Michael Griffin

ELT Global Issues – Michael



If you add it all up I have spent more than 8 years — spread out over the last 12  — involved in English education in Korea. In addition to being a place I love it’s also where I had my first full time job and the nation in which I currently reside. I have taught students from the age of seven to seventy and in a variety of contexts and situations — ranging from young learners to shipbuilders. One of the most exhilarating, enjoyable, exhausting and occasionally frustrating jobs I’ve had is working with Korean teachers of English on training courses. In this position I have had the great honor and privilege of working with some amazing English teachers from whom I have learned a great deal.

It has not always been easy to hear stories about the challenges these teachers face. Those involved in English education in South Korea are all-too-familiar with the problems of English education. Some of the oft-repeated problems and challenges (or perhaps symptoms?) include:

an overemphasis on testing
teachers simply teaching to the test
continual and tedious lectures on grammar
rampant teacher-centeredness
non-existent to low student talking time
corporal punishment
teachers believing candy is the only reasonable replacement for corporal punishment
students sleeping through class
students ignoring teachers lessons
low quality textbooks riddled with errors
teachers swamped by paper work and duties outside teaching
teachers blamed by parents and other stakeholders for students lack of achievement

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I must admit I feel more than a bit uncomfortable doling out advice to a country and educational system in which I am still a guest. Because of this and because the list of problems has been repeated and discussed ad nauseam in pubs, staffrooms, training courses, and the blogosphere I’d like to focus elsewhere. Instead of detailing the problems and offering my solutions I’d like to highlight some of the bright spots and reasons for hope I have encountered. I certainly don’t mean to ignore or try to downplay the gravity of the above issues. I truly feel there are many reasons for hope while acknowledging the sometimes grim realities. I will share three reasons I am hopeful about English education in Korea. These include that the current assessment practices are being called into question, more teachers receiving quality training, and a committed and growing group of brave English teachers who want to put their students’ learning first.


I think the current discussion about altering the current assessment practices (specifically the English portion of the Korean college entrance exam) is extremely hopeful. Some might say the confusion and clouds surrounding the NEAT test are just another reason for despair but my view is different. I think the simple fact such measures are being considered is reason for optimism. Many teachers (especially those teaching the final year of high school) feel blocked, indeed trapped, by the current assessment regime and I agree with those who say that this needs to be changed in order for positive washback to spread throughout public education. Again, thinking positively, discussions about possible changes in the assessment system could point to a future where teachers don’t feel quite as shackled by “The Test” and the lexico-grammar focus it demands.


To my eyes, the last few years have seen a proliferation of training courses for Korean teachers. While not all of these fit exactly into my concept of what an ideal training course might be, I think the important factor to consider is the massive investments of time, energy and money that Korean English teachers are giving and receiving. I also think it’s nice to see how some courses are focusing more on teachers’ beliefs as well as reflective abilities rather than just a steady diet of just English practice or ready-made activities. I feel these types of courses will pay off in the long run, even if right now the benefits are not as tangible as might be hoped.


There are teachers out there doing projects with students. There are teachers trying out extensive reading. There are teachers trying to have fun. There are teachers experimenting and reflecting on their practice. There are teachers trying out warmers. There are teachers who try to limit their translations of English texts into Korean. There are teachers that put their students’ learning first. I know about these teachers because I have worked with them. I believe brave teachers like this are growing in number and that they are the main reason for optimism about English education in Korea.

Just because I can see reasons for hope doesn’t mean the battle has been won. There are still many challenges to be faced. The road will not always be easy or smooth but I feel we are at the start of some very positive changes for English education in Korea.

Those interested in more of Mike’s thoughts on teaching in Korea might want to check out his Letter to Korean teachers (1) , “South Korea is an EFL situation (2), and 18 things about Korean Students (3)

1)    http://eltrantsreviewsreflections.wordpress.com/2012/06/11/a-letter-to-korean-english-teachers/

2)    http://eltrantsreviewsreflections.wordpress.com/2012/07/11/south-korea-is-an-efl-situation/

3)    http://eltrantsreviewsreflections.wordpress.com/18-things-about-korean-students/

20 thoughts on “ELT Global Issues – Michael”

  1. It’s exciting to discover a positive message for Korean English teachers! Thanks for encouraging us all the time, Mike.

  2. Good work Mike. You lend some dignity to the ESL profession and the ruminations above, particularly concerning brave teachers, are on the mark.

    Additionally: The 18 things about Korean students bit is insightful as well. I may be heading back to Korea soon for another year and may need to keep some of those thoughts in mind.

