Photo Gallery: Cultural exchange workshop at St. Joseph Central High School


PITTSFIELD -- As the United States increasingly participates in the global economy, there is a greater likelihood that American students will come in contact with people from countries other than their own, either as colleagues or competition.

Which is why, according to Berkshire-based international education consultant Christine Canning-Wilson, students from both countries should have an awareness of each other, and the education systems they're being brought up in.

Canning-Wilson recently returned to the United States after spending time working in schools and visiting South Korea as an English as a Second Language (ESL) education specialist. She was hired on behalf of the Regional English Language Programs, which falls under the U.S. Department of State in conjunction with the public affairs office of the U.S. Embassy in Seoul.

Knowing that her alma mater, St. Joseph Central High School, currently has several exchange students from the region, she opted to present a cultural exchange workshop at the school last week, which was encouraged by her supervisor, Thomas Santos.

Dean of Students Lori Cote convened a group of 11 students, "different kids with different points of view," to participate in the activities.

"Education is perception," Canning-Wilson told the students.

She said that although students in the United States are led to believe they have among the best school systems, international rankings say otherwise.

The World Top 20 Education Poll (worldtop20.org) provides annual international rankings of the top 20 education systems out of 260 nations. Each country's ranking is based on five educational levels: early childhood enrollment rates; elementary math, science and reading scores; middle school math, science and reading scores; high school graduation rates, and college graduation rates.

According to its 2013 poll, Japan ranks ahead of South Korea due mostly to South Korea's low early childhood enrollment rates. The United Kingdom ranks third, while the United States ranks 18th.

To demonstrate some of the educational differences, Canning-Wilson had St. Joe students work in two groups. North American students made a list of facts and stereotypes of American students and their educational system, while the South Korean and Chinese exchange students made a list of characteristics and views on education regarding their home countries.

"[U.S. students] have no concept of Asia and the dedication to education there and how students live there," Canning-Wilson said.

One difference she highlighted was the fact that in the United States, education is not a defined constitutional right, whereas it is in South Korea.

On their lists, the American students said they are stereotyped as being stupid (particularly in the subject of math), arrogant (they think they're the best), and lazy (they don't want to do as much work).

The Asian students' lists highlighted the notion that there may be some truth to the latter, not in that American students are lazy, but in the fact that they're likely doing less work than at least their South Korean counterparts.

American students estimated that they devote approximately six hours each days to their studies. The Asian students said that it was typical for them to go to school and study between 7:20 a.m. and 10 p.m.

The reason for the second shift of classes, often done through private schools and tutors, is the result of a high-stakes national college entrance exam known as the College Scholastic Ability Test.

"If you don't pass, it's really serious. It determines your life," said Jong Won Hong, 17, a junior South Korean exchange student attending St. Joe. He said students who don't pass often contemplate or commit suicide.

Keunuk Jeong, 17, said, "If you don't go to university, people treat you like trash."

Canning-Wilson said despite the societal pressures, South Korean and other Asian students are often sought after, even recruited at the high school level, by international companies who know the students are likely to better handle the challenge of long, rigorous hours better than their U.S. counterparts.

"You're all competing now for the same jobs," the consultant said.

Samantha El Saddik, 14, a ninth-grader at St. Joe, said the activity was an eye-opener. "I had no idea their school hours were so long. At the same time it's cool to be able to learn about each other here," she said.

"I think it helps us get a bit more cultural knowledge," said Colleen Baker, 16.

Edouard Tremblay, 15, said that because of St. Joe's international exchange program, his group of friends has become more diverse.

"We're all able to interact with each other and learn from each other," he said.

Clarissa Mitchell, 17, said U.S. schools should do more to help students become more aware of education and opportunities on a global scale. "We need to be socially aware," she said.