Thursday, January 8, 2009

"Korean Children 'Don't Get Enough Sleep'" -- Wow . . . now there's a 'revelation' to foreign English teachers!

Saw this in the Digital Chosunilbo today . . . it always seems bizarre to me how the media here seems to brag about being ranked as the top/bottom, or near the top/bottom, or whatever the RANKING is about something in Korea, or something Korean--especially if it's in a global context.

Korean Children 'Don't Get Enough Sleep'

"Korean children get the least sleep in the world. The finding comes from a survey of 3,506 elementary schoolchildren aged between seven and 12 in Daegu carried out by a team of Yeungnam University Medical Center, Daegu Catholic University Medical Center, and Gumi CHA University Medical Center from December 2007.

The older Korean children are, the less they sleep . . ."

When I read the first sentence and see "in the world" I shudder and wonder if the author considerered what that says about how children are being raised in Korea, and that it is an indictment of the parents and general socio-cultural conditions of life in Korea for children . . .

Later in the article the author says,

"Korean children are often deprived of sleep because they go to bed late, which appears to have something to do with double-income parents' poor management of their children's studies at private tutoring institutes."

So it's only "double-income parents" that are doing this?? I highly doubt that that is true. The class bias in the research methods might warrant a closer look . . . from all of the different stories I've heard from kids the anecdotal evidence suggests that whether it's a hogwan teacher, or your own MOM, someone is making them study and stay up late at night doing schoolwork.

Then there's the interesting choice of age group and why the study didn't look at middle school and high school students . . . well, I'd hazard a guess that indirectly criticizing the education system's national university entrance exam for how it has created unhealthy developmental conditions (physical AND psychological) for children growing up here might be too close to the truth . . .

I've had conversations with students and teachers in Korea about sleep and it's powerful impact on learning. Too many people here have no idea what 'healthy' levels of sleep are, and/or they just don't want to know because it adds to their stress levels. Lack of sleep is something that is so naturalized in the daily school culture that none of the students question WHY it is--they simply soldier on and keep doing what they have to to survive and try to achieve the highest ranking on each test as it appears on their sleep deprived radars.

From wikipedia's entry on "sleep,"

Age and condition Average amount of sleep per day
Newborn up to 18 hours
1–12 months 14–18 hours
1–3 years 12–15 hours
3–5 years 11–13 hours
5–12 years 9–11 hours
Adolescents 9-10
Adults, including elderly 7–8 (+) hours
Pregnant women 8 (+) hours

I think that entire generations of Koreans probably grow up and live their entire lives with "sleep debt." This is something that I'd have to say is one of the things foreign English teachers experience as culture shock when they compare their own childhoods, teenage years, and early adult experiences in their home countries to what they see in Korea for children, teens, and in the workplace culture of schools and the amount of sleep that Korean teachers get each night--especially the Korean teacher-wives with children (they have 3 full time jobs: teaching, being a 'good' wife and taking care of their husbands, and being the primary childcare giver for their children--oh yeah, and add to the mix if they have to do more housework and other chores for their mother-in-laws).

Also from wikipedia's entry on "sleep" is this,


Wound healing has been shown to be affected by sleep. A study conducted by Gumustekin et al.[21] in 2004 shows sleep deprivation hindering the healing of burns on rats.

It has also been shown that sleep deprivation affects the immune system and metabolism. In a study by Zager et al. in 2007,[22] rats were deprived of sleep for 24 hours. When compared with a control group, the sleep-deprived rats' blood tests indicated a 20% decrease in white blood cell count, a significant change in the immune system.

It's no wonder then, especially in terms of the immune systems of students in Korea, that when cold and flu seasonS (yes, it seems like there's more than one) hit the schools throughout the year that almost EVERYBODY gets sick. I have to wonder how much quicker the students might recover and be able to study better if they weren't 'walking wounded' and in the classroom when they should be at home resting (instead, if they can't manage to sleep and suffer at their desk they get to go to the Nurse's room where there are several beds--I was amazed at how many beds I saw the first time I poked my head into a school Nurse's room).


