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

Gifted Education in South Korea – Part One

This post reviews the development of gifted education policy and practice in South Korea.

Part One covers the development and operation of Korean gifted and talented education at national level. Part Two will take a closer look at some elements of this provision, including several dedicated gifted high schools.

Paradoxically, I’m dedicating it to Gifted Education Awareness Week in Ireland!

I can’t pretend that there is any logic or even premeditation behind this decision but, as an earnest disciple of E.M Forster’s epigraph to Howard’s End – ‘only connect’ – I have established that there are significant historical links, though perhaps no great similarity in the two countries’ respective approaches to gifted education.

I suspect some of my Irish readers would wish their country to emulate South Korea’s thorough, systematic, sustained and very generously funded programme, if only their financial circumstances permitted it. If so, I empathise absolutely from my parallel English perspective.

For South Korea exemplifies beautifully why national investment in gifted education is so important and what significant returns it can generate. The country’s efforts in this field deserve to be much better known and celebrated, so I hope that this post will help in some small way.

It builds on a much older post from 2010 which reviewed pan-Asian programmes in science-based gifted education, many of them led and co-ordinated by Korean institutions.

There is of course continuing international interest in Korean education more generally, as a direct consequence of the country’s exceptional showing in recent PISA assessments. In PISA 2009, Korea’s overall rankings were 2nd in reading, 4th in maths and 6th in science.

As I have noted in an earlier post examining the PISA data, such overall rankings can mask significant variation in the performance of a country’s highest achievers. Korea’s highest achievers are not yet ranked quite as highly in reading and science as their overall ranking suggests, though they are not far behind in maths. We can expect this gap to narrow significantly in PISA 2012, as a direct consequence of the work currently under way.

Nevertheless, politicians and policy makers are already desperate to emulate the success of all the so-called Asian ‘tiger economies’, and we are no exception. South Korea is listed amongst the ‘high-performing jurisdictions’ whose practice has been examined as part of England’s current National Curriculum Review.

Unfortunately though, my analysis suggests that the South Korean evidence drawn on by the Expert Panel for that Review is badly out of date. It certainly ignores all vestiges of gifted education, quite possibly for ideological reasons. My review of the Panel’s Report contains further details – and we will look again at the Korea-specific material in this post.

But we should begin with some basic information about South Korea and its education system, so providing a broad context for the detail to follow.


South Korea is officially the Republic of Korea. It forms the southern part of the Korean Peninsula and is not to be confused with North Korea – officially the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea – its neighbour to the north. For the sake of clarity I will continue to call it South Korea.

South Korea is a particularly interesting and relevant comparator for the English because its population is of a very similar size, especially when compared with most of the other ‘Asian Tigers’.

Whereas Singapore (population 5m) and Hong Kong (population 7m) are much smaller and Shanghai (population 23m) is only about half the size, South Korea has a national population of around 49m people, very close to England’s population of 51m.

South Korea has an area of 99,392 km2 (somewhat smaller than England at 130,395 km2)

It is also a presidential republic divided into 16 regions, seven of which are cities with populations above 1m.

One is Seoul, the capital city, which has a population approaching 10m in its own right. The larger Seoul National Capital Area accounts for almost half the entire national population. Other large cities are Busan (3.5m), Incheon (2.5m) and Daegu (2.5m).

Much of the country is mountainous – only 30% is lowland – and it contains some 3,000 islands. The population density is around 490 per km2, over 10 times the world average and significantly higher than in England at 395 per km2.

Unlike England, the Korean population is not racially or culturally diverse: well over 99% are Korean. However, the number of foreign nationals resident in South Korea is increasing rapidly, so multicultural education is beginning to become more of an issue.

The economy is the 12th largest in the world by GDP but, according to the CIA World Factbook, 15% of the population live below the poverty line, compared with 14% in the UK, so there is significant disadvantage.

Education System

The Study in Korea website provides a useful visual representation:

Post kindergarten (ages 3-6) the education system follows a 6-3-3-4 pattern:

  • Elementary school for Grades 1 to 6 (ages 7-12) – equivalent to Years 2-7 in England;
  • Middle school for Grades 7 to 9 (ages 13-15) – equivalent to Years 8-10 in England;
  • High school for Grades 10 to 12 (ages 16-18) – equivalent to Years 11-13 in England;
  • Tertiary education provided through a mixed economy of junior college and 4-year undergraduate university courses.

