“The Free Semester will be introduced to middle schools to give students more opportunities to explore their career path and to freely explore their dreams and talents. During the free semester, there will be no paper exams. Students will be given a chance to build their creativity and explore career options through self-leading activities such as reading, sports and arts, or career exploration activities, and through an education that emphasizes hands-on experiences.”
Then presidential candidate Park Geun-Hye (now President of Korea) speaking at a press conference concerning education policy November 2012
The Free Semester Program (FSP) was introduced by the Ministry of Education in May 2013 and was piloted in 42 middle schools (students are aged 13-16) between September 2013 and February 2014, with a further 38 schools joining the pilot in March 2014.
For one semester, or around half of the academic year, students study normal lessons in the morning but every afternoon take part in what’s called a selective curriculum. Students can nominate their own course of study, approved by their school principal, or take part in various options offered by the school, which might include work-based learning, arts or sporting activities or a leadership development program. During the free semester, no assessment takes place, to encourage teachers to make sure the ‘free’ time is protected, and doesn’t become used for additional academic study.
Student and teacher satisfaction with the FSP is high. Students report increased satisfaction with their teachers and their teaching methods and in the work-based learning opportunities they have been given. Learning interest (engagement) has also increased for students.
Teachers observe that students appear happier, less competitive with one another and have become more independent and pro-active in their learning. They concentrate for longer and behave better in their traditional morning lessons too.
Teachers also notice that they are able to identify new talent and potential in their students and to provide more positive and encouraging feedback therefore.
Teachers in the pilot found themselves less isolated and had more opportunities to work collaboratively with their colleagues
Dr Sang-Duk Choi is currently the Director of the Center for Free Semester Program at the Korean Educational Development Institute (KEDI).
His main research area is lifelong learning and educational policy. Dr Choi has recently conducted research on Case Studies of the Free Semester Program as a key education policy of the government, and Key Competence Education and Learning Ecosystem for 21st Century Human Resource Development.
He is a member of the Ministry of Education Advisory Committee and a Deputy Editor of the KEDI Journal of Education Policy.
In 2014 Education Minister Hwang Woo-yeo visited Seogwi Jungang Girls School in Seogwipo, one of the 42 pioneering schools that adopted the free semester program He was accompanied by Jeju Provincial Office of Education Superintendent Lee Seok-moon and Jeju Island Governor Won Hee-ryong.
"I felt the system is alive and well here," Hwang told reporters at the school. "Many students appeared to enjoy the activities and classes they chose."
A mother of a student at the school also expressed satisfaction about the free semester system, saying her child discovered a new interest in science thanks to the science club activities he participated in. "It would have been difficult, if he just studied in a classroom," the mother said.
However not all parents are quite so enthusiastic; many have very limited understanding of or interest in the FSP. Some of those who have engaged have expressed concern that their child might not be able to compete and could do less well in academic subjects as a result of the FSP.
Since FSP is due for roll out to all 3,713 Korean middle schools in 2016 at a cost of $35k in their first year and an average of $20k pa thereafter, a clear priority for the implementation team will be to reassure parents of the benefits and to ensure that students taking part in the FSP pilot are at no disadvantage when it comes to high school or university entrance exams.
Eventually this will involve reforms to the assessment system so that it becomes clear how FSP outcomes, such as confidence and independent learning, will help students do even better in examinations.
In the immediate future however, the priority will be to ensure that all Korea’s middle schools are able to articulate clearly how their free semester program enhances their core curriculum offer both in terms of the improved outcomes for students which the FSP delivers in important areas of character and independent learning and by influencing curriculum design and assessment practice of the teachers taking part.
Another important benefit and area for further development are the learning ecosystems that extend beyond schools, which is necessary to support the expanded curriculum and, in particular to develop suitable placements for the work, arts and culture and community based learning opportunities that are fundamental to the success of FSP.
"I feel like I have grown a lot during the test-free semester," Han Gyu-ri, a first grader at Seogwi, said. "Opportunities like seeing a piano concert and orchestra performance made me confident about my future.