Around the world, Korean kids are famous as academic whizzes who study endlessly and score high. With so much emphasis on scholastic achievement, one would think that intellectually gifted and creative kids would easily succeed socially and academically in Korean schools. Yet there is a dark side to the system, namely an oppressive conformity, which influences everyone to avoid being labeled a ‘wangtta‘, or social outcast.
Zhe Hyoungbeom, a former IT worker with major companies, founded the Eden Center in Bundang, just south of Seoul, in 2009. In a country where emphasis is placed on effort rather than inborn talent, Zhe offers a haven where brilliant misfits from all over Gyeonggi-do can develop their creativity. The center gets its name from Edison, Da Vinci, Einstein and Newton, all of whom were a little peculiar. It is precisely the unusual personalities of gifted children who come to Eden that creates difficulties in relating to peers, since they are more sensitive and have wider vocabularies. They are often perceived as arrogant know-it-alls, and make less gifted children feel jealous and insecure. The subsequent bullying begins with verbal attacks, but can escalate to physical violence without teacher intervention, and many of Zhe’s pupils have been traumatized by one or both forms of abuse. Zhe is currently writing a manual for bullied gifted children, and advises them to respond to and report incidents of harassment.
Gifted children also have problems with their parents, so Zhe provides counseling to couples with unusual children whom they think may be gifted. Since gifted children are sensitive to environmental stimuli such as noise, their parents sometimes think they may be abnormal; also, gifted children are strong-willed and have emphatic preferences, so they often clash with their parents, who sometimes become emotionally exhausted.
To keep his community together, Zhe publishes a regular newsletter and offers family workshops, where some mothers become tearful as they describe their tribulations.
Zhe has therefore created a community of gifted children’s parents in which they can come out of the closet and stand tall by saying, My child is gifted. To keep his community together, Zhe publishes a regular newsletter and offers family workshops, where some mothers become tearful as they describe their tribulations to each other.
For the kids themselves, Zhe leads activities which provide them with learning experiences. These include a cooking science class in which they learn about scientific principles by cooking with their own hands, as well as making such things as stories with pictures, drums, dolls and ancient sword replicas. This hands-on approach makes Eden different from government-funded gifted education in Korea, which focuses on accelerated math and science ability. Eden also deviates from the norm by offering emotional development to gifted children, which Zhe believes they need as much as intellectual training.
At present, Zhe has 20 to 25 regular mentees coming in, with about 30 families attending workshops and 30 to 35 children participating in monthly field trips. Half are from Seoul, the rest from around Gyeonggi-do. Eden receives no state funding, with all revenue from private sponsors and fees. It is thus completely independent.
Although willing to continue going it alone, Zhe hopes similar centers will open across the country. He refers to his charges as jewels in the mud, and believes they can be highly valuable to their society when they grow up.
The issue of inborn giftedness is debated in the West as well as East Asia, but all of Zhe’s clients have children who clearly inherited something that makes them different. Their parents did not raise them to be the way they are. Smart kids do not have it so easy in Western countries, either, but at least there are official programs for them like Gifted and Talented Education. Although it may not single-handedly reform Korean education, the Eden Center provides vital aid to a fortunate group of special youngsters.
For an overview of the history of gifted education in Korea, go here.
Photos courtesy of Hal Swindall