The power of expectations (South Korea) - 1

As a token of appreciation for our participation in this workshop, we were given a copy of The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley. In the book, the author analyses educational systems in Finland, Poland and South Korea through the eyes of students, teachers, parents and administrators to try and understand what makes kids in these countries perform exceptionally well on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test.

Names/characters are fictional; contexts are real and grounded in the text of the book.

~ o ~ x ~ o ~

Ha-joon Pak stumbled out of bed and made his way to the bathroom. The sky was coloured with the hues of dawn and the pure, crisp morning air was serenely silent. The only soft sounds were of his mother cooking breakfast. It was a shade past 6 AM...

In less than a couple of hours, Pak was sitting in school, mentally preparing for an arduous day of studying. Many a time, he felt like screaming in frustration but knew he had no choice. Getting into Seoul National University was a dream and the competition was brutal - less than 1% of high school seniors from South Korea who aspired to study there were granted admission.

After a taxing set of classes, the final bell rang shrilly at 4 PM. Pak joined his friends... no, they were not heading home. Instead, they spent the next half hour wiping the chalkboards, mopping the floors and taking out the garbage at school. After all, 'work, including the unpleasant kind, was at the center of South Korean school culture, and no one was exempt' (Ripley, 2013, p. 56).

Pak and his friends trudged back to one of the classrooms at half past 4 for test preparatory sessions. Two hours later, fatigued and hungry, he entered the school cafeteria for a quick dinner. Post dinner, he quietly engaged in yaja at the school itself - this was a period of self-study that was loosely supervised by the teachers. Pak looked forward to this time when he could either zone out or complete homework at his own pace.

On exiting school at 9 PM, Pak and one of his childhood buddies walked to the private tutoring academy (called hagwon in Korean) in their neighbourhood. For the next couple of hours, they focused on learning the tips and tricks necessary to crack the common exam taken by high school students across South Korea on a single fateful day each year. How one performed had massive implications on one's career and growth opportunities down the road. As Ripley concisely puts it, 'the exam was a chokepoint for the ambitions of millions of kids and their parents' (Ripley, 2013, p. 55).

It was finally 11:30 PM when Pak's head hit his pillow and he stretched out his tired body on the bed... a few hours of much needed sleep before the cycle resumed...

~ o ~ x ~ o ~

Reading about the typical day of a South Korean high school student was exhausting enough - imagine living through such days, day after day, for months on end! In fact, in her research for the book, Ripley did not meet anyone in South Korea who actually praised the education system. They realised that the stakes were insanely high, rewards were rare and that there was no equity.

So, what made South Korean children perform well on a rigorous test like PISA? What motivated them to get up each morning and go through ~12 hours of studying in a stressful environment? Based on my reading of the book (and to sum it up in two words) - high expectations.

Reading Ripley's book and getting a window into the lives of those children made me reflect on my own childhood. I realised that, from a young age, my parents and teachers had always set high expectations for me and clearly communicated these expectations through their words and actions.

In part 2 (hyperlinked), I share some examples from my childhood and make deeper connections to the text to emphasise why I believe high expectations to be a factor that strongly influences the lives of children everywhere...

~ o ~ x ~ o ~


Ripley, A. (2013). The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.


  1. Hi bhaiya! Thank you for sharing the post with me. After reading it I made connections to our education culture where majority students are running behind IITs, medical examination and other common entrance exam. Being a student is not really is as easy as it seams(hope you understand my point) there is always pressure for one seat in the examination. Our education system has to understand that a student career is not dependent on his academic only and entrance examinations. Much different ways should be there for a student to be successful in life. Not just common examination there should be more ways. For a student to be successful in his life.

    1. Hi Adnan,

      Firstly, a brilliant comment and observation - thank you so much for sharing this view! I was hoping to bring this out through this post. Also, take a look at the comment made by one of my friends below and my response as well...

      I agree that students are running behind certain colleges and professions. I think this is because certain professions are more respected and pay much better than other professions. So, a person is considered to be 'successful' only if he/she gets into certain professions and earns a certain amount of money. Otherwise, society tends to look down on them.

      Being a student is hard! Like you, I lived through some exhausting years as well... the big positive from that is I learned a lot about myself during those years. But, yes - the pressure was a challenge at times and I was lucky to have friends and family to support me at that time... :-)

      People are slowly realising that there are other ways to measure success and that engineer-doctor-lawyer are not the only options. However, change takes time because some of these ideas are so deep rooted in our system...

  2. When I started reading the story.. I find it very poetic. I started imagining further that how beautiful the day is going to happen but it turned out exhaustic day for poot kid.
    I am not sure how impactful it is to set such high expectations from very young age. It may have adverse effects on kids. What do you think?

    1. Hi Deepika,

      Thanks for your comment. I fully agree that there are adverse effects of setting such expectations and entering children into a rat race in the name of success and competition. Peer pressure and fear of failure are hardly a fun way to live life as a child!

      My point was about how holding children to high expectations, whether reasonable or not, has a profound effect - they are willing to accept and toil simply to meet those expectations that adults and systems have decided that they should meet. Even if it means that their lives are miserable or a living hell... :-(

      So, we, as adults/parents/teachers, should be acutely aware of the kinds of expectations that we set for children.

  3. It was an interesting read because it's been something that I've been thinking about a lot. Based on my own experience, I've always been accustomed to high expectations be it from family or myself, but of late I have also been seriously thinking about the mental health repurcussions of the same. Living with high expectations can be extremely pressurising and yet I also think that no expectations can be possibly demotivating. Would love to hear your take on this

  4. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Ananya...

    First, I would recommend reading Kartik's comment on the other post and my response to it. I think there are aspects to that exchange that align to what you stated above.

    I agree that living with high expectation can be extremely pressurising and that is why having a safety net and strong support system is imperative (see Adnan's comment above and my response to it) in case the system/society is such that it is a rat race (like in South Korea and, perhaps, in India too). Worse still, it can be demotivating if one feels that he/she is not able to live up to those expectations and that others are going ahead in the 'race'!

    For me, the key is balance and finding the mean (I have been reading The Nicomachean Ethics lately and a major portion of it focuses on virtues and finding the mean or a balance between extremes in human behaviour). Expectations cannot (and perhaps should not?) be absent altogether because they push us to improve as people. However, they shouldn't be unattainable/unrealistic in the way that is setting a person, especially children who are easy to mould, up for failure. Adults/parents/teachers need to see how their own biases and views on society can impact the kind of expectations that they are holding for their children.

    One good thing is that mental health is gradually being given importance - at least in urban areas. Under lockdown and starved of social interaction thanks to Covid, people are realising this more than ever! Maybe that will lead to changes in parenting and schools down the road... but, it's a long road!

  5. Hi bhaiya,

    From this text i understood the nature of parents/teachers/students in education system. These three people influence the education system. Parents have high expectations and teachers too believe that students have the dreams of joining IIT but not everyone is so capable of it.Then what happens,students try to force this in their brain that they should join only IIT,even if a student didn't ever have that kind of thought. This pressure can be solved by freeing the students to try their way out to deal with this situation. I mean that pressure won't be there and studying will be willingly not under pressure but to achieve goals. Parents and teachers are always there to support ethically and motivationally.

    1. The expectations that parents and teachers have of children has a tremendous impact on them (the children) because they look up to these adults for guidance. However, parents/teachers also need to try and understand that all children may not share the same ambition or goal in life. It is very likely that a child may have other interests that are not centred on a specific college and profession and these adults should take time out to see things from a child's perspective - especially as children enter their teenage years and start thinking about what career they'd like to pursue. This, in my opinion, is the way that they can best support them. :-)

  6. Learning is often associated with ambition and expectation. Ambition sometimes takes a dark turn and while knowledge is acquired, its internalisation turns out to be for a purpose different from learning. It seems, from the posts on your blog, that your approach is fundamental to learning and the rest is organic growth.

