Corea, culture, coffee, CLT, and more

Lee famously said the West must be careful “Not to foist their system indiscriminately on societies in which it will not work.” To this, Kim responded, “I too believe in the importance of culture, but I do not think it alone determines a society’s fate, nor is it immutable.”

It has been an interesting few weeks for me in terms of observing and thinking about culture. Especially Korean culture.
Some examples:

  • In the aftermath of the Asiana crash many lazy quote unquote journalists in the Western media were quick to blame and wonder about how Korean culture might have played a role in the clash. It seemed to me they vaguely remembered reading something in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers”  about Korean culture and plan crashes and then just started creating articles and news reports on this without much thought or research.
    Though I didn’t necessarily agree with everything I enjoyed “The Korean’s” response to Gladwell.
    (You can also see reactions and  leftover thoughts, Gladwell’s response to the response, and “The Korean’s” response to the response to the response.
  • I ran a workshop on intercultural communication for 50 students in a summer program at my university. Half of the participants were from Korea and the other half was from all around the world. It was definitely an interesting experience.
  • I am currently re-reading “Teaching Culture: Perspectives in Practice” by Pat Moran.
    Also on my bookshelf and summer reading list are ” Culture in Our Classrooms” and “Context and Culture in Language Teaching.”
    [Actually, I am about 1/3 through the context and culture one. I happen to have 2 copies and would be will to lend, trade, sell, or barter the other brand new copy if anyone (especially those in the ROK) is interested.]
  • I have recently seen and heard some (Korean) training course participants talk about how Korean culture prevents them from doing certain things they want to do or wish they could do in their schools and classrooms. Actually, this is nothing new or rare. I see and hear this quite often.
  • I have also been thinking a lot about issues related to hiring Johnny Foreigners in Korea. One thing that continually comes to mind is about hiring foreign teachers with no experience working abroad or living in Korea and suddenly expecting them to follow Korean cultural norms. It makes even less sense to me when sometimes teachers are hired on the basis of them being foreign and not really based on teaching skills, experiences, or qualifications.
    (I know I am painting with a broad brush now but at the same time I think it is obvious that “being foreign” or “being a native speaker” is a key criterion in a lot of hiring decisions for English teaching jobs  in Korea.)
    Maybe I am being simplistic but,…Why hire foreigners and expect them not to be foreign? I am most certainly not saying that teachers should ignore or disrespect the host culture. Yet, I strongly feel there is some give and take and that is not reasonable to expect foreign teachers to be completely “Koreanized” the moment they get off the plane (or ever for that matter).
  • I have also been thinking a lot about the training that new teachers don’t receive. On training and orientation programs there is often a “cultural” component but this seem to me to be more of green tea and hanbok variety of training rather the promoting a deeper understanding of the host culture and getting people to think about how their own culture and experiences impacts their choices.
  • In various corners of the internets I have also seen what seems to be the typical backlash against CLT as it relates to Korea and teaching English in Korea.

It is this last point I’d like to devote a bit more time to. I think CLT has been frequently promoted uncritically here in Korea and elsewhere. I also think that it can be very easy to play the culture card if teaching ideas don’t work the first time or if we don’t really want to do them or don’t actually believe in them. “Ohh, that will never work in Korea, you know, Korean culture and all” is a popular refrain. To me this sounds a bit defeatist. Really, pair-work is never going to work in Korea? Never? That darn Confucius, up to his old tricks, preventing kids from actually using English in class. My take is that doing something new and different is always going to take some time and some getting used to. So, learner learning and learner training are two ideas I think are really important to keep in mind. It seems nearly as foolish to expect a hitch-free mingling activity for the first time students try it as to say something like “this won’t work in Korea.”

I don’t believe CLT is some sort of panacea  and I think there is room for plenty of criticism and questions. I don’t think it is reasonable to simply transport what seems to work in other places without thought but I also don’t think it is reasonable to believe classroom culture is immutable and certain ideas can never work in Korea. I don’t believe that Western teachers should indiscriminately foist their teaching paradigms on Korean students but I also don’t think we can simply discount ideas because they are not widespread in Korea.

Wow. It has taken me more than 800 words to get where I wanted to. That is: Why not think and talk critically about CLT itself rather than take the easy way out ? Simply saying, “It is not suited to Korea” doesn’t seem like a good track to me.

I remember people saying that Starbucks would never work in Korea because Korean culture dictates that men need to smoke. I think the abundance of Starbucks (and the proliferation of smoke free establishments) is proof enough that this was not the case.


Oh, by the way, the quotes at the start of this post were from Kim Dae-Jung and Lee Kuan Yew. They were, as you might guess, not actually talking about CLT. They were talking about democracy.

The author of this post does not wish to equate democracy to CLT.
Neither does he wish to equate Starbucks to democracy nor Starbucks to CLT.
He simply found the quotes and thought there were interesting.
He hopes that he has at least given the reader something to think about.
He would also like to apologize for the alliteration in the title of this post.
He can be contacted through this blog or on Twitter @michaelegriffin. 


  1. Rob Dickey

    But it’s so much easier to be confidently correct and critical (criticizing) without going through all the hoops of critical awareness! Dammit, I know! I’m _____ (a westerner, a Korean, an expert on this or that)

    But actually, the Big C little c paradigm is a simple enough start. Quit worrying about all the Big C stuff (how tall is the Statue of Liberty, isn’t the hanbok beautiful, etc) and start trying to understand that which isn’t immediately observable — the “why”. You will never become a master – we don’t even really understand our own home cultures – but when you start asking better questions you are more likely to find suitable answers.

    Oh, I’m feeling very Yoda, young Master Luke!

  2. Brian

    I completely agree with your comment about the training that new NSET’s don’t receive. I think this lack of cultural understanding is why so many new NSET’s have so many conflicts in their schools with both CT’s and other school staff. Coming into a Korean office with Western ways of thinking can be problematic unless both sides have some training and a much better understanding of how office politics operate in each others’ cultures.

  3. mikecorea

    Thanks for commenting Brian. I think you make a great point about the impact of a lack of cultural understanding/training contributing to conflicts in schools. I also think the “blame” can go both ways.
    I hate to be overly simplistic but if people are being hired (largely? partially?) because they are from another culture it doesn’t make much sense to me to suddenly expect them to act in a completely new way. I guess this is nothing new but I think a clearer sense of expectations for both sides would be beneficial for all involved.

  4. Rob Dickey

    Brian and Mike,
    The number one complaint (according to what I read online) from new teachers in the EPIK program has been too much “culture” training and not enough preparation for the realities of life in a Korean school. Much of the culture has apparently been “appreciation of Korea’s cultural assets and traditions” – very little on understanding the differences that could impact classroom situations.

    • mikecorea

      Hey Rob, Yeah. I think perhaps we are all on the same page here.. Advocating for less hanbok and green tea culture and more on the day to day workings in a school.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s