Gifted Education in South Korea


by Tim Dracup of Gifted Phoenix’s Blog


This post reviews the development of gifted education policy and practice in South Korea.

Part One covers the development and operation of Korean gifted and talented education at national level. Part Two will take a closer look at some elements of this provision, including several dedicated gifted high schools.

Paradoxically, I’m dedicating it to Gifted Education Awareness Week in Ireland!

I can’t pretend that there is any logic or even premeditation behind this decision but, as an earnest disciple of E.M Forster’s epigraph to Howard’s End – ‘only connect’ – I have established that there are significant historical links, though perhaps no great similarity in the two countries’ respective approaches to gifted education.

I suspect some of my Irish readers would wish their country to emulate South Korea’s thorough, systematic, sustained and very generously funded programme, if only their financial circumstances permitted it. If so, I empathise absolutely from my parallel English perspective.

For South Korea exemplifies beautifully why national investment in gifted education is so important and what significant returns it can generate. The country’s efforts in this field deserve to be much better known and celebrated, so I hope that this post will help in some small way.

It builds on a much older post from 2010 which reviewed pan-Asian programmes in science-based gifted education, many of them led and co-ordinated by Korean institutions.

There is of course continuing international interest in Korean education more generally, as a direct consequence of the country’s exceptional showing in recent PISA assessments. In PISA 2009, Korea’s overall rankings were 2nd in reading, 4th in maths and 6th in science.

As I have noted in an earlier post examining the PISA data, such overall rankings can mask significant variation in the performance of a country’s highest achievers. Korea’s highest achievers are not yet ranked quite as highly in reading and science as their overall ranking suggests, though they are not far behind in maths. We can expect this gap to narrow significantly in PISA 2012, as a direct consequence of the work currently under way.

Nevertheless, politicians and policy makers are already desperate to emulate the success of all the so-called Asian ‘tiger economies’, and we are no exception. South Korea is listed amongst the ‘high-performing jurisdictions’ whose practice has been examined as part of England’s current National Curriculum Review.

Unfortunately though, my analysis suggests that the South Korean evidence drawn on by the Expert Panel for that Review is badly out of date. It certainly ignores all vestiges of gifted education, quite possibly for ideological reasons.My review of the Panel’s Report contains further details – and we will look again at the Korea-specific material in this post.

But we should begin with some basic information about South Korea and its education system, so providing a broad context for the detail to follow.


South Korea is officially the Republic of Korea. It forms the southern part of the Korean Peninsula and is not to be confused with North Korea – officially the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea – its neighbour to the north. For the sake of clarity I will continue to call it South Korea.

South Korea is a particularly interesting and relevant comparator for the English because its population is of a very similar size, especially when compared with most of the other ‘Asian Tigers’.

Whereas Singapore (population 5m) and Hong Kong (population 7m) are much smaller and Shanghai (population 23m) is only about half the size, South Korea has a national population of around 49m people, very close to England’s population of 51m.

South Korea has an area of 99,392 km2 (somewhat smaller than England at 130,395 km2)

It is also a presidential republic divided into 16 regions, seven of which are cities with populations above 1m.

One is Seoul, the capital city, which has a population approaching 10m in its own right. The larger Seoul National Capital Area accounts for almost half the entire national population. Other large cities are Busan (3.5m), Incheon (2.5m) and Daegu (2.5m).

Much of the country is mountainous – only 30% is lowland – and it contains some 3,000 islands. The population density is around 490 per km2, over 10 times the world average and significantly higher than in England at 395 per km2.

Unlike England, the Korean population is not racially or culturally diverse: well over 99% are Korean. However, the number of foreign nationals resident in South Korea is increasing rapidly, so multicultural education is beginning to become more of an issue.

The economy is the 12th largest in the world by GDP but, according to the CIA World Factbook, 15% of the population live below the poverty line, compared with 14% in the UK, so there is significant disadvantage.