Only the 9 years of elementary and middle school are compulsory. The school year comprises two semesters: March to August and September to February, with two main holidays from July to August and December to February.

According to the statistics on the Education Ministry’s website:

  • there are 20,261 schools. Of these, 5,854 are elementary schools, 3,130 are middle schools and 2,313 are high schools of various kinds. Over 14,000 are classified as public and the remainder are private;
  • the total school population is almost 11.5 million, with roughly 3.3 million pupils in elementary schools, 2.0 million in middle schools and a further 2.0 million in high schools;
  • the country employs about 534,000 teachers


The most recent (Seventh) National Curriculum dates from 1997. The Ministry of Education website says:

‘To prepare students for the 21st century, the era of globalization and knowledge-based society, the Seventh Curriculum attempts to break away from the spoon-fed and short-sighted approach to education of the past towards a new approach in the classroom to produce human resources capable of facing new challenges. Study loads for each subject has been reduced to an appropriate level, while curricula that accommodate different needs of individual students were also introduced. Independent learning activities to enhance self-directed learning required in the knowledge-based society have either been introduced or expanded. Thus, the Seventh Curriculum is a student-oriented curriculum emphasizing individual talent, aptitude, and creativity, unlike the curriculum of the past.’

A document on the Ministry’s site, prepared for a Japanese delegation that visited in 2005, offers a succinct summary:

‘A flexible level-differentiated curriculum is provided.

Diverse curricular levels and programs help satisfy individual student abilities and different growth potentials.

In the course of revising the national curriculum, the ministry judged that a flexible level-differentiated curriculum would help address each student’s different ability, interest, aptitude, and career direction, and also promote gifted and talented education while satisfying the requirements of basic common education.

Types of Level-Differentiated Curriculum

Step-by-step curriculum

  • This is applied to the core subjects of mathematics and secondary-level English.

  • Mathematics is taught step by step with a curriculum divided into 20 levels, for students in grades one to ten. The English curriculum has eight levels, taught from 7th through 10th grade.

In-depth and supplementary curriculum

  • This is for advancing or lagging students, in the subjects of Korean language, social studies, science, and primary English.

  • Korean language : 1st-10th grade, social studies & science : 3rd-10th grade

  • Primary English : 3rd-6th grade

Elective curriculum

  • High school 2nd and 3rd graders (11th and 12th grade) can choose from a number of electives.

  • Schools open diverse electives that reflect the different abilities, aptitude, needs, and interest of students.

  • Students select from the given choices according to their own ability and career development needs.

A more thorough treatment is provided in this document, also available on the website.

An Aside: Relevance to England’s National Curriculum Review

This emphasis on differentiation to meet students’ needs and abilities is in marked contrast to the way that South Korea’s education system has been presented in England, within the Report of the Expert Panel for the National Curriculum Review.

The Report makes specific reference to Korea in its Chapter on Assessment, Reporting and Pupil Progression, which I reviewed and criticised (severely) in this recent post.

The Expert Panel says:

‘A distinctive feature of some of the high-performing systems that we have examined in the course of the review appears to be a radically different approach to pupil progression and to differentiation. Crude categorisation of pupil abilities and attainment is eschewed in favour of encouraging all pupils to achieve adequate understanding before moving on to the next topic or area. Achievement is interpreted in terms of the power of effort rather than the limits of ability. The emphasis on effort is particularly marked in the Confucian-heritage countries such as China, Hong Kong SAR, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. The assumption here is that deep engagement with subject matter, including through memorisation where appropriate, leads to deeper understanding….

…Naturally however, it is a far from simple picture. South Korea at one time virtually mandated differentiation out of the system in primary education. Meanwhile, Hong Kong uses within-school rank ordering vigorously but, as with South Korea and Singapore, also operates with a curriculum model focusing on ‘fewer things in greater depth’ which all pupils are expected to attain. They also emphasise effort rather than ability.

…Studies of the improvement strategies of countries such as Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea and Finland suggest that the approach to progression and to differentiation is an important factor in these systems. While the model has been vigorously enforced in South Korea, it manifests itself more subtly in Finland… In neither case is this approach necessarily linked to retention and holding pupils back. In some countries it is a shared, explicit strategy with ideological connotations; for example, it may arise from a political commitment to equity. In others, it is a more implicit strategy, embedded in ingrained practices and processes.’

