Working Paper


Purpose-Driven Education System Transformations: History Lessons from Korea and Japan


Image of Luis Crouch

Luis Crouch

RISE Directorate

RTI International (Emeritus)

Image of Deborah Spindelman

Deborah Spindelman

Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre, University of Cambridge

This paper is an essay in comparative educational history and its possible relevance to educational development today. It addresses the question of whether Japan and Korea’s history in using educational development to further national development can be useful as (partial) models for dealing with the educational challenges of today’s lower- and lower-middle income countries. The hypothesis of the paper is that there is much to learn from these countries, but that the lessons one could learn are not at all obvious or superficial, and are only partially about what was done (specific education policies) and are more importantly about how it was done (the high purpose and thoroughness of policy engagement).  

The paper first characterizes educational development, especially in terms of the intense emphasis on equality of high achievement in Korea and Japan, in quantitative terms, to demonstrate that these countries possess certain admirable characteristics. Caveats regarding learner stress and rote learning are dealt with by looking at the relevant statistics. A framework for assessing the quality of policy borrowing processes is built, based on the literature on this subject. The paper then analyzes the historical development of education as a means of resisting Western colonialist probes into Japan and Korea (end of the 19th  C), but also Japan itself into Korea (first half of 20th C). How both countries borrowed from the West, but in a contested and very deep manner, and as part of a resistance to being colonized, is documented. The paper also shows that part of the healthy, contested borrowing was the involvement of teacher groups and civil society.

The paper concludes by taking into consideration the fraught issue that potentiating the role of education in national development could be seen as tantamount to using education for nationalism. The paper links to the possibility that there may be a more inclusive and rights-oriented use of the concept of the nation to foster human well-being, and that education could play a role in such processes. Some practical suggestions for taking these ideas forward, or at least exploring them in more depth, are made at the very end.


Crouch, L. and Spindelman, D. 2023. Purpose-Driven Education System Transformations: History lessons from Korea and Japan. RISE Working Paper Series. 23/139.