According to the ontogenetic hypothesis of REM sleep, the activity occurring during neonatal REM sleep (or active sleep) seems to be particularly important to the developing organism (Marks et al., 1995). Studies investigating the effects of deprivation of active sleep have shown that deprivation early in life can result in behavioral problems, permanent sleep disruption, decreased brain mass (Mirmiran et al. 1983), and an abnormal amount of neuronal cell death (Morrissey, Duntley & Anch, 2004).

(my bold, my italics)

Is this one possible explanation for students who have bad behavior in the classroom? I think to a degree it has to be considered.

I am constantly giving little mini-lectures to my students (whether it was when I taught middle, high school, or now when I'm teaching university) that sleep = higher quality learning, memory, thinking, testing performance . . . and the biggest one of all--higher test scores (if combined with good study methods, of course).

Most nod their heads and say, "Yes, teacher." The day of the test I ask them how much sleep they got by saying, "Who got 8 hours? Raise your hands. 7 hours? 6 hours? . . ." and so on. Most put their hands up for the 5-6 hour range, and about 1/5 put their hands up for less than 5 hours . . . argh.

I think a big part of the problem is misinformation and the learning histories and expectations of Korean parents. They think that less sleep and more study are two key ingredients in the forumula of success and high test score rankings . . . parents are also key players in shaping what schools do and how they do it, and then they also control their children's after school time meaning the kids are shipped off to hogwans for more study (whether or not the parents are at work). Later, parents add more study and homework time before bed . . . 16-20 hours of schooling, learning, studying, homework, etc every day from grade 1 until graduating high school . . . I can't begin to imagine how I'd survive that let alone what kind of person I would be after that experience.

Memory processing

Scientists have shown numerous ways in which sleep is related to memory. In a study conducted by Turner, Drummond, Salamat, and Brown[29] working memory was shown to be affected by sleep deprivation. Working memory is important because it keeps information active for further processing and supports higher-level cognitive functions such as decision making, reasoning, and episodic memory. Turner et al. allowed 18 women and 22 men to sleep only 26 minutes per night over a 4-day period. Subjects were given initial cognitive tests while well rested and then tested again twice a day during the 4 days of sleep deprivation. On the final test the average working memory span of the sleep deprived group had dropped by 38% in comparison to the control group.

I wonder if any education psychologists or Korean education professors have done any analysis of the kinds of memory and cognitive functions required to do the style of tests given in the ed system here in Korea? And then assess how much sleep is required in order to have optimal performance of the kind of memory and congnition students have to use when learning and taking tests . . .

Another search on wikipedia about "sleep and learning" has some interesting stuff too.

Increased learning

Popular sayings such as "sleep on it" or "consult the pillow" reflect the notion that remolded memories produce new creative associations in the morning, and that often performance improves after a time-interval that included sleep[3]. Many studies demonstrate that a healthy sleep produces a significant learning dependent performance boost[4][5]. Healthy sleep must include the appropriate sequence and proportion of NREM and REM phases, which play a different role in memory consolidation-optimization process. In motor skill learning, an interval of sleep may be critical for the expression of performance gains; without sleep these gains will be delayed (Korman et al, 2003). However, several studies show that, in some conditions, time after training, even without sleep, may suffice for attaining significant performance boosts (Roth Ari-Even et al, 2005).

A study[6] has also found that after sleep there is an increased insight, that is, a sudden gain of explicit knowledge. Thus during sleep the representation of new memories are restructured.

"those who sleep less do poorly" (see below) -- I think the opposite of this is what most students believe in Korea. I've read about, and heard from students, the expresion, "Sleep 5 hours, get into an average university. Sleep 4 hours, and get into S.K.Y. ( the top 3 univesities in Korea)." I wonder if anyone has done research in Korea to test the validity of this expression . . .

Sleep in relation to school

Sleep has been directly linked to the grades of students. One in four U.S. high school students admit to falling asleep in class at least once a week.[7]. Consequently, results have shown that those who sleep less do poorly. In the United States sleep deprivation is common with students because almost all schools begin early in the morning and many of these students either choose to stay up awake late into the night or cannot do otherwise due to delayed sleep phase syndrome.[citation needed] As a result, students that should be getting between 8.5 and 9.25 hours of sleep are getting only 7 hours.[8] Perhaps because of this sleep-deprivation, their grades lower and their concentration is impaired. (Roth Ari-Even et al, 2005). As a result of studies showing the effects of sleep-deprivation on grades, and the different sleep patterns for teenagers, a school in New Zealand, changed its start time to 10:30, in 2006, to allow students to keep to a schedule that allowed more sleep. Similarly a high school in Copenhagen has committed to providing at least one class per year for students who will start at 10 a.m. or later.