The sentences I have emboldened are a curate’s egg, may once have been wholly accurate, but only in a period of relatively ancient history in the development of Korea’s curriculum.

Some might question whether this is the level of scholarship that we have a right to expect from such an august team of highly-experienced academics. Some might say the Expert Panel stands accused of cherry-picking from international evidence to fit and justify its own ideological position. I offer them the right of reply whenever they are ready…

My previous post took the Panel to task for failing to acknowledge the role of gifted education in these ‘high-performing Confucian-heritage countries’. This review goes some way towards rectifying that omission,at least as far as South Korea is concerned.

It also has some relevance to the current development of selective 16-19 maths free schools in England, because of the cadre of gifted science schools that are central to the South Korean gifted education programme.

A Brief History of Korean Gifted Education – The Early Days

Seoul at dawn courtesy of Patriotmissile

I have put this narrative together from a variety of online sources, drawing particularly on material on the website of the National Research Center for Gifted and Talented Education (NRCGTE) and on the Gifted Education Database website, as well as within a presentation by Mesook Kim, the former director of NRCGTE, given in September 2010 as part of an International Symposium on Gifted Education in Istanbul, Turkey.

Kim characterises ‘old style’ educational thinking in Korea as:

  • Taking a one-size-fits-all approach
  • Emphasising equality and sameness as important societal values – treating students differently was taboo

  • Believing in efforts more than abilities of students

  • Thinking it unnecessary and impossible to provide an educational service tailored to individual needs and ability.

This began to change in the early 1980s. Kim cites the foundation of Gyeonggi Science High School in 1983 as marking the beginning of gifted education in Korea.

Gyeonggi was followed by the introduction of three more Science High Schools the following year in Daejeon, Jeonnam (Gwangju) and Gyeongnam (Jinju). There are now 17 public mathematics/science high schools, one in each province, one in each metropolitan city, and two in the city of Seoul. I will return to them later in this post.

In 1987, a precursor of NRCGTE, the Research Office of Gifted Education, was established within KEDI. The Korean Society for the Gifted was formed in 1990. One online source says:

‘The first discussions on the need for education for the gifted as a means to nurture high quality human resources and to guarantee equal opportunity to education based on the students’ aptitude and needs, was held on the Education Reform Committee’s proposal on May 31, 1995 and the subsequent Act on Basic Education was announced on December 13, 1997′.

These discussions were instrumental in changing the status of the Research Office to the Center for Gifted and Talented Education in 1996. This led to the introduction of gifted classes and model schools in each region. Science-focused gifted education centres attached to universities were also introduced in 1997, supported by Ministry of Science and Technology.

The KEDI archive contains abstracts of several research reports undertaken by the Center’s staff, most of them dating from 1997 to 2003. One of the earliest, ‘Suggestions on National Policies for Establishing Gifted Education Systems in Korea’, by Cho Seok-Hee and Oh Young-Joo offers the following commentary on the education system as it was then:

‘It was found that Korean schools have failed to maximize the developmental potential of gifted students due to a lack of legal, financial, and administrative support. Schools provide gifted education only to students at the secondary level and therefore, early identification and education have not been practised. Even in high schools, gifted students cannot pursue their intellectual and academic interest, because they have to prepare for the university entrance examination…Several guidelines for the formation of national policies recommended from the study include:

  • Gifted children should be identified early and provided with appropriate and differentiated education programs.
  • Many different systems should be established to serve gifted children in different situations and needs.
  • Special schools for gifted high school students should be established
  • An administrative and research support system should be also established’.

The first source adds:

While assessment tools, teaching/learning materials, and other preparations were launched to implement the education for the gifted, actual education on a national scale would not take place due to the lack of a legal system to support such education programs.

The legal foundation for the implementation of education for the gifted was laid by the Act on Promoting the Education of Gifted Students [It] was promulgated on January 28, 2000, followed by the Implementation Ordinance for the Act on Education for the Gifted on April 18, 2002.’

The Act was originally suggested by a congressman, Sang-hui Lee. Once in place, policy discussions were taken forward at a Ministerial Meeting in May 2001 chaired by the President. A Plan for the Establishment and Operation of a Science Academy was also prepared and discussed at the 5th Human Resource Development Conference in September 2001.

