The South Korean Teacher Who Makes $4 Million Per Year

The Wall Street Journal profiles Kim Ki-hoon, who earns $4 million a year in South Korea as a rock-star teacher. He has been teaching for over 20 years, all of them in the country’s private, after-school tutoring academies, known as hagwons. Unlike most teachers across the globe, he is paid according to the demand for his skills—and he is in very high demand:

Mr. Kim works about 60 hours a week teaching English, although he spends only three of those hours giving lectures. His classes are recorded on video, and the Internet has turned them into commodities, available for purchase online at the rate of $4 an hour. He spends most of his week responding to students’ online requests for help, developing lesson plans and writing accompanying textbooks and workbooks (some 200 to date).

A bit more on how Mr. Kim makes his income:

The bulk of Mr. Kim’s earnings come from the 150,000 kids who watch his lectures online each year. (Most are high-school students looking to boost their scores on South Korea’s version of the SAT.) He is a brand name, with all the overhead that such prominence in the market entails. He employs 30 people to help him manage his teaching empire and runs a publishing company to produce his books.

To call this mere tutoring is to understate its scale and sophistication. Megastudy, the online hagwon that Mr. Kim works for, is listed on the South Korean stock exchange. (A Megastudy official confirmed Mr. Kim’s annual earnings.) Nearly three of every four South Korean kids participate in the private market. In 2012, their parents spent more than $17 billion on these services. That is more than the $15 billion spent by Americans on videogames that year, according to the NPD Group, a research firm. The South Korean education market is so profitable that it attracts investments from firms like Goldman Sachs, the Carlyle Group and A.I.G.

Welcome to the new economy.

Confessions of a “Bad” Teacher

William Johnson is a teacher at a public high school in Brooklyn who writes on education for the Web site Gotham Schools. In this Sunday’s op-ed in The New York Times, he explains how he’s been labeled a “bad” teacher at one school, took his teaching tactics to another school, and was seen as doing a good job there. The best part of the piece was his stance on teachers’ motivations and desire to improve:

The truth is, teachers don’t need elected officials to motivate us. If our students are not learning, they let us know. They put their heads down or they pass notes. They raise their hands and ask for clarification. Sometimes, they just stare at us like zombies. Few things are more excruciating for a teacher than leading a class that’s not learning. Good administrators use the evaluation processes to support teachers and help them avoid those painful classroom moments — not to weed out the teachers who don’t produce good test scores or adhere to their pedagogical beliefs.

Worst of all, the more intense the pressure gets, the worse we teach. When I had administrators breathing down my neck, the students became a secondary concern. I simply did whatever my assistant principal asked me to do, even when I thought his ideas were crazy. In all honesty, my teaching probably became close to incoherent. One week, my assistant principal wanted me to focus on arranging the students’ desks to fit with class activities, so I moved the desks around every day, just to show that I was a good soldier. I was scared of losing my job, and my students suffered for it.

That said, given all the support in the world, even the best teacher can’t force his students to learn. Students aren’t simply passive vessels, waiting to absorb information from their teachers and regurgitate it through high-stakes assessments. They make choices about what they will and won’t learn. I know I did. When I was a teenager, I often stayed up way too late, talking with friends, listening to music or playing video games. Did this affect my performance on tests? Undoubtedly. Were my teachers responsible for these choices? No.

Read more here.

The Importance of Teachers

Nick Kristof summarizes the research of having good vs. bad teachers as a fourth grader:

Having a good fourth-grade teacher makes a student 1.25 percent more likely to go to college, the research suggests, and 1.25 percent less likely to get pregnant as a teenager. Each of the students will go on as an adult to earn, on average, $25,000 more over a lifetime — or about $700,000 in gains for an average size class — all attributable to that ace teacher back in the fourth grade. That’s right: A great teacher is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to each year’s students, just in the extra income they will earn.

The study, by economists at Harvard and Columbia universities, finds that if a great teacher is leaving, parents should hold bake sales or pass the hat around in hopes of collectively offering the teacher as much as a $100,000 bonus to stay for an extra year. Sure, that’s implausible  — but their children would gain a benefit that far exceeds even that sum.