Education System

The Study in Korea website provides a useful visual representation:

Post kindergarten (ages 3-6) the education system follows a 6-3-3-4 pattern:

  • Elementary school for Grades 1 to 6 (ages 7-12) – equivalent to Years 2-7 in England;
  • Middle school for Grades 7 to 9 (ages 13-15) – equivalent to Years 8-10 in England;
  • High school for Grades 10 to 12 (ages 16-18) – equivalent to Years 11-13 in England;
  • Tertiary education provided through a mixed economy of junior college and 4-year undergraduate university courses.

Only the 9 years of elementary and middle school are compulsory. The school year comprises two semesters: March to August and September to February, with two main holidays from July to August and December to February.

According to the statistics on the Education Ministry’s website:

  • there are 20,261 schools. Of these, 5,854 are elementary schools, 3,130 are middle schools and 2,313 are high schools of various kinds. Over 14,000 are classified as public and the remainder are private;
  • the total school population is almost 11.5 million, with roughly 3.3 million pupils in elementary schools, 2.0 million in middle schools and a further 2.0 million in high schools;
  • the country employs about 534,000 teachers


The most recent (Seventh) National Curriculum dates from 1997. The Ministry of Education website says:

‘To prepare students for the 21st century, the era of globalization and knowledge-based society, the Seventh Curriculum attempts to break away from the spoon-fed and short-sighted approach to education of the past towards a new approach in the classroom to produce human resources capable of facing new challenges. Study loads for each subject has been reduced to an appropriate level, while curricula that accommodate different needs of individual students were also introduced. Independent learning activities to enhance self-directed learning required in the knowledge-based society have either been introduced or expanded. Thus, the Seventh Curriculum is a student-oriented curriculum emphasizing individual talent, aptitude, and creativity, unlike the curriculum of the past.’

document on the Ministry’s site, prepared for a Japanese delegation that visited in 2005, offers a succinct summary:

‘A flexible level-differentiated curriculum is provided.

Diverse curricular levels and programs help satisfy individual student abilities and different growth potentials.

In the course of revising the national curriculum, the ministry judged that a flexible level-differentiated curriculum would help address each student’s different ability, interest, aptitude, and career direction, and also promote gifted and talented education while satisfying the requirements of basic common education.

Types of Level-Differentiated Curriculum

Step-by-step curriculum

  • This is applied to the core subjects of mathematics and secondary-level English.

  • Mathematics is taught step by step with a curriculum divided into 20 levels, for students in grades one to ten. The English curriculum has eight levels, taught from 7th through 10th grade.

In-depth and supplementary curriculum

  • This is for advancing or lagging students, in the subjects of Korean language, social studies, science, and primary English.

  • Korean language : 1st-10th grade, social studies & science : 3rd-10th grade

  • Primary English : 3rd-6th grade

Elective curriculum

  • High school 2nd and 3rd graders (11th and 12th grade) can choose from a number of electives.

  • Schools open diverse electives that reflect the different abilities, aptitude, needs, and interest of students.

  • Students select from the given choices according to their own ability and career development needs.

A more thorough treatment is provided in this document, also available on the website.

An Aside: Relevance to England’s National Curriculum Review

This emphasis on differentiation to meet students’ needs and abilities is in marked contrast to the way that South Korea’s education system has been presented in England, within the Report of the Expert Panel for the National Curriculum Review.

The Report makes specific reference to Korea in its Chapter on Assessment, Reporting and Pupil Progression, which I reviewed and criticised (severely) in this recent post.

The Expert Panel says:

‘A distinctive feature of some of the high-performing systems that we have examined in the course of the review appears to be a radically different approach to pupil progression and to differentiation. Crude categorisation of pupil abilities and attainment is eschewed in favour of encouraging all pupils to achieve adequate understanding before moving on to the next topic or area. Achievement is interpreted in terms of the power of effort rather than the limits of ability. The emphasis on effort is particularly marked in the Confucian-heritage countries such as China, Hong Kong SAR, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. The assumption here is that deep engagement with subject matter, including through memorisation where appropriate, leads to deeper understanding….

…Naturally however, it is a far from simple picture. South Korea at one time virtually mandated differentiation out of the system in primary education. Meanwhile, Hong Kong uses within-school rank ordering vigorously but, as with South Korea and Singapore, also operates with a curriculum model focusing on ‘fewer things in greater depth’ which all pupils are expected to attain. They also emphasise effort rather than ability.

