Tuesday, October 12, 2010

No Choice but Multiple Choice and Naejangsan

Multiple choice tests are: (circle the correct answer)

(a) Almost entirely meaningless
(b) Superficial and vacuous
(c) Merely an administrative exercise
(d) Ineffective for determining academic ability
(e) All of the above

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After the final "self-study" day on Monday, the exams proper began. The new brass at my school - a fresh principal and vice principal arrived about a month ago - have decreed that I will invigilate the exams along with the Korean teachers. This is fine, but a bit boring. It did give me a bit of insight into what goes on in these tests, however.

Every test I supervised (with a Korean teacher), was multiple choice, including the almost entirely futile exercises in vocabulary learning and grammatical nuance that constitute English assessments. Even the maths test was multiple choice, which to me seems incredibly daft. I might be wrong - maths was never my strongest subject - but equations always struck me as being similar to recipes. If you follow the recipe, putting all the ingredients in in the right order you get, for example, a cake. If you leave something out the result isn't going to be correct; you either bake a cake or you don't. Doesn't the same apply to mathematics? If you can work out the answer, you can work it out: I don't see the use in offering students the chance to guess.

Multiple choice tests abound in Korean education, and considerable, often life-changing weight is placed upon them, most obviously for entrance to higher education, but also all the hurdles prior to it. I once had a teacher, a somewhat loopy science teacher as it happens, who told us that if we didn't get five out of twenty-five on a multiple choice test where questions had five possible answers, we were statistically more stupid than a chimp who'd been taught to hold a pen and tick boxes. While I can't vouch for the veracity of his assertion, I agree with its sentiment. Being able to get full marks in an exam not merely by guess-work, but through blind luck, though improbable, is entirely possible. This ridicules students' application, perseverance and ability. It's insulting to the intelligence of the kids who, if they were given the opportunity, might be encouraged to apply the knowledge they are obliged to acquire to a situation more meaningful than checking a box.

While I was not hot-housed in private academies during my school-days, I never slept, nor saw anyone sleeping during an exam. In one test I was in on, all bar three students were asleep with fifteen minutes to go (each test lasted no more than fifty minutes), and I'm pretty sure it wasn't because they found the questions staggeringly easy. This was one of the two more disquieting things I saw while invigilating. The other was that in every exam I attended a teacher came in and either clarified or corrected the questions they had written for the students. It could have been coincidental that it happened in the six tests I was involved with. I hope so, otherwise it reflects poorly on the overworked teachers who are seemingly struggling to make multiple choice questions. I don't know why this would be so. Lack of attention to detail, perhaps, or lack of time, or more likely, I feel, is the opinion I've heard expressed by some Koreans that the high-school syllabus is too difficult for about half of the kids attempting to study it (and therefore at least tricky for some teachers as well).

Anyway, after the exams finished at lunchtime on Friday, final year students carried on with lessons, something I'm sure they relished less than usual. I'm also pretty sure most of them will have spent the time if not sleeping, then at least not really studying. The rest of the students did fitness tests, which while seeming pretty dismal was at least a rest from the dreaded studying for them, though after nearly a week of exams, why they couldn't have had the afternoon off is beyond me.

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So after waiting around not doing very much for most of Friday afternoon Sam picked me up in the jeep and we headed up the Seohaean expressway towards Jeong-eup and nearby Naejangsan National Park. It took us about two hours from Mokpo, including a trip to a supermarket in Jeong-eup.

We found the campsite fairly easily, only driving past it once in the dark, and parked the car nearby. The rain thankfully just stopped long enough for us to get the tent up and sleeping arrangements made, the barbecue blazing and dinner on.
Fire at camp

The rain came down haltingly as soon as dinner was cooked and we wanted to eat. We just decided to sit through it and it didn't last too long: about the time it took us to throw the food down our throats. We baked potatoes in the fire, and grilled bean burgers and chicken, all of which were pretty good. We had some spuds left over, so I offered them to the Korean family camped at the other end of the site. About ten minutes after taking them, the father and son returned with a carrier bag containing scallops and clams. Exacerbated by the fact that only one of us would eat them - me - it didn't really feel like a fair exchange. I accepted them anyway and grilled them all up in the shell, covering the fire with some foil. They were, inevitably, delicious. Unlike the shellfish, the bottle of Johnny Walker we had brought along went down pretty well with both of us. In fact, it might have been the whisky, but it was surprisingly warm that night. Warm enough for me to wake up half eaten alive by mosquitoes the next morning.

The next morning was cool, with mist covering the mountains that surrounded our campsite.
Mist in the morning

We hadn't seen it, driving in during the night, the location was okay, aside from being sandwiched between two roads. Breakfast was leisurely to say the least, our heads woolly from the whisky.
View up into the park from the entrance walkway

So slow were we that we didn't bother packing the gear back into the car and headed straight for the trailhead, mistakenly walking the 2km through the park's entrance to it. This is a pretty walk meandering through planted rows of Japanese maples, one that will be choked with semi-drunk ajeossis and bimbling families enjoying what must be a spectacular leaf-changing diplay.  

The weather was gorgeous after the cool morning and even though we didn't get going on the trail until 9.30 it didn't seem to busy just yet, though I was a bit disappointed to have missed the early morning light. We decided to walk the ridge course that takes in eight of Naejangsan's peaks, the first of which, Seoraebong, got us sweating the residual alcohol out of ourselves. As we worked our way around to Bulchulbong the paths got busier, presumably a result of the cable car that takes people fairly close to the ridge. In fact the trail was approaching riotousness by the time reached Kkachibong, after having had our lunch, at about 12 at the summit of Manghaebong. Half-cut, middle-aged Korean men bellowing at each other from peak to peak, sweaty muppets playing K-pop loudly through the tinny sounding speakers on their mobile phones, and ubiquitous litter made this section of the trail less than ideal. It was a shame: this is one of my favourite day-hikes that I've done while here, and it was a bit of an effort not to let these morons ruin it. After all, I can stay in Mokpo if I want to hear drunks shouting at each other, rubbish 'music' blaring, and see garbage everywhere. That's what I come to mountains to avoid. Hiking's popularity in Korea, I suppose, means that a larger fraction of idiots end up doing it as well as the more genteel folk, and it is peak season now, meaning even more of them. Serves me right for going to one of the most popular National Parks I guess.
View from between Bulchulbong and Manghaebong

So we hurried on through to Sinseonbong, the highest peak in the park. None of the peaks are above 800m asl  - Sinseonbong is 763m asl - but that doesn't really detract form the enjoyment of what is a beautiful walk (most of the time), and a good work out. The ridge, inevitably, has its shares of ups and down, though at times its very clear that you are right on top of a 'true' ridge, with long drops just metres either side of you. The scenery had been spectacular all day and the weather was still great as we approached Janggunbong, the final peak. Just before arriving at the top we had a great view across the park.
Leaves beginning to change colour

A section of 'true' ridge
The walk around the ridge took us about six hours, including half an hour to lunch. Walking to and from where we parked the car took about another three-quarters of an hour. After we had finished and amused ourselves watching a biker convention going on in one of the car parks, we packed up all the camping gear back into the car and Sam drove us home. 

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