Lessons Learned From the Past Decade of “Seoul Innovative Education” and Remaining Tasks

By HanMan-joong (Policy and Safety Planning Division, Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education)

Normalization of Public Education and Expansion of Universal Education Welfare
Seoul, the setting of the K-drama Sky Castle, is a city mixed up with contradictions from intense competitions for entering top universities. Private education is exhaustively going on even in this very moment. Students here have the longest learning hours throughout the world, whereas their level of happiness cannot be any lower. They go back and forth to schools and hagwons, or private cram schools, draining their youthful days.

Since 2010, the education system of Seoul took a shift in direction. The introduction of innovative schools, eco-friendly meals, prohibition of corporal punishment, and the enactment of the student rights ordinance are some initial steps that were taken for a change. It was not a system that ranked students based on their exam grades, but a system that aimed for holistic development; it was not a system that discriminated students according to parents’ wealth, but a system as a basic social right.

The outcome of the local elections in 2014 showed that a considerable portion of citizens were feeling hopeless from the competition-based education that accelerates a vertical ranking system among students. The fact that this result was derived from Seoul, where educational background is such a big deal, is meaningful. It is interpreted that people are pursuing an “education for all,” by innovating public education and expanding universal education welfare.

Building the Foundation of Innovative Education for the Future That Satisfies All
Innovatice schools, innovative school zones and free education are the three major milestones on the road to innovating public education and expanding universal education welfare that are pursued by innovative education. Almost a decade has passed since the introduction of innovative schools in 2011. These schools focus on holistic education for students. According to research, professional cooperation was strengthened in innovative schools that led to increased sharing and cooperative activities through teacher learning communities, class sharing programs, and teachers’ meetings. Innovative schools developed students through regular and extra-curricular classes. They also became to function as a community, where education subjects — including teachers, students, and parents — voluntarily made agreements on what behavioral actions they should pursue (Seong Yeol-gwan, Lee Yun-mi, 2020). However, concerns on innovative schools that they often bring down curves on students’ academic performances is a challenge that needs to be overcome. Furthermore, the conventional school system that fully depended on teachers’ devotion is another obstruction that must be hurdled over to make innovative schools the standard of education, along with the other miscellaneous tasks. Finding the answers for what curriculum and role the innovative schools will take part in a world where entering top universities became the top priority is the fundamental task. As a resolution, various models of innovative schools which have been created in association with autonomy, future, and community, are striving to settle in the system. Various approaches in school models have been made, such as innovative autonomous schools that expand the domain and authority of the schools, future-oriented innovative schools that associate innovative schools with future schools, and community-associated innovative schools that link innovative schools with community curriculum.

The first Seoul-type Innovative School Zones were created in Guro-gu and Geumcheon-gu. They were programmed with strengthened adolescents’ community activities and classes that utilized diverse educational resources that could be found from each community. Public-private partnerships were formed based on communities that embraced schools and districts. Since 2019, all local governments of Seoul have implemented this system. This model, in which general autonomy and educational autonomy are combined, has become a cornerstone of innovation in public education trusted by all as a system in which the Office of Education, Seoul Metropolitan Government, local governments, and local residents participate; a system in which local communities and schools cooperate.

Innovative School Zones that apply the diverse features of different regions extend public education outside of classrooms, aiming for education which knowledge leads to life through programs such as “education with the village” and “village-linked schools.”

Meanwhile, universal education welfare started with eco-friendly, free meals. Now, it has developed to provide free high school education. Free education has become mandatory until the first year of high school since the second semester of the year of 2020. Eco-friendly, free meals that are provided for elementary, middle, and high school students enabled the blueprint for expanding the program to pre-school children.

The journey to innovative education has its challenges. Educational inequality has deepened due to social issues, such as increased number of non-regular jobs, and the education gap has widened from the effect of COVID-19. Despite the long-standing contradictions and unfamiliar crisis, the education system of Seoul has strived step by step to narrow the education gap by “supporting those more in need” for realizing a “righteous differentiation.” Endeavors for reducing the education gap include the equal budget system that takes schools’ situations into consideration, expansion of special classes and special schools, including Seojin School and Narae School, for the education rights for students with disabilities, education allowance for adolescents out of school, support for lifelong education learners from institutions of literacy education and for those preparing for the qualification examination, and more.

Transformation of the Education of Seoul
With considerable challenges that Korea is facing, such as low birth rate and drop of school-age population, the education system must transform accordingly. The education of Seoul is in the center of this matter and thus must lead the way by taking new steps. These are some of the attempts that Seoul is making for changes: transforming school grades to expand early childhood education; elementary school curriculum for stability/development and creativity/sensitivity; expansion of middle school free-semester system and cooperative integrated arts activities; proper function of general high schools; strengthening publicness of private schools; and strengthening the roles of the Office of Education for schools.

In 2018, among public and private preschools in Seoul, public preschools had the lowest admission rate in the country and low satisfaction rate compared to the enrollment rate. For this reason, we are finding ways to expand public preschools through various models, such as establishment of independent and attached preschools as well as purchase-type, cooperative-type, and public-type preschools. Furthermore, the Office of Education shall consider and act for discussions on free meals and the basic education system of preschools.

First, to make elementary schools where students can learn the basics of life, Seoul has been operating an education system focused on stability and development for 1st and 2nd grade students and creativity,knowledgeandsensitivityfor3rdto6thgradestudents.Weassignedintervalplaytimesforchildrentoplaymoreandhadtheschoolplaygroundtobedecoratedbystudentstocreateaspacewherechildrencanimaginetheirdreams,leading the space innovation across the nation.