…Studies of the improvement strategies of countries such as Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea and Finland suggest that the approach to progression and to differentiation is an important factor in these systems. While the model has been vigorously enforced in South Korea, it manifests itself more subtly in Finland… In neither case is this approach necessarily linked to retention and holding pupils back. In some countries it is a shared, explicit strategy with ideological connotations; for example, it may arise from a political commitment to equity. In others, it is a more implicit strategy, embedded in ingrained practices and processes.’

The sentences I have emboldened are a curate’s egg, may once have been wholly accurate, but only in a period of relatively ancient history in the development of Korea’s curriculum.

Some might question whether this is the level of scholarship that we have a right to expect from such an august team of highly-experienced academics. Some might say the Expert Panel stands accused of cherry-picking from international evidence to fit and justify its own ideological position. I offer them the right of reply whenever they are ready…

My previous post took the Panel to task for failing to acknowledge the role of gifted education in these ‘high-performing Confucian-heritage countries’. This review goes some way towards rectifying that omission,at least as far as South Korea is concerned.

It also has some relevance to the current development of selective 16-19 maths free schools in England, because of the cadre of gifted science schools that are central to the South Korean gifted education programme.

A Brief History of Korean Gifted Education – The Early Days

Seoul at dawn courtesy of Patriotmissile

I have put this narrative together from a variety of online sources, drawing particularly on material on the website of the National Research Center for Gifted and Talented Education (NRCGTE) and on the Gifted Education Database website, as well as within a presentation by Mesook Kim, the former director of NRCGTE, given in September 2010 as part of an International Symposium on Gifted Education in Istanbul, Turkey.

Kim characterises ‘old style’ educational thinking in Korea as:

  • Taking a one-size-fits-all approach
  • Emphasising equality and sameness as important societal values – treating students differently was taboo

  • Believing in efforts more than abilities of students

  • Thinking it unnecessary and impossible to provide an educational service tailored to individual needs and ability.

This began to change in the early 1980s. Kim cites the foundation of Gyeonggi Science High School in 1983 as marking the beginning of gifted education in Korea.

Gyeonggi was followed by the introduction of three more Science High Schools the following year in Daejeon, Jeonnam (Gwangju) and Gyeongnam (Jinju). There are now 17 public mathematics/science high schools, one in each province, one in each metropolitan city, and two in the city of Seoul. I will return to them later in this post.

In 1987, a precursor of NRCGTE, the Research Office of Gifted Education, was established within KEDI. The Korean Society for the Gifted was formed in 1990. One online source says:

‘The first discussions on the need for education for the gifted as a means to nurture high quality human resources and to guarantee equal opportunity to education based on the students’ aptitude and needs, was held on the Education Reform Committee’s proposal on May 31, 1995 and the subsequent Act on Basic Education was announced on December 13, 1997′.

These discussions were instrumental in changing the status of the Research Office to the Center for Gifted and Talented Education in 1996. This led to the introduction of gifted classes and model schools in each region. Science-focused gifted education centres attached to universities were also introduced in 1997, supported by Ministry of Science and Technology.

The KEDI archive contains abstracts of several research reports undertaken by the Center’s staff, most of them dating from 1997 to 2003. One of the earliest, ‘Suggestions on National Policies for Establishing Gifted Education Systems in Korea’, by Cho Seok-Hee and Oh Young-Joo offers the following commentary on the education system as it was then:

‘It was found that Korean schools have failed to maximize the developmental potential of gifted students due to a lack of legal, financial, and administrative support. Schools provide gifted education only to students at the secondary level and therefore, early identification and education have not been practised. Even in high schools, gifted students cannot pursue their intellectual and academic interest, because they have to prepare for the university entrance examination…Several guidelines for the formation of national policies recommended from the study include:

  • Gifted children should be identified early and provided with appropriate and differentiated education programs.
  • Many different systems should be established to serve gifted children in different situations and needs.
  • Special schools for gifted high school students should be established
  • An administrative and research support system should be also established’.

