A Jewish Learning Method Catches on in South Korean Hagwons

A Jewish Learning Method Catches on in South Korean Hagwons

Jieun Choi
Jieun Choi

South Korea’s obsession with education is well-known. The size of the private education market amounted to 18 trillion won (over 16 billion U.S. dollars) last year. The market is so big that for years, the government has been trying to regulate hagwons — private cram schools — but South Koreans are unrelenting. Some even enroll in hagwons to fulfill their military duty.

Recently, South Korean parents have found a new obsession: havruta. But this “Jewish learning method,” as it is called in South Korea, has little to do with the Jewish religion.

Traditionally, the havruta approach puts two peers together to analyze and discuss a topic from the Talmud, Jewish texts, and encourages the students to teach each other. It is a proven method for studying religious texts at Jewish institutions. But the method is adapted to South Korean society without being bound to specific Jewish texts like the Talmud. Here, havruta is seen as a useful approach that cultivates a cooperative mindset, critical thinking and even socializing skills.

Havruta-style learning in South Korea most likely began, unsurprisingly, in Daechi-dong, Seoul, the nation’s number-one hagwon district, in 2011. Today, the approach is advertised in many hagwons throughout the country, like this mathematics hagwon on Geoje Island, about 400 km southeast of Daechi-dong.

A South Korean cable TV show introduces viewers to the values of  havruta as a learning method.

Oh Chul-gyu is the director of an organization that promotes Jewish approaches to learning. He told Korea Exposé that he was discouraged by the mechanical learning process at South Korean schools, which emphasizes memorization. To him, the Jewish way was an alternative that encourages students to be self-driven in learning.

It is not the first time the “Jewish educational approach” was hyped in the country. In fact, the Talmud has been a steady-seller for decades in South Korea, often as children’s books, and even to pregnant mothers to “bear smart babies.”

The attraction towards the Jewish way of learning comes from the widespread perception that “Jewish people are smart,” and that their learning method brings about their higher level of intelligence.

One mother failed to register her kid in a highly popular vacation program for elementary school students, called “Havruta Winter School.” Kim Myung-sook told Chosun Ilbo, “I came [to register] because I thought the Jewish learning method would be something special, since it has yielded the highest number of Nobel Prizes. But I didn’t know it would be this popular.”

Some critics say that the havruta trend is compounding the existing culture of competition (not to mention tokenizing Jewish culture).

Only time will tell whether this Jewish approach to education will liberate the unhappy South Korean students or not. Maybe if the parents themselves change their ways of thinking through havruta, they might approach their children’s education differently.


Cover image: Havruta is a Jewish learning method that pairs students to learn the Talmud through discussions. (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Jieun Choi wrote this radar report.

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