Conversely, a very poor teacher has the same effect as a pupil missing 40 percent of the school year. We don’t allow that kind of truancy, so it’s not clear why we should put up with such poor teaching. In fact, the study shows that parents should pay a bad teacher $100,000 to retire (assuming the replacement is of average quality) because a weak teacher holds children back so much.

Fascinating research. The full paper behind the research is here (PDF link). The researchers are careful to leave the following note, however:

[M]ore work is needed to determine the best way to use VA (value-added approach; a teacher’s value-added is defined as the average test-score gain for his or her students, adjusted for differences across classrooms in student characteristics such as prior scores) for policy. For example, using VA in teacher evaluations could induce counterproductive responses that make VA a poorer measure of teacher quality, such as teaching to the test or cheating. There will be much to learn about these issues from school districts that start using VA to evaluate teachers.


Batman and Iron Man in Academic Literature

E. Paul Zehr, a professor of kinesiology and neuroscience at the University of Victoria (Canada), writes how he was able to make scientific concepts accessible through the incorporation of popular characters from the films Batman and Iron Man:

Hugely popular movies like Iron Man, Captain America, The Dark Knight, and its forthcoming sequel, The Dark Knight Rises, illustrate the public interest in participating in the transient experience of being a superhero—at least for the duration of the movie. For scientists, those movies offer a way to communicate with the public about our work. The result for me has been two books: Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero and Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine.

I settled on Batman and Iron Man because both icons are pitched as real humans who used training (Batman) or technology (Iron Man) to achieve extreme outcomes that seem believable. That part of their mythologies is what makes them attractive and grounded in a reality of hard work, invention, and achievement. In my books I have turned that mythology around and essentially asked: Is it really scientifically possible? And if so, how would it work, and what would it mean?

I settled on Batman and Iron Man because both icons are pitched as real humans who used training (Batman) or technology (Iron Man) to achieve extreme outcomes that seem believable. That part of their mythologies is what makes them attractive and grounded in a reality of hard work, invention, and achievement. In my books I have turned that mythology around and essentially asked: Is it really scientifically possible? And if so, how would it work, and what would it mean?

In both books, I explain neuroscience concepts to the general public, using the physical and technological marvels of the fictional characters to expose the real-life workings of the human body. Those concepts include: the hierarchical organization of the nervous system; supraspinal and spinal reflex control of movement; neural adaptations to skill training and motor learning; the neuropsychology of martial-arts training and combat; pathophysiology of concussion; neural plasticity associated with injury and training; cortical somatosensory and motor maps and phantom limbs; and the concept of neuroprosthetics including brain-machine interface.

My goal in writing this essay is merely to encourage other like-minded academics to understand the value of engaging the public in an accessible way, and to think about integrating pop-culture touchstones into their own outreach and teaching practices.

A natural extension: how (else) could teachers and professors around the country use popular culture to make what they teach more accessible?

Snacks in the Classroom: One Professor’s Method for Students to Work in Teams

This is an interesting story about one professor who refuses to teach his psychology class (lab) if the students fail to bring snacks to class. It’s a novel way of driving engagement and making students work together for a common goal:

A graduate of Cal State’s Chico campus, [Professor] Parrott said that when he was an undergraduate, courses had 12 to 20 students, and those in a class formed close ties among themselves and with the professor. “Those days are long gone,” Parrott said. The course in question is supposed to have a maximum of 42 students, although this year he has 52 in the section that skipped snack last week. That makes it hard for students to connect. So does the nature of Sacramento State’s student body. “It’s a commuter rat race. Students drive in and go home and never connect with their fellow students,” he said.

Enter the snack requirement: Parrott said that he’s teaching students to work together to set a schedule, to work in teams to get something done, and to check up on one another, since everyone depends on whoever has the duty of bringing snacks on a given week. Typically, no individual should be involved in preparing the snack more than twice a semester, he said.

Parrott said that considerable research shows that students learn more if they develop the skills to work in teams, to assume responsibility for projects, and get to know their fellow students. Team members need to count on one another, he said, and his students learned Thursday that if someone fails at a task for the team, there are consequences. “They need to learn to check on one another and clearly they didn’t get that done,” he said. “This was an important lesson.”

I’m all for this method of teaching. I hope the professor doesn’t get in trouble (the professor recently enforced his rule when the students failed to bring muffins to class). I remember the three hour physics labs in college, and how hungry students would get…


Hat tip: Tyler Cowen.

