work partly in subject-specific discussion groups and also attend workshops on pedagogy.
  • Advanced Training (120 hours recommended) – to secure in-depth understanding of gifted education including a focus on subject-specific content, teaching and evaluation methods and the development of gifted programmes. The course is intended for future leaders of gifted education who have already completed the basic training and are currently serving specialists. There is again an online element and a face-to-face component, but teachers also undertake in-class training, where regional specialists evaluate their performance, regional workshops (to develop regional gifted education programmes and strategies) and group research. One source says:
  • There is also a Professional Training course, called by some sources an Intensive course (90 hours recommended) and a Manager/Administrator Training course (30 hours recommended).

Seoul courtesy of Patriotmissile

In some regions, gifted education specialists receive an addition to their salary and, for some, it is a stepping-stone to further promotion. They are exempt from a law which requires all public school teachers to move to a different school every 4-5 years.

According to the GED website, over 11,300 teachers are currently registered as ‘teachers of the gifted’. Some 4,000 are specialists in maths or science and a further 5,000 are recorded as ‘integrated’, suggesting that they are generalists rather than subject specialists. The table includes 319 specialists in creativity, 21 in thinking skills, three in ‘leadership’ and two in ‘motivation’.

GED also reports that, by 2010, some 21,000 teachers had received training in gifted education, with numbers increasing year on year since 2001 and reaching 4,645 in 2010.

Conversely, Kim says 30,000 teachers have been trained (roughly 8% of all Korean teachers) and that around 6,200 have received that training at the hands of the NRCGTE. His figures may include the shorter professional development activities mentioned above. He suggests that the cumulative number of trainees will reach 45,000 in 2012.

Issues to Address

Kim quotes from satisfaction surveys published in 2005:

‘Overall Satisfaction with Gifted Education:

Mean 3.61 point on 5-point Likert scale (cf. for general school education: 2.8-3.2 points)

Gifted Students:  3.66

Gifted Students’ Parents:  3.63

Teachers:  3.49

Areas of Satisfaction: Contents of program, Teaching & Evaluation methods.’

In an earlier presentation, available on the KEDI website, he also reproduces some analysis of the characteristics of Korean gifted students (as they were in 2008).

This shows that the mean family income of non-gifted students was 297.1, whereas the comparable figure for gifted students was 439.04.

Although I am unsure of the precise measure, this clearly indicates that Korea’s gifted students are generally drawn from much wealthier backgrounds than their peers. Kim also cites evidence that they tend to have more positive educational values and a more positive parenting style.

It will be interesting to discover whether this situation has been improved by the reforms introduced under the Second Plan.

In the later presentation Kim cites a long list of problems:

  • ‘Validity of identification tools and methods
  • Quality control of programs
  • Preference for preparation of the college entrance exam distorting the purpose of gifted education
  • Limited focus on specific areas of study (82.6% for math & science)
  • Discontinuity of gifted education
  • Shortage of competent teachers with expertise
  • Lack of networking and effective collaboration among relevant government ministries.’

Another commentator offers a somewhat different but overlapping list:

  • ‘lack of objective evaluation’ means it is hard to assess the quality of gifted education programmes
  • insufficient in-depth training for teachers means that professional development is having insufficient impact on the quality of programmes. They also suffer from poor placement and management of gifted education specialists.
  • gifted education provision is not available throughout high school
  • until recently, identification has tended to favour high attainers, many of whom have been crammed, over those with high but as yet hidden potential.
  • despite efforts to remedy the situation, provision is still too focused on maths and science
  • the private schools are relatively untouched by the national programme. Many of these: ‘focus on memorizing and repetitiously practicing [sic] advanced-level knowledge to enhance test scores in the name of “gifted education.” Moreover, in private academies, there are few professional gifted teachers who receive training in gifted education and few personnel with professional knowledge in evaluating and managing the gifted programs’.

A third highlights concerns that will be familiar to all gifted educators wherever they are based:

  • limited awareness of the significance of gifted education, even amongst teachers and policy makers, and limited recognition that effective gifted education is more than acceleration;
  • gifted learners still suffer in the normal classroom from inadequate differentiation
  • limited research and limited application of such research in practice.

Future Directions

Kim offers several suggestions for the future direction of Korean gifted education, including:

  • increased specialisation in gifted education programmes, whether by age, subject or geographical are served
  • improvements in the quality of programmes, achieved by means of a better curriculum, more efficient teaching and consultancy support to teachers
  • improving continuity within the national programme, including by ‘promoting social integration’ and developing provision within post-secondary education
  • developing a more systematic approach to recruiting, training and allocating specialist teaching staff
  • improving support systems, not least by strengthening NRCGTE’s capacity to operate as a ‘think tank’ and to support existing networks through regular workshops and forums.

It will be fascinating to monitor how the country responds to these challenges, which will require continued sustained investment in gifted education over the next generation at least. The level of ambition in the imminent Third Plan will provide a good indicator of how quickly the Korean Government believes it can reach its ultimate targets.

Given the impressively rapid progress it has made over the last decade especially, there is little doubt that South Korea will ultimately succeed in improving the scope, targeting and quality of its provision until it has a fully comprehensive system in place for something between 350,000 and 700,000 gifted learners.

One might expect it to draw more heavily in future on the expertise accumulated in centres of excellence like the four specialist schools for the gifted in maths and science. As the Korean system matures, they might perhaps play a larger role in supporting younger learners who aspire to attend them.

South Korea’s huge efforts in this field seem well known in Asia, where the country co-ordinates much international work to support gifted STEM students. It is less well appreciated in other parts of the world, where only the tip of the iceberg – ie SSHS and KSA – is seen.

I hope these two posts will go some small way towards rectifying that.


March 2012

2 thoughts on “Gifted Education in South Korea: Part 2

  1. amazing work. lots of intersection with my research. very enhancing. one question though, you mentioned the learning activities/differentiatedlearning activities which i interested in science classes. do you have any sample activity or how koreans use these activities in particular? please enlight me.

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