The first source adds:

‘While assessment tools, teaching/learning materials, and other preparations were launched to implement the education for the gifted, actual education on a national scale would not take place due to the lack of a legal system to support such education programs.

The legal foundation for the implementation of education for the gifted was laid by the Act on Promoting the Education of Gifted Students [It] was promulgated on January 28, 2000, followed by the Implementation Ordinance for the Act on Education for the Gifted on April 18, 2002.’

The Act was originally suggested by a congressman, Sang-hui Lee. Once in place, policy discussions were taken forward at a Ministerial Meeting in May 2001 chaired by the President. A Plan for the Establishment and Operation of a Science Academy was also prepared and discussed at the 5th Human Resource Development Conference in September 2001.

Kim translates the definition of a gifted child in Article 2 of the 2000 Act as:

‘a person who possesses extraordinary innate abilities or visible talents requiring special education to nurture them’

and his version of the parallel definition of gifted education within the Act is:

‘providing education with the contents and the method tailored to the characteristics and the needs of a gifted child’.

It was as a consequence of this Act that the NRCGTE was formed within KEDI in 2002. From this point there was rapid development.

The First Comprehensive Plan 2003-2007

Courtesy of Steve 46814

The new Center was instrumental in producing the country’s first Comprehensive Plan for the Promotion of Gifted Education, covering the period from 2003 to 2007. This is designated by Kim a period of ‘initial development’.

The narrative on the Gifted Education Database website shows that this was genuinely a cross-Government initiative:

‘At the 13th Human Resource Development Conference in November 29, 2002, a Minister of Education and Human Resource Development and deputy Prime Minister brought up the Master Plan for promotion of gifted education for discussion jointly in the name of 7 related authorities, such as the Ministry of Education and Human Resource Development, the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the Ministry of Information and Communication, the Ministry of Gender Equality, the Ministry of Planning and Budget, and Korean Intellectual Property Office. The draft was confirmed. In the 1st Master Plan for promotion of gifted education, the detailed plans for promotion of gifted education from 2002 to 2007 was included.’

The core purpose of the Plan was to incorporate gifted education within general education. Key elements included:

  • providing 40,000 students, 0.5% of whole elementary, middle, and high school population with gifted education (as a first step towards the ultimate objective of supporting a gifted and talented population comprising between 5 and 10 percent of the total school population);

  • establishing 200 gifted education learning centres in universities and local education departments;

  • training 8,000 teachers in gifted education; and

  • extending support into new areas including arts and technology.

It was during this period that the Korea Science Academy (KSA), was established from the former Busan Science High School. More about KSA later.

The Second Comprehensive Plan – 2008-2012

The Gifted Education Promotion Act was revised in 2005 and a second Comprehensive Plan for the period 2008-2012 was prepared in 2007 and approved at the meeting of the National Human Resource Council in December 13 of that year.

Kim calls the second plan a period of ‘gradual expansion’; the Gifted Education Database describes it as ‘a development stage’:

‘The 2nd Master Plan is aimed at enhancing the substantiality [sic] and quality of gifted education. It includes 5 driving strategies and 13 detailed tasks. The main contents are to expand opportunities of gifted education to 1% of the total number of students by 2010; to increase the number of gifted schools by converting science high school into science academy; to establish gifted school in the field of arts and physical education; to expand training opportunities for teachers (training about 30,000 teachers for 5 years); to enhance the quality of gifted education programs through evaluating gifted education programs and teacher training institutions; to implement gifted education within regular courses in general schools on a trial basis.’

The press release marking publication of the Plan in August 2008 can still be found in the KEDI archive. It says:

Changdeokgun Palace courtesy of Morning Calm News

‘Under the plan, the ministry will expand the number of gifted education schools in science from one to four within this year. The Korea Science Academy, established in 2003, will be attached to the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology(KAIST).

In terms of procedures, the ministry will receive applications from science high schools this October, who wish to switch into gifted education institutions. Upon evaluation of curricula, teacher capacity and facilities, the ministry will select 1-2 new gifted education schools in science, which will be placed under deliberation in November at the Central Gifted Education Promotion Committee. Final approvals will be given in December.

The plan to turn the Korea Science Academy into an affiliation of KAIST comes as an effort to give the Academy a leading role in nurturing Korea’s educational environment for scientifically gifted students. Once affiliated, the Academy will operate its curricula in linkage with KAIST, and draw from the Institute’s manpower and facility resources. The integration is also expected to enable the Academy to recruit teachers of higher quality. The KAIST-affiliated Korea Science Academy is scheduled to open doors in March 2009.

Alongside, the ministry will establish a “Science High School Development Plan” by this December, with aim to expand general schools’ infrastructure for the nurturing of scientifically gifted high school students. Schemes will be introduced to improve the student admission system at science high schools, revise curricula, raise teacher quality, and increase government support.

In addition, new programs are currently being developed at universities so as to provide linkage between gifted education high schools and higher education institutions, thus enabling continuity in gifted education. To this purpose, the ministry will select 15 “Undergraduate Research Programs” in September 2008, to provide 10-20 million Korean won in support of students’ self-led research planning and implementation. In 2009, the ministry will introduce an “Honors Program” which will offer advanced and creative learning experiences for university students in various formats including seminars and internships.

Aside from gifted education schools, the ministry will also expand gifted education classes within general schools and also gifted education centers, with goal to provide approximately 1 percent (70,000 students) of all primary and secondary school students with gifted education opportunities.’

By 2009, Korea’s gifted programmes did indeed support a gifted population comprising 1% of the total school population, or 70,205 pupils. This comprised 39,090 learners attending gifted education centres, 30,560 in gifted classes and 548 in two gifted schools.

How the system has grown

Given the several different sources of data, it is not straightforward to chart with any exactitude the expansion of South Korean gifted education over this period.

One source says that, by the mid 1990′s, roughly 10% of elementary schools, 15% of middle schools, and 10% of high schools offered special classes for the gifted in a range of subject areas: Korean language, maths, arts, foreign languages and computer sciences.

Another suggests that, by 2004, there were 451 gifted classes offered to 8,200 students nationwide, with a further 862 classes provided at Gifted Education Centres for some16,500 students. This accounted for 0.3% of the entire student population.

Yet another reports that:

‘The number of gifted students who receive gifted education increased from 19,974 (2003) to 41,536 (2006) and the number of gifted education institutes extended from 400 (2003) to 543 (2006)’

It is possible to compile a table of more recent statistics referenced in Kim’s presentations and on the Gifted Education Database (GED) website showing progress since 2007:

Provision 2007 2009 2010
Number Pupils Number Pupils Number Pupils
Gifted School 1 432 2 548 3 ?
Gifted classes 295 10104 967 30567 1586 41896
Gifted centers in offices of education 225 17732 471 31495 357 30246
Gifted Centers in universities 33 4668 84 7595 54 4110
TOTAL 554 32936 1524 70205 2000 76252

The GED site also provides a breakdown of the focus of gifted education provision across these different categories

Topic Percentage
Science 50.6
Maths 45.8
Invention 12.9
Information Science 10.8
Integrated 8.1
Foreign Language 7.8
Language Arts 7.2
Liberal Arts 6.6
Leadership 6.6
Creativity 6.3
Art 5.1
Thinking Ability 4.8
Music 3.6
Others 3.3
Motivation 1.8
Physical Education 0.9

This suggests that, while maths and science predominate, the country’s efforts to diversify support are beginning to bear fruit.

Another table shows that the balance between phases strongly favours younger pupils.

In 2010, 64.2% of provision was intended for elementary school pupils, compared with 51.6% for middle school pupil and just 11.6% for those attending high schools. This presumably reflects the policy decision to focus provision for older students on a comparatively narrower range of ability.

By the end of 2012 and the period covered by the Second Plan, we know that South Korea expects to be reaching 2% of the population through its gifted programme. The Third Plan can be expected to plot further progress towards the ultimate 5-10% target.

The role of the National Research Center

The National Research Center for Gifted and Talented Education (NRCGTE), part of the Korean Educational Development Institute (KEDI).