Ten Lessons from Gian-Carlo Rota

I’d never heard of Gian-Carlo Rota before today, but I stumbled upon his “Ten Lessons I Wish I Had Been Taught,” and it is fantastic.

From Wikipedia:

Rota was one of the teachers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He taught a difficult but very popular course in probability, 18.313, which MIT has not offered again. He also taught 18.001 (Applications of Calculus), 18.03 (Differential Equations), and 18.315 (Combinatorial Theory). His philosophy course inphenomenology was offered on Friday nights to keep the enrollment manageable. Among his many eccentricities, he would not teach without a can of Coca-Cola, and handed out prizes ranging from Hershey bars to pocket knives to students who asked questions in class or did well on tests.

Excellent advice on what it takes to give a good lecture:

The following four requirements of a good lecture do not seem to be altogether obvious, judging from the mathematics lectures I have been listening to for the past forty-six years.

a. Every lecture should make only one main point The German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel wrote that any philosopher who uses the word “and” too often cannot be a good philosopher. I think he was right, at least insofar as lecturing goes. Every lecture should state one main point and repeat it over and over, like a theme with variations. An audience is like a herd of cows, moving slowly in the direction they are being driven towards. If we make one point, we have a good chance that the audience will take the right direction; if we make several points, then the cows will scatter all over the field. The audience will lose interest and everyone will go back to the thoughts they interrupted in order to come to our lecture.

b. Never run overtime Running overtime is the one unforgivable error a lecturer can make. After fifty minutes (one microcentury as von Neumann used to say) everybody’s attention will turn elsewhere even if we are trying to prove the Riemann hypothesis. One minute overtime can destroy the best of lectures.

c. Relate to your audience As you enter the lecture hall, try to spot someone in the audience with whose work you have some familiarity. Quickly rearrange your presentation so as to manage to mention some of that person’s work. In this way, you will guarantee that at least one person will follow with rapt attention, and you will make a friend to boot.

Everyone in the audience has come to listen to your lecture with the secret hope of hearing their work mentioned.

d. Give them something to take home It is not easy to follow Professor Struik’s advice. It is easier to state what features of a lecture the audience will always remember, and the answer is not pretty. I often meet, in airports, in the street and occasionally in embarrassing situations, MIT alumni who have taken one or more courses from me. Most of the time they admit that they have forgotten the subject of the course, and all the mathematics I thought I had taught them. However, they will gladly recall some joke, some anecdote, some quirk, some side remark, or some mistake I made.

On proper blackboard technique (I wish more professors did this when I was in school):

a. Make sure the blackboard is spotless It is particularly important to erase those distracting whirls that are left when we run the eraser over the blackboard in a non uniform fashion.

By starting with a spotless blackboard, you will subtly convey the impression that the lecture they are about to hear is equally spotless.

b. Start writing on the top left hand corner What we write on the blackboard should correspond to what we want an attentive listener to take down in his notebook. It is preferable to write slowly and in a large handwriting, with no abbreviations. Those members of the audience who are taking notes are doing us a favor, and it is up to us to help them with their copying. When slides are used instead of the blackboard, the speaker should spend some time explaining each slide, preferably by adding sentences that are inessential, repetitive or superfluous, so as to allow any member of the audience time to copy our slide. We all fall prey to the illusion that a listener will find the time to read the copy of the slides we hand them after the lecture. This is wishful thinking.

On using the Feynman method (my favourite scientist):

Richard Feynman was fond of giving the following advice on how to be a genius. You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say: “How did he do it? He must be a genius!”

On the importance of giving lavish acknowledgements:

I have always felt miffed after reading a paper in which I felt I was not being given proper credit, and it is safe to conjecture that the same happens to everyone else. One day, I tried an experiment. After writing a rather long paper, I began to draft a thorough bibliography. On the spur of the moment, I decided to cite a few papers which had nothing whatsoever to do with the content of my paper, to see what might happen.

Somewhat to my surprise, I received letters from two of the authors whose papers I believed were irrelevant to my article. Both letters were written in an emotionally charged tone. Each of the authors warmly congratulated me for being the first to acknowledge their contribution to the field.

Do read the entire thing. It’s excellent.