Kim translates the definition of a gifted child in Article 2 of the 2000 Act as:

‘a person who possesses extraordinary innate abilities or visible talents requiring special education to nurture them’

and his version of the parallel definition of gifted education within the Act is:

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

It was as a consequence of this Act that the NRCGTE was formed within KEDI in 2002. From this point there was rapid development.

The First Comprehensive Plan 2003-2007

Courtesy of Steve 46814

The new Center was instrumental in producing the country’s first Comprehensive Plan for the Promotion of Gifted Education, covering the period from 2003 to 2007. This is designated by Kim a period of ‘initial development’.

The narrative on the Gifted Education Database website shows that this was genuinely a cross-Government initiative:

‘At the 13th Human Resource Development Conference in November 29, 2002, a Minister of Education and Human Resource Development and deputy Prime Minister brought up the Master Plan for promotion of gifted education for discussion jointly in the name of 7 related authorities, such as the Ministry of Education and Human Resource Development, the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the Ministry of Information and Communication, the Ministry of Gender Equality, the Ministry of Planning and Budget, and Korean Intellectual Property Office. The draft was confirmed. In the 1st Master Plan for promotion of gifted education, the detailed plans for promotion of gifted education from 2002 to 2007 was included.’

The core purpose of the Plan was to incorporate gifted education within general education. Key elements included:

  • providing 40,000 students, 0.5% of whole elementary, middle, and high school population with gifted education (as a first step towards the ultimate objective of supporting a gifted and talented population comprising between 5 and 10 percent of the total school population);

  • establishing 200 gifted education learning centres in universities and local education departments;

  • training 8,000 teachers in gifted education; and

  • extending support into new areas including arts and technology.

It was during this period that the Korea Science Academy (KSA), was established from the former Busan Science High School. More about KSA later.

The Second Comprehensive Plan – 2008-2012

The Gifted Education Promotion Act was revised in 2005 and a second Comprehensive Plan for the period 2008-2012 was prepared in 2007 and approved at the meeting of the National Human Resource Council in December 13 of that year.

Kim calls the second plan a period of ‘gradual expansion’; the Gifted Education Database describes it as ‘a development stage’:

‘The 2nd Master Plan is aimed at enhancing the substantiality [sic] and quality of gifted education. It includes 5 driving strategies and 13 detailed tasks. The main contents are to expand opportunities of gifted education to 1% of the total number of students by 2010; to increase the number of gifted schools by converting science high school into science academy; to establish gifted school in the field of arts and physical education; to expand training opportunities for teachers (training about 30,000 teachers for 5 years); to enhance the quality of gifted education programs through evaluating gifted education programs and teacher training institutions; to implement gifted education within regular courses in general schools on a trial basis.’

The press release marking publication of the Plan in August 2008 can still be found in the KEDI archive. It says:

Changdeokgun Palace courtesy of Morning Calm News

Under the plan, the ministry will expand the number of gifted education schools in science from one to four within this year. The Korea Science Academy, established in 2003, will be attached to the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology(KAIST).

In terms of procedures, the ministry will receive applications from science high schools this October, who wish to switch into gifted education institutions. Upon evaluation of curricula, teacher capacity and facilities, the ministry will select 1-2 new gifted education schools in science, which will be placed under deliberation in November at the Central Gifted Education Promotion Committee. Final approvals will be given in December.

The plan to turn the Korea Science Academy into an affiliation of KAIST comes as an effort to give the Academy a leading role in nurturing Korea’s educational environment for scientifically gifted students. Once affiliated, the Academy will operate its curricula in linkage with KAIST, and draw from the Institute’s manpower and facility resources. The integration is also expected to enable the Academy to recruit teachers of higher quality. The KAIST-affiliated Korea Science Academy is scheduled to open doors in March 2009.

Alongside, the ministry will establish a “Science High School Development Plan” by this December, with aim to expand general schools’ infrastructure for the nurturing of scientifically gifted high school students. Schemes will be introduced to improve the student admission system at science high schools, revise curricula, raise teacher quality, and increase government support.

In addition, new programs are currently being developed at universities so as to provide linkage between gifted education high schools and higher education institutions, thus enabling continuity in gifted education. To this purpose, the ministry will select 15 “Undergraduate Research Programs” in September 2008, to provide 10-20 million Korean won in support of students’ self-led research planning and implementation. In 2009, the ministry will introduce an “Honors Program” which will offer advanced and creative learning experiences for university students in various formats including seminars and internships.