I soooo need to mention the New Zealand school's start time to some students and see what kind of reaction I get--lol.

Anyways . . . speaking of sleep . . . it's nap time.



Kelsey said...

I believe this is what we call preaching to the choir.

Jason said...

Well . . . yes . . . but I think that new foreign teachers thinking about coming here might like to know about the kind of conditions their students are in when they walk into the classroom for the first time . . . so I think it's useful for them.

So . . .. hmmm, yeah.

Amen . . .lol.

Anonymous said...

This is an excellent post, I wish Koreans could read it in Korean - although I doubt they'd believe most of it anyway, or would just throw it away with comments like "but nothing can be done to change it."

Towards the end, you said:

"I've read about, and heard from students, the expresion, "Sleep 5 hours, get into an average university. Sleep 4 hours, and get into S.K.Y. ( the top 3 univesities in Korea)." I wonder if anyone has done research in Korea to test the validity of this expression . . ."

I think this is a tough one, because whether the kids are getting 4 hours or 5 hours, they're all sleep deprived anyway, so perhaps there is some degree of truth in this expression in Korea, because among the sleep deprived students, the ones getting the least sleep are doing the most studying.

Obviously, I also don't have any research or statistics relating to this. I just think it's a shame that none of the students or parents have the education, knowledge, and courage to be the one who breaks the mould entirely, to do it differently from everyone else and get enough sleep and beat everybody else on the tests.

Jason said...


There are SOME Korean parents I've talked to, who are also teachers, that let their children sleep more. I was so shocked to hear them say this, and that they knew about the relationship between sleep and memory/learning/testing ....

I think things will change in Korea-especially with more and more students being educated and then coming back. The things they experience and learn will be integrated into the culture here.

Thanks for reading.

Kelsey said...

My other students were always amazed to hear that my best student was the one who didn't attend any hagwons at all!

Kelly Teacher said...

Sometimes I don't feel my job is very moral when my kids are here til midnight... and I am soo tired after 11 hours of work ... while knowing they started there day at 8. They are little people. After teaching here for long enough it's really hard to keep reminding yourelf of that.

Anonymous said...

"There are SOME Korean parents I've talked to, who are also teachers, that let their children sleep more. I was so shocked to hear them say this, and that they knew about the relationship between sleep and memory/learning/testing ...."

Give Korean parents a little credit. They are not as backwards as you would like to think. You act like it's some foreign concept to Korean parents. It's not and your insistence on this just shows how ignorant and patronizing you really are toward them. You don't know what's going on in the Korean home as much as you'd like to think you do.

Jason said...

babo, na ga ra.

beth or yejin said...

You know im a korean student (its south not north amazing how ppl dont get that right) and i agree with you there. I get, what, 6 hours of sleep every day. You may say this is enough. But im one of the most sleepiest students in the school campus...i know a person that the less she sleeps, the more hyper she becomes...she sleeps at what, 4 in the morning and she's skipping and bustin ppl up when shes at school weird right?
and its true,nothing can be done about it. there are still a lot of hagwons that hit students in korea when they dont do their work including hw. its harsh, but you get used to it trust me its too sad

beth or yejin said...

i am a korean student and i can understand what you are saying Jason and i find it pretty funny haha

Anonymous said...

I've just started teaching in Korea, and recently made friends with a young Korean man (24) who literally wants to make it his life's work to help children, especially teenagers, with their problems, that come from so many pressures on them.

He told me about the high suicide rate they have here and about how little sleep they get.

Little sleep + meritocratic pressure + Confucianism + other assorted factors of poor health = untold stress

I aim to do whatever I can in my lessons to give these children a bit of a break, without of course it being a detriment to their learning.

Poor little kids :(