The Center’s vision statement articulates two priorities:

  • ‘To establish research capacity and status as a comprehensive domestic research institute for gifted and talented education’ and
  • ‘To leap forward as a globally recognized research institute for gifted and talented education’.

This translates into a six-part Mission Statement:

  • To furnish theoretical, practical research capacity for gifted and talented education;
  • To seek the unity of policy, theory, and field application of gifted and talented education;
  • To prepare for the expansion of numbers of students and educational institutes for gifted and talented education;
  • To prepare for implementation of gifted and talented education for the top 5-10% of students by linking with the regular school curriculum of general schools;
  • To promote partnership and networking with persons related to gifted and talented education domestically and overseas; and
  • To compile systematically the country’s history of gifted and talented education, current state and national standard, and to engage in domestic and international PR.
Han River courtesy of arnoldo riker

The Center, excluding the National Training Institute, employed 22 staff in 2010. The current Director is Jae-Boon Lee. He oversees four teams. :

  • Research: conducts research leading to the development of national policy on gifted education and evaluates its effectiveness;
  • Development: develops programmes and resources to cultivate creativity, strengthens the links between research and practice in gifted education, supports the operation and use of a national Gifted Education Database(GED) and develops identification tools;
  • Innovation: supports teachers in gifted education, developing and quality assuring a national training programme; supports training undertaken by universities and the 16 regional Offices of Education; runs workshops and other training activities in partnership with other organisations; and issues newsletters and advice on gifted education
  • Networking: establishes the Center as a hub for Korean gifted education through cooperation with domestic and overseas organisations; agrees Memoranda of Understanding with research institutes and government departments worldwide; provides international symposia and conferences and participates in similar events abroad.

The National Training Institute was established at NRCGTE in December 2009, to drive and co-ordinate professional development for teachers and educators. It has a specific remit to develop online programmes and to support teachers in enhancing creativity in their learners. The Institute is also expected to develop and supply appropriate training across the curriculum, in humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and the performing arts.

The Gifted Education Database (GED) is intended to:

  • support the management and sharing of data relating to the supply and deployment of staff, the use of materials, curriculum and identification processes;
  • support professional development, research and evaluation activity including longitudinal studies; and
  • inform reporting to students, parents, teachers, researchers and policy makers.

It is managed by KEDI in co-operation with the 16 regional Offices of Education using a budget supplied by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology. It holds:

  • Institutional information about gifted schools, institutions, classes and research centres;
  • Information about gifted and talented students, teachers and educators;
  • Details of curricular provision and professional development;
  • A library of reference material including research, reports and theses.

Additional support for the NRCGTE is provided through the Korea National Research Institute for the Gifted in Arts (KRIGA), which is part of the Korea National University of Arts (K-Arts) founded as a national art school in 1990.

KRIGA opened in July 2005 and is intended to ‘build a foundation for talented education policy and its implementation’ through theoretical and policy studies, research on talent identification and development, pedagogy, student support, programme development and professional development. It employs a director, research director and research specialists in music, fine arts, traditional arts and education.

Closing Thoughts

South Korea has achieved truly impressive progress in developing a coherent and comprehensive national programme of gifted education, especially over the last decade.

There are still many challenges to overcome, as the Ministry and its supporting organisations seek to increase simultaneously the quantity, scope and quality of the service, but all the signs are positive. There is no wavering in the Government’s commitment to this priority, which is regards as essential to its future economic success.

Kim’s presentation says that the Korean Government has declared 100 National Priorities and that Number 75 is: ‘Establish a solid system for supporting the gifted’.

I have been unable to verify this from other sources, but it sounds authentic.

In which case, Korea deserves to be lauded as a true world leader in gifted education whose achievements should be celebrated and emulated by others. I have no doubt that it will achieve its ultimate target of bringing at least 5% of students within scope of this programme without compromising the quality of service.

In the second part of this post we will look more closely at how South Korea identifies gifted learners and at the different kinds of provision offered, including the learning experience provided by some of the specialist schools for gifted learners.


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