Special Article The Free School Year System beyond the Free Semester System
From ‘Knowledge-Centered Education’ to ‘Participatory Learning Approach’
Today and Tomorrow of the Free Semester System
2018 marks the 3rd anniversary of the free semester system in Korea. The system has brought many positive changes to schools, including students’ active participation in class through expanded student-centered classes combined with the implementation of course-based assessment. Let’s examine the changes that the free semester system has brought to school education, their implications, and the challenges facing us to enhance policy perfection.
Participatory Education Respecting Students’ Dreams and Talents
Launched in 2013 for 42 research schools across the country, the free semester system began to be implemented in all middle schools nationwide in 2016. It is the previous administration’s representative education policy. Worries about the policy’s continuation existed when the new president was inaugurated. Rather, the policy has been adopted as one of the new administration’s main national tasks, celebrating its 3rd anniversary in 2018.
The free semester system requires the heads of middle schools to designate a semester when participatory classes based on debates and practices are offered to students so that they can free themselves from the test burden and pursue their dreams and talents through diverse experiential activities including career search activities.
The system is backed up legally and institutionally through the Enforcement Decree of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, (3) of Article 44 (Semesters) and Article 48-2 (Methods, etc. of Operating Lessons during Free Learning Semesters), among others.
In 2018, the Office of Education has launched a free school year system for the middle schools that want to introduce the system. The Office of Education makes sure that the specific form of the free school year system can be determined by each school given its circumstances and stakeholders’ opinions, with some middle schools choosing to implement a free semester system and others selecting to offer a free school year system for first-year students.
In the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution represented by the widespread use of artificial intelligence, schools should educate students to become 'lifelong learners' rather than feed them with knowledge. ‘Class’ itself needs to be modified to bring changes to the country’s abnormal classroom atmosphere frequently depicted as ‘lethargic students’ in ‘sleeping classrooms.' The curriculum must be reconstructedto ensure that more than 170 class hours can be secured each semester for free learning activities from the hours reserved for lectures and creative experiential programs. Based on the restructuring of the curriculum, teachers have been able to try various teaching and learning methods as they are free of the constraints of various tests. In the process, numerous improvements have been made in classroom operations.
Starting Point for Changes in School Education
The free semester system seeks to achieve transition from ‘knowledge-oriented education’ to ‘participatory education’ which enables students to have meaningful learning experiences as the main players in class. Instead of their passive engagement in class characterized by one-way knowledge delivery, the students now select the fields that are necessary and they are interested in and create a curriculum on their own or in coordination with their friends. Expanding student-centered classes includes not only students' active participation in classes but also cooperative learning, discussion classes, and experiments and practices. Such changes in learning styles and improvements in classroom instructions are linked to changes in assessment methods.
During the free semester system, students participate in course-centered evaluation linked to student-centered class rather than paper-based mid-term and final exams. Instead of implementing ranking score tests, teachers observe students’ performance in class and offer students evaluation results aimed at promoting their personal growth and development. Teachers play the roles of observers and facilitators in class so that they can check their students’ learning progress and promote their class preparation and self-directed learning attitudes. This change has provided an opportunity for people to change their stereotype of learning that students need textbooks, teachers’ lectures, and examinations testing their rate of memorization.
The free semester system is limited to just one semester out of 24 semesters in the 12 years of primary and secondary education. Still, even though it is effective for only a one-semester period, the implementation of the free semester can become a starting point for positive changes in school education if schools, teachers, students, parents, and local communities do their best together to completely change theone free semester. The free semester system advocates the reconstruction of curriculum, changes in class and evaluation, students’ voluntary activities, their career search, among others, which in fact were promoted previously, too. The difference is that those multiple ideas and separate policies are being united in the free semester system.
Going through the free semester system, students have learned first-hand that there can be ‘multiple answers’ to a given question, instead ofjust ‘the one correct answer.’ It is a bit premature to determine the effects of the free semester system, which is expected to promote the cultivation of students’ future core competencies.
The current free semester system is not perfect yet. The Office of Education is exploring ways of expanding it in the mid- to long-term as well as making qualitative improvements to it. No policy can move forward if one overemphasizes difficulties, shortfalls and disadvantages involved in its implementation stage. We will be able to move beyond the free semester system and implement a free school year system extensively when we join hands to fill deficiencies, complement weaknesses, and reduce trial and error.