Story-ideas-1011172

Talmud-inspired learning craze sweeps South Korea

  • JTASouthKorea
(JTA) In 2014, Kim Hye-Kyung found herself staring into an educational abyss.
by TIM ALPER | Jan 17, 2019

The mother of two lives in study-mad South Korea, a nation where parents fork over a combined $17 billion (R233 billion) on private tutoring every year. Children start early – 83% of five-year-olds receive private education – and the pace keeps intensifying until, at age 18, students take the dreaded eight-hour Suneung university entrance exam. Flunk the Suneung, and your job prospects could nosedive. Pass with flying colours, and you may land a coveted spot at a top-ranked university.

“I hated the idea of sending my children to private academies, where teachers cram information into young heads with no thought for nurturing creativity,” Kim Hye-Kyung said. “When my kids were younger, I read them books or took them out instead of sending them to academies. But as they grew older, I started worrying that their school results would suffer as a result of my decisions.”

Kim Hye-Kyung was in this quandary when, by chance, she came across a book by a Korean author about what, for her, was a novel study method. It was chavruta, a method used by Talmud scholars in which pairs of students debate and ask one another questions based on ancient rabbinic texts.

“When I read about chavruta, I immediately felt an emotional connection,” Kim Hye-Kyung said. “It was the educational path I’d been dreaming of.”

Most South Koreans have never met a Jew. Aside from a small Chabad house in this capital city and a few informal groups of (mostly secular) Jewish expats, South Korea’s Jewish community is virtually non-existent. As such, South Koreans know next to nothing about how Jews live, what they eat (and don’t eat), or what they believe.

However, there is one fact about Jews that just about every South Korean can recount.

“Jews account for just 0.2% of the world’s population, but 23% of Nobel Prize winners have been Jewish,” Seoul-based student Choi Jae-Young related. “And despite all the time and money we spend on education, only one Korean has ever won a Nobel award. That irks many Koreans. It makes us want to learn Jews’ secrets.”

Some South Koreans think the key to unlocking such “secrets” can be found in Jewish approaches to education.

The result is dozens of private chavruta-themed academies, with busy branches in major cities throughout the country, catering to everyone from toddlers to adults. Some make use of Korean-language Talmudic texts, while others follow entirely secular curricula.

Interest in the Talmud eventually led Korean academics to explore how Jews study religious texts. They began to learn about yeshivas, academies that are devoted to Talmudic scholarship. South Korean consultants paid visits to some of Israel’s busiest Talmudic study centres.

What they discovered inside sent their hearts aflutter: vast halls resonating with the clamour of heated student discussion, with teachers’ voices nowhere to be heard. Pairs of Talmud students – chavruta comes from a Hebrew root meaning “friend” or “companion” – locked horns in lively debate over texts, parsing its logic, and debating a series of written questions posed by teachers.

For many South Korean thinkers, this was the “secret” they had been after since the 1970s: a learning methodology that added dynamism to book-based learning, and removed the teacher as the focal point of lessons.

The methodology is gaining mainstream acceptance fast, moving from private academies into conventional public classrooms. In December, one of the largest teachers’ trade unions in the country, the Korean Federation of Teachers’ Associations, struck a memorandum of understanding with the Havruta Culture Association. The resulting partnership will see scores of regular school teachers learn how to initiate chavruta-style learning sessions.

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