Aside from gifted education schools, the ministry will also expand gifted education classes within general schools and also gifted education centers, with goal to provide approximately 1 percent (70,000 students) of all primary and secondary school students with gifted education opportunities.’

By 2009, Korea’s gifted programmes did indeed support a gifted population comprising 1% of the total school population, or 70,205 pupils. This comprised 39,090 learners attending gifted education centres, 30,560 in gifted classes and 548 in two gifted schools.

How the system has grown

Given the several different sources of data, it is not straightforward to chart with any exactitude the expansion of South Korean gifted education over this period.

One source says that, by the mid 1990’s, roughly 10% of elementary schools, 15% of middle schools, and 10% of high schools offered special classes for the gifted in a range of subject areas: Korean language, maths, arts, foreign languages and computer sciences.

Another suggests that, by 2004, there were 451 gifted classes offered to 8,200 students nationwide, with a further 862 classes provided at Gifted Education Centres for some16,500 students. This accounted for 0.3% of the entire student population.

Yet another reports that:

‘The number of gifted students who receive gifted education increased from 19,974 (2003) to 41,536 (2006) and the number of gifted education institutes extended from 400 (2003) to 543 (2006)’

It is possible to compile a table of more recent statistics referenced in Kim’s presentations and on the Gifted Education Database (GED) website showing progress since 2007:

Provision 2007 2009 2010
Number Pupils Number Pupils Number Pupils
Gifted School 1 432 2 548 4 [1146]
Gifted classes 295 10104 967 30567 1586 41896
Gifted centers in offices of education 225 17732 471 31495 357 30246
Gifted Centers in universities 33 4668 84 7595 54 4110
TOTAL 554 32936 1524 70205 2001 [77398]


The GED site provides incomplete data about numbers in gifted schools, but another – anonymous – article online provides the following breakdown (though the four schools are not named):


  A B C D
Male 380 323 235 81
Female 71 17 23 16
Total numbers 451 340 258 97
Number of classes 38 24 16 6


The GED site also provides a breakdown of the focus of gifted education provision across these different categories

Topic Percentage
Science 50.6
Maths 45.8
Invention 12.9
Information Science 10.8
Integrated 8.1
Foreign Language 7.8
Language Arts 7.2
Liberal Arts 6.6
Leadership 6.6
Creativity 6.3
Art 5.1
Thinking Ability 4.8
Music 3.6
Others 3.3
Motivation 1.8
Physical Education 0.9

This suggests that, while maths and science predominate, the country’s efforts to diversify support are beginning to bear fruit.

Another table shows that the balance between phases strongly favours younger pupils.

In 2010, 64.2% of provision was intended for elementary school pupils, compared with 51.6% for middle school pupil and just 11.6% for those attending high schools. This presumably reflects the policy decision to focus provision for older students on a comparatively narrower range of ability.

By the end of 2012 and the period covered by the Second Plan, we know that South Korea expects to be reaching 2% of the population through its gifted programme. The Third Plan can be expected to plot further progress towards the ultimate 5-10% target.

The role of the National Research Center

The National Research Center for Gifted and Talented Education (NRCGTE), part of the Korean Educational Development Institute (KEDI).

The Center’s vision statement articulates two priorities:

  • ‘To establish research capacity and status as a comprehensive domestic research institute for gifted and talented education’ and
  • ‘To leap forward as a globally recognized research institute for gifted and talented education’.

This translates into a six-part Mission Statement:

  • To furnish theoretical, practical research capacity for gifted and talented education;
  • To seek the unity of policy, theory, and field application of gifted and talented education;
  • To prepare for the expansion of numbers of students and educational institutes for gifted and talented education;
  • To prepare for implementation of gifted and talented education for the top 5-10% of students by linking with the regular school curriculum of general schools;
  • To promote partnership and networking with persons related to gifted and talented education domestically and overseas; and
  • To compile systematically the country’s history of gifted and talented education, current state and national standard, and to engage in domestic and international PR.

