Suicide and Sinking Tragedy Show Why Social and Emotional Skills Are so Important for Students




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Jan 12, 2017
by Chris Hamill-Stewart
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Suicide and Sinking Tragedy Show Why Social and Emotional Skills Are so Important for Students

Korean students and experts explain why SEL education is gaining greater importance Eun-su Cho at Salzburg Global Seminar 

South Korea has the highest suicide rate in the OECD, and the second highest globally. The importance of image in Korea, media coverage of celebrity suicides, and poor mental health care are among the reasons cited as reasons why so many Koreans choose to take their own lives. These factors play a role, but many also
cite the education system, and the competitive culture surrounding it, as another critical factor.

The theory holds weight; in Korea, the youth suicide rate is abnormally high. Suicide is the biggest killer of Korean teenagers, those in their twenties, and those in their thirties.

The Korean education system is highly competitive; there is a huge emphasis on performing well in school and going to good universities. Korean high school students average sixteen hours a day of school-related activities, in school, or in hagwons – after-school programs for additional education. Many researchers believe this complete devotion to education undoubtedly contributes to the high rate of suicide.

The influence education has on wellbeing has been an important issue at the Salzburg Global session Getting Smart: Measuring and Evaluating Social and Emotional Skills. Participants have looked in-depth at how education systems can be improved by better developing students’ Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). Salzburg Global spoke with Korean participants and staff about the effects that their education system has on students, and to look at how SEL might be able to improve this.

Bina Jeon, a student in Korea and Yoojin Hong, a graduate, can attest to the need to utilize and teach more SEL skills. Both now interns with Salzburg Global Seminar, they found high school very stressful and competitive, and neither was happy. “When I had problems or felt stressed, the school didn’t provide me support – I found my support at home or with friends,” says Jeon. Hong’s experience was worse – she found that the competitive system affected her friendships, leaving her isolated from her friends if she or they achieved a higher grade. She “grew apart from her best friend from the moment she got a significantly higher grade then her.” It is not difficult to see how a culture of education like this may, in extreme cases, lead to children making rash and irreversible decisions.

Eun-su Cho, a philosophy professor in the top Korean university, Seoul National University, attended the session not to further her own academic research but to “find ways to improve her undergraduate and graduate students’ lives.” She says many of her brilliant students, with the top grades, are very quiet – they’re reserved and they don’t open up. The core of this is that they have “very little confidence.” This is not the attitude she wants her students to have.

Cho wants students to “have ideas about the future, society and their fellow citizens.” She argues that facilitating more SEL education would give students a chance to show who they are and to understand themselves better, which would build their confidence, and ultimately create better students and future leaders.

Heejin Park, a research fellow focusing on character education at the Korean Educational Development Institute, believes that things are changing in Korea, and they are starting to see the benefits of SEL skills. Park cites the 2014 MV Sewol tragedy as an important revelation for Koreans. The incident saw nearly 300 high school students drown when their ferry sank on a school trip and it made many in Korea realize that they may not be teaching students to think critically. Park asks if lives could have been saved had the students been taught to “think more autonomously.” She believes that the tragedy brought about public support for new legislation calling for more social and emotional learning, making sure that teachers are more engaged with their students and that they go further in teaching critical thinking and life skills.

Cho, Jeon and Hong all paint a dismal picture for the lives of students in the Korea, but it is worth considering the facts. In their latest PISA results, the OECD has just ranked Korea as the seventh best country in the world for both math and reading. Their education in cognitive subjects is exceptional, but the hard truth of Park’s point remains: sometimes it is not enough to just teach students to excel at math and literacy. SEL development is increasingly being recognized as important for students and into adulthood.

Korean education is opening up to the positive effects of SEL. For example, in light of attending this Salzburg Global session, Cho says she has “more of a sense of mission - it’s been a really valuable opportunity, and I’m looking forward to applying what I’ve learned with my own students, but also trying to help implement it more widely on campus.” However, with such deeply ingrained ideas, culture, and norms surrounding the education system, it remains to be seen whether the implementation of these ideas will spread beyond those who participate in Salzburg Global sessions.

The Salzburg Global Session Getting Smart: Measuring and Evaluating Social and Emotional Skills part of the Salzburg Global series Education for Tomorrow's World, was hosted in partnership with ETS. More information on the session can be found here: