Alternative educational models are nothing new. Montessori and Waldorf, which are both educational models based on scientific observation of the way children learn through doing and let students choose their learning activities, have been around since the early 1900s.
The Benjamin School for Character Development in South Korea, an online independent learning school targeted for high school age students, continues this tradition.
Today's educators recognize that not all learning occurs in the classroom, or the same way for each student. No one embraces this ideology more passionately than Benjamin School's founder Ilchi Lee. Today, not only are online classes hugely popular, they are changing the face of the student body and how we think about education.
While the model of online learning is not unique, Benjamin School offers high school-aged students an opportunity to design their own curriculums. Students, with help and guidance from parents and teachers, pick a project, which can be anything that demonstrates self initiative, planning, time management and follow through, then work on it for the entire school year.
One student is at work on his chosen project: to climb 300 mountains in the areas from Halla Mountain in the south to Baekdoo Mountain in the north within one year. Sungyoon Kim chose this project to overcome his shyness, develop courage and to strengthen his body. He pursues his mountain climbing on the weekends so it does not interfere with his part-time job and other obligations.
Benjamin School's mission is to develop a community of whole, well-rounded people who are encouraged to explore their fullest human potential.
Although Benjamin School
is primarily an online school, it offers field trips and periodic on site gatherings where students can check in with each other and report their progress.
Brain Education and teaching how to use our Brain Operating System (BOS),
and uncovering what Lee calls our Hongik spirit or the willingness of the individual to act for the benefit all, is the foundation of the school’s curriculum.
Brain Education has already been recognized as an academic discipline by the government of the Republic of Korea. So far the country offers Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Doctorate degrees in Brain Education; the Benjamin School now brings it to high school students.
This school is named in honor of Benjamin Franklin because Lee believes he is a role model for self-development and building character.
The Benjamin School, Lee says, is "a school that has the completion of human character rather than money, fame, or power as its standard. It is a school for practicing the Hongik philosophy in everyday life, which the 21st Century earth wants, a world where the earth becomes our very school, the kind of era in which the earth becomes a training ground for human completion."
Long before distance learning and online classrooms were trendy, Ilchi Lee became a hero of cultivating the individual learning process. He saw and personally experienced how forcing a generic education model upon different learners almost always ended up in frustration and failure, for both student and teacher.
Ilchi Lee recognizes that society needs to reconsider how we pave our children's professional paths. Today's generation is eager to learn but impatient to do so in this era of technology and social engineering. Sitting through four years of standard high school classes can be excruciating for some students within a culture that glorifies the high-school-dropout-turns-entrepreneurial-millionaire stories of people like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg.
Benjamin School embraces this impatience by offering a more varied learning experience, informed by this culture of self-management—one that is experiential and tailored, that reaps the benefits of the learn-as-you-go style demonstrated by our entrepreneurial heroes.
But not every student is destined to or wants to be Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. Most students simply want to explore and express their highest human potential and have guidance and support along the way. More importantly, the school's highest mission is to teach our youth how to be happy
Students like Gyubin Sun, 18, an aspiring artist and illustrator, are learning through doing with the help of their mentors. Sun works with professional illustrator Jisu Han. Han illustrated the Bird of the Soul book
, a joyful allegory about reclaiming your childlike wonder for life. For her one-year project, Sun chose to create a painting and drawing series, based on her interpretation of her "pure soul.” Sun became so engaged and impassioned with her work she said that she never grew tired of it, or had so much energy! She just wanted to keep painting.
Gyubin Sun's project will culminate in an exhibit of drawings depicting images of her "Pure Soul" at the annual street fairs in Seoul and Ahndong, Korea this November, 2014.
During their enrollment, all students also need to work part-time and demonstrate that they can support themselves.
Many young adults, even after college, depend on their parents. Benjamin School aims to foster independence early on. This rule gives them a chance to explore something they are passionate about, developing their character in the process. From then on, realizing that they can work hard and make a living at something they love, working with passion becomes a habit.
Eighteen-year-old Sungeun Seo also has personal proof that it's possible to love your work and spread that passion to the world. When she began attending Benjamin School she really didn't have a long-term plan. At first she didn't think she had any self-motivation or direction, much less a career goal she was passionate about. She only did what her parents and teachers told her to do.
But she enrolled in the school and took a part-time work-study job at a bakery, arriving at 7:00 a.m. each morning. She also attended her English classes at the language institute in the afternoons, and she would also take pottery classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Soon she found herself planning her own schedule, managing her time well, and identifying what she loved to do. Today she spends three to four hours every day making pottery. She is even considering making it her lifelong profession.
The Benjamin School has great hopes for future learners and has plans to increase enrollment to 1,000 students by its next term, which begins in March of 2015.