Han River courtesy of arnoldo riker

The Center, excluding the National Training Institute, employed 22 staff in 2010. The current Director is Jae-Boon Lee. He oversees four teams. :

  • Research: conducts research leading to the development of national policy on gifted education and evaluates its effectiveness;
  • Development: develops programmes and resources to cultivate creativity, strengthens the links between research and practice in gifted education, supports the operation and use of a national Gifted Education Database(GED) and develops identification tools;
  • Innovation: supports teachers in gifted education, developing and quality assuring a national training programme; supports training undertaken by universities and the 16 regional Offices of Education; runs workshops and other training activities in partnership with other organisations; and issues newsletters and advice on gifted education
  • Networking: establishes the Center as a hub for Korean gifted education through cooperation with domestic and overseas organisations; agrees Memoranda of Understanding with research institutes and government departments worldwide; provides international symposia and conferences and participates in similar events abroad.

The National Training Institute was established at NRCGTE in December 2009, to drive and co-ordinate professional development for teachers and educators. It has a specific remit to develop online programmes and to support teachers in enhancing creativity in their learners. The Institute is also expected to develop and supply appropriate training across the curriculum, in humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and the performing arts.

The Gifted Education Database (GED) is intended to:

  • support the management and sharing of data relating to the supply and deployment of staff, the use of materials, curriculum and identification processes;
  • support professional development, research and evaluation activity including longitudinal studies; and
  • inform reporting to students, parents, teachers, researchers and policy makers.

It is managed by KEDI in co-operation with the 16 regional Offices of Education using a budget supplied by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology. It holds:

  • Institutional information about gifted schools, institutions, classes and research centres;
  • Information about gifted and talented students, teachers and educators;
  • Details of curricular provision and professional development;
  • A library of reference material including research, reports and theses.

Additional support for the NRCGTE is provided through the Korea National Research Institute for the Gifted in Arts (KRIGA), which is part of the Korea National University of Arts (K-Arts) founded as a national art school in 1990.

KRIGA opened in July 2005 and is intended to ‘build a foundation for talented education policy and its implementation’ through theoretical and policy studies, research on talent identification and development, pedagogy, student support, programme development and professional development. It employs a director, research director and research specialists in music, fine arts, traditional arts and education.

The Korea Foundation for the Advancement of Science and Creativity (KOFAC) also has a significant role. Originally established in 1967 under a different name, but renamed in 2008, it was also designated a national research and development institute in 2011.

The Foundation is responsible for promoting public understanding of science and the development of creative human resources. One of its four principal tasks is:

‘Providing high-quality educational opportunities for talented and gifted students’

and one of its teams leads on ‘Creative Gifted Education Policy’. Amongst other responsibilities, this:

‘supports college-affiliated education institutions for gifted science students [presumably the university-based centres] – searches for gifted students and implements basic, intensive, and convergent education by utilizing college research centers and human resources to expand the basis to nurture students’ talent’ and

‘supports science high schools and science schools for the gifted – supports admission process improvement…, research activities by students and teachers and experiment-oriented researches’.

Closing Thoughts

South Korea has achieved truly impressive progress in developing a coherent and comprehensive national programme of gifted education, especially over the last decade.

There are still many challenges to overcome, as the Ministry and its supporting organisations seek to increase simultaneously the size, scope and quality of the programme, but all the signs are positive. There is no wavering in the Government’s commitment to this priority, which it regards as essential to its future economic success.

Kim’s presentation says that the Korean Government has declared 100 National Priorities and that Number 75 is: ‘Establish a solid system for supporting the gifted’.

I have been unable to verify this from other sources, but it sounds authentic.

In which case, Korea deserves to be lauded as a true world leader in gifted education whose achievements should be celebrated and emulated by others. I have no doubt that it will achieve its ultimate target of bringing at least 5% of students within scope of this programme without compromising the quality of service.

In the second part of this post we will look more closely at how South Korea identifies gifted learners and at the different kinds of provision offered, including the learning experience provided by some of the specialist schools for gifted learners.


March 2012

A Smorgasbord of Support for Science-based Gifted Education

Here is my review of Korean-led Pan-Asian initiatives supporting science-based gifted education.

It concentrates on the cross-ASEAN ACGS programme and the cross-APEC AMGS programme.

Truly a rich smorgasbord of acronyms, but I’ve included explanatory hyperlinks for those of a learning disposition who are not based in that region!

South Korea is a veritable powerhouse in G&T education – and we shall no doubt look more closely at their national provision in a future post.


July 2010