As for the free-semester system in middle schools, students had improved future-oriented capabilities, career-exploring capabilities, self-efficacy, and happiness at school. We are developing this program by applying school and regional features to make it the free-year system.

Theaters and practice halls were created to support students in participating in cooperative integrated arts activities, such as musical performances, movies, and plays. This program has been expanded to 5th and 6th graders of elementary schools, as well as 1st graders of high schools.

Especially, with recent changes in policy environments, such as the announcement of reorganization of the high school system and methods to strengthen education capabilities of general high schools (November 7, 2019) and the amendment of the Enforcement Decree of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (February 28, 2020), autonomous private high schools and special purpose high schools will be converted to general high schools by 2025. Autonomous public high schools that were initiated together with the implementation of autonomous private high schools are not differentiated with general high schools anymore, and will soon be converted to general high schools to establish a foundation for a future-oriented high school system through simplifying the existing system in accordance with the full implementation of the high school credit system in 2025, which is the main theme of the revised curriculum reorganization of 2005. This is expected to function as a revolutionary opportunity for high school reform.

This systematic change of converting schools to general high schools does not lead to downward -leveling of students as some may concern, but provides an environment that tailors diverse needs according to the dreams, characteristics, and talents of each individual. This system should be developed to a shared campus by implementing the high school credit system that allows students to choose the subjects they wish to take to diversify the curriculum.

Private schools in Seoul take up a large portion of 28 percent among middle schools and 63 percent among high schools. Students’ right to education had been infringed in some private schools due to budget conversion, personnel corruption, and power abuse of the school founder. We actively responded to these matters by dispatching agents to normalize such problems. Through the private school inspection team of the Office of Education, we are researching on professional and preventive measures to finding the right approach. Moreover, with private schools that strive for realizing their founding philosophy, we are developing and searching measures to improve the system of private schools.

School is the most important factor for education. The education of Seoul without schools is unimaginable, so it was necessary for our Office of Education to re-established the roles of the Office of Education, Education Support Office, and related affiliates to support proper operation of the autonomous operation system of schools. The autonomous operation system literally means to operate a school democratically based on the participation and cooperation of school members. To realize this, we created an ordinance through parents’ school participation, supported funds for conducting parent projects, and established the parent support center.

For students to do their roles as “citizens in school uniform,” we supported the student participation budgeting system and funds for operating a student council. We also included class operation for budgeting to invigorate class autonomy. When deliberating on student agendas by the School Operation Committee, we guaranteed the student representative’s right to attend and express opinions and established a virtuous cycle for student participation. We worked hard to protect the rights of students as democratic citizens. Moreover, students’ rights and teachers’ authorities are areas that must be mutually respected; it should not stand against each other. In this matter, to protect teachers’ authorities that are sometimes excessively infringed by some students and parents, we initiated projects to strengthen teachers’ authorities.

We operate the Classroom of Hope for students who need more care by teachers. Professional learning communities are participated by not only teachers but also regular civil servants, creating a more bountiful school autonomous management system. For fruitful operation of the system, we created an integrated school support center in District Office of Education and assigned lawyers of the school violence field.

One Million Classrooms, One Community
Midst the wave of the 4th Industrial Revolution rushing to the educational field after the AlphaGoshock, the COVID-19 situation made us rethink the fundamental of schools and the irroles.

Centering on the roles of teaching/learning and life education, schools have expanded their roles in providing food, caring, and securing safety. As the industry 4.0 is becoming reality, increased roles can already be taken directly and indirectly by artificial intelligence. Future-oriented innovative schools, which are a compound of innovative schools and future schools, are formed to fight back this challenge of the times. Adding to this, COVID-19 has made students to stay home instead of coming to school, arising the need to replace classroom courses to online ones. The critical role of schools is now required to be taken by families and local communities. In a situation where we have to come up with classes that combine remote and physical attendance has left us with a task to answer on how to create a new education paradigm.

At the press conference for the 2nd anniversary of the inauguration of the superintendent, “One million classrooms, one community”wassuggestedasthekeytothedemandsoftoday.Forourchildrenwhowillbelivinginthe4thIndustrialRevolution,post-COVID-19 or the with-COVID-19 era, and a generation with low birthrate, aging society, and threatened ecosystem,wehavetoprovidethemwitheducationtailoredtoeachoftheirsituationsandcapabilities.Paradoxically, the COVID-19situationthatmaderemoteeducationanormhasbroughtusastepclosertorealizingindividualizedclasses.EcologicaltransformationforsustainableplanetEarthisthesurvivalstrategyofmankind.Wearepreparingtointroduceecologicaltransformationclassesandschoolswithacarbonemissionsystem, solar power plants, vegetarian meals, and vegetable gardens.

The COVID-19 situation is showing us that sharing and collaborating with local communities is not an option but a must. A good example for this is the purchase of school supplies and agricultural goods by the Office of Education, Seoul Metropolitan Government, and autonomous districts for students of low-income families. Through the help of local governments, children centers, and community groups, schools are fulfilling the roles of education, disinfection, and care.

“School of the Future” selected as the main project for the government’s Korean New Deal conveys the need for technical development of equipment for remote classes, and that schools must function as the key place for transformative environmental education by collaborating with local communities.

In an era of “frequent disasters” and “complex risk society,” the main task for “innovative education for the future that fosters creative democratic citizens” is to have our children dream of a million worlds and grow into the leading role of society and the global ecosystem.


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