    1. Thanks very much for reading and commenting Dan! I think it is going to take some brave teachers but it is great to see that there is hope. Best of luck with everything!

  3. Thanks for this post, Mike. It reinforced my recent realisation that my attitude has been the reason for most of my failures. I made a habit of concentrating on your long list of problems and challenges, which are far from being exclusive to Korea, I’m afraid. It’s a soul killing and counter productive way of approaching your environment and burns you out very quickly. That’s when you pack your bags and off you go wreak havoc somewhere else. Realising that there are great things going on and accepting that the culture that surrounds you is completely different from (but by no means worse than) your own. I have learnt this the hard way: burnt bridges, hurt people. But I now understand what you are saying and I agree. The problems are there and you will always do your best to solve them in your own ways but your life should not be about the problems only. Thanks, Mike. I wish you many more year of success in Korea.

    1. Thanks so much for touching response, Tamas. I am so happy that my post could help add to your realization. I think this idea of the place we are in affecting us so much is an interesting one. I remember I was much less happy in Korea in the first few years because I was more focused on the bad things! 🙂 In any case in the past few years (mostly due to PLN stuff) I have realized lots of the problems teachers face are similar all over. It is comforting and worrying! Thanks again for the comments and kind words/thoughts!


  4. I’m impressed with your in-dept insight and understanding about English education in Korea. I love your points You made on the three reasons you are hopeful about it.
    Yes ! we are hopeful because we can learn from a great trainer like you.
    Yes! we are hopeful because we can realize that we are good from a highly experienced expert like you.

    1. 🙂 So great to see another teacher that I greatly respect reading and commenting. People like you are the reason I wrote this post, so thank you for the inspiration. Keep up the good work and keep inspiring others!

  5. Dear Mike,

    Whoa, well done Mike, time and over again! I see the beacon of light at the end of the tunnel although it may be a long and winding walk along the tunnel. It’s great to have dedicated educators like yourself in Korea, more importantly as someone who sees through the nation’s English language woes and needs.

    Very enjoyable read, indeed:) Well done again!

    Warm wishes,

  6. Ratna!
    Thanks so much for commenting. I really appreciate it. I am always very appreciative when you give me positive feedback…this is the push I need to be brave and keep writing/taking risks. Perhaps this is just the support that teachers need. 🙂

    Thanks again,

  7. It’s terrific to read your comments, Mike. I especially like the respect you pay to the many teachers who are clearly working hard at their professional development where it counts – in the classroom. As many know, that’s what keeps the momentum up: teachers doing their best with new ideas, and sidestepping the cynicism and all the negative energy that comes with it.

  8. Thanks so much for reading and commenting Phil! I am glad you enjoyed it. I am finding it is far too easy be negative and cynical or to just look the other way. I tried to point out some brightspots and as you as you say, teachers working hard at professional development in the classroom is where it counts!


  9. Interesting article-I have heard conflicting views about the assessments in Korea and pressure on the students. Interesting to hear your viewpoint.

  10. Mike, I enjoyed reading your posting. I have over the years only met a handful of Koreans. You see the bulk of my time I have spent delivering training to learners who come to visit the UK and so it is nice to get the back story of why they arrive almost in a straightjacket but leave so much more open, willing and engaged in true communication.

    I loved reading your letter to Korean Teachers!

    Many insights there including “cult of the ‘native speaker’” and

    “My firm belief is that a lecture about aspects of language to a room full of half-asleep students is not the best way to promote LEARNing but….I might be wrong.”

    I am so glad I visited this page.

  11. This is an article I should have read years ago. Thank you Michael for bringing forward the positive.
    This profession can be so lonely and so chaotic at times, it’s almost painful. The ”symptoms” you describe used to be my groundhog day, except perhaps for the students falling asleep (!), and it took a lot out of me to break through that wall of repetition. And I’m in a way glad that it has nothing to do with where you are; we all face the same challenges at one point or another, in Korea, in Greece, everywhere.
    In full agreement with Tamas Lorincz’s comment above, we have to start with ourselves – see where we’ve failed and take steps (small and many, in my case) to reverse that failure and shape it into a success; and be open, to all people and everything. The global community of ELT is there and we choose whether we want to be part of it. If we want things to happen, we have to make them happen and share them with our community; the reflection of ourselves. And we need to keep moving. Standing somewhere gives you the view around you, but even the smallest step makes the world shape along with you.
    Thank you again.

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