  7. Thanks for your comment and it's nice to know that you have gone through other posts too! :-)

    Yeah, in the context of South Korea, I think children were cramming information and knowledge primarily for the purpose of cracking the competitive entrance exam that they took at the end of high school. The purpose of learning for its own sake or to put it to some practical use was often lost in this rat race.

  8. Hola bhaiya! Before even me starting to read this post I didn't know what it is going to be but from the title -'The power of expectation (south Korea)' I remember that once I'd seen a video based on how did kids in south Korea prepared for the PISA exam basically it was on how did they study for a long period of time which can be about 10 to 12 hrs per day. Now coming to the point 'EXPECTATIONS' yes a lot of people around us who loves and cares for us keeps expectations from us they can be from our parents to teachers or our guardians. And why do these people keep expectations from us? Simply because they want our wellbeing and our future to be secure. But what I think is whats happening in south Korea is not bad in a way but in the other way it is also harming a child's childhood. Where a child should be enjoying his or her life(childhood) and should be enjoying study but now he or she is being forced to do study in a stressful environment. Later on when these kids grow up and look back at their lives what all they will see is nothing but stressful days. Still nobody thinks about the output and end result. The other day I also saw a video of how kids enjoy learning in a well known country- Finland and the thing which left a soft spot within me was that the students were allowed to study whatever they like and this created no stress within the students.

    Coming back to this post I like the way the children post their school hours keep their learning spaces clean. Because a clean environment also makes our mind healthy to study. Not only this I also adore that the parents over there let their kids study in the school for long periods of time.

    Lastly I would like to add that a space where there is a lot of pressure growth will not occur. I somehow feel that some parents and teachers ( _except shreyas bhaiya_ 😅) have made a box of expectation and students are trapped inside it and those who pleases their parents and teachers are the ones that breaks-open the box.

    Thank you for this post bhaiya
    I hope I've not written too much
    But I think I've a lot to speak about on this topic.

    1. As your former English teacher, it was a pleasure to read such a long and insightful comment from you, Shradha! :-) Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. :-)

      I agree with you that adults set expectations for children because they care about their well-being and want what is best for them. Here, I was trying to illustrate how influential these expectations can be and the kind of hard work and stress that children are willing to put themselves through to meet these expectations (like Ha-joon Pak). However, as you implied in your comment, children shouldn't look back at their childhood and only see stress! This is why I believe that expectations need to be reasonable and balanced so that everyone isn't simply running a rat race with no sight of the actual goal.

      I'm curious about why you like the fact that parents in South Korea let their kids study in school for long periods of time. I believe that family time and interacting with friends and neighbours in one's locality are also important and such long hours eats into that. What do you think?

      I loved your analogy of a "box of expectations" at the end of your comment! Basically, unless a child meets those expectations, he/she will be forever, in a metaphorical sense, be trapped inside a box and possibly feel suffocated with time. Some pressure is needed for growth but too much of anything is bad!

      You've definitely not written too much and I truly appreciate it - hence my response. :-)

      Looking forward to more such comments on other posts. :-)

    2. Answering to your question which was in the end of 2nd paragraph.
      What I meant to say basically is sometimes the environment in the house is not good enough for the child to pay attention on studies etc, so school is a place where they can actually self study with all the focus.
      Not only this if the parents of the child are not much educated to support the child in studies ( as in India we can get some cases ) then the self study time spent in school is important because the child can attain help from his or her peers.
      And also as you said family time is also necessary for the child. It hold sense for me. I'm just saying that not all the hours of time after school should be spent in school focusing only on study, interactions with friends and family is very much crucial. "As we are social animals."
      But the child should be able to decide his or her routine with help of his or her parents is they prefer.
      Thank you 🌼


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