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Indonesia's students crave alternatives to rote learning

Time to abandon the 'chalkboard approach' and transform the archipelago’s classrooms with new teaching methods

Indonesia's students crave alternatives to rote learning

Indonesian high school students take the 2014 national exam in Jakarta last April (AFP Photo/Romeo Gacad)

Published: January 29, 2015 08:12 AM GMT

Updated: April 22, 2015 01:45 AM GMT

In the leafy surrounds of Menteng, Central Jakarta, nestles St Theresia high school, an educational institution that is luckier than most. Teachers at the Catholic school regularly show up at classes, are able to provide one-on-one support to students and air-conditioned classrooms are well-supplied and in good repair.

Most St Theresia pupils recognize their privilege relative to students across Indonesia, with these simple requirements unable to be fulfilled at many schools across the archipelago.

Grade 12 student Rafael Damara, 18, holds high hopes of studying chemical engineering at the University of Indonesia, one the country’s most prestigious institutions, after he graduates.

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While most of St Theresia’s pupils will go on to tertiary education, for many Indonesian students study will stop after a few years in elementary school.

Rafael said he felt the quality of teaching at St Theresia is high compared to most schools because of its focus on academic subjects and “character building”.

“We’re not just taught a formal education, but we’re given education about life, what it is to be a person, to have great mental ability,” he said.

Private schools such as St Theresia, which make up 48 percent of schools in Indonesia, charge tuition fees that are unaffordable for most Indonesian parents. Less affluent students must pass exams to gain admission to some of the country’s exclusive public schools or attend regular state-run schools.

While private and selective public schools seem to have their pick of high-quality teachers, regular public schools often miss out on educators with proper training and qualifications.

According to a 2010 World Bank report, the education of Indonesian teachers is very low, with as little as 37 percent of teachers holding a four-year degree. There seems to be little incentive for teachers to upgrade their skills and many must work multiple jobs to earn a living, jeopardizing their daily attendance at school.

Executive principal of “National Plus” school PKSD, Mandiri Wendy Armunando, said she felt many teachers were not receiving proper instruction from trainers, particularly in some of the country’s more remote islands.

“They know the theory but some of them do not know how to practice it in the field, how it is done, so they just talk about the theory,” she said. “When teachers talk about a problem they face in the field, most of them cannot answer. [Teachers] need to be trained by teachers, not by people sitting in their offices.”

‘Teaching to a test’

St Theresia student Rafael said he felt a general focus on rote learning and memorization was a “fault” in the Indonesian education system.

“It’s not encouraging us to be problem solvers; instead we’re just trying to memorize all the questions available,” he said. “We prepare for national exams just by repeating and repeating the same type of questions and that’s not really education for me. I think the government could fix that with a better method.”

Culture and Primary & Secondary Education Minister Anies Baswedan announced last week that national exams would no longer be the sole factor in determining a high school student’s graduation, but rather they would become a “learning tool” for students — a change hailed by some as a step in the right direction for education reform and criticized by others as too conservative a measure.

Principal Wendy said she felt in the past Indonesian teachers were simply “teaching to a test”.

“I think what we need is to develop the students’ problem-solving skills and higher-level thinking skills, those kinds of things, because that’s where we fail.”

2006 vs 2013 curriculum

Many schools are now reverting to the 2006 curriculum, following the minister’s suspension of the 2013 curriculum, which removed English, science and social studies from elementary schools and added additional hours of Indonesian language, religious studies and national ideology in their place.

The removal of science from the curriculum was criticized by some, as Indonesian students placed second to last in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s 2012 Program for International Assessment (PISA) test of global numeracy, literacy and scientific skills, failing to compete with their counterparts in Singapore and China.

Principal of St Theresia, Godeliva Kris Saptariningsih, said her teachers preferred the older curriculum.

“With the 2013 curriculum, teachers have a lot of administration work and technical problems and so on and so forth,” she said. “If we have to change to the 2006 curriculum, we believe teachers will be given the space to evaluate students better and more comprehensively, more personally.”

While the 2013 curriculum had its merits for Wendy’s students, she said it often disadvantaged them by introducing as many as 17 subjects per semester, extending school hours for some pupils.

“There are so many things that have to be covered, but [the learning] is not deep enough, so mastering something is quite rare,” she said.

While some students, such as St Theresia’s Stella Monglia, 16, said they liked the ability to study and specialize in an area of preference, such as social sciences, the extra hours spent at school were ultimately draining on students.

Chalkboards to collaboration

While the government may be making efforts toward reforming the education sector, a growing number of nongovernmental organizations and grassroots projects have already emerged, hoping to enrich the prescribed national curriculum.

Programs are initiating a move away from a chalkboard approach, where children are provided little opportunity to engage with the topic critically or creatively, toward a collaborative one.

But shifting the ingrained norms of Indonesia’s classroom culture will be a seismic task.

One such initiative, Literasi Anak Indonesia, aims to challenge traditional classroom culture and address a lack of literacy resourcing.

The program, started four years ago by educators at Bali’s Dyatmika School and now an independent yayasan (foundation), emerged to fill a noticeable gap in Indonesian literacy development.

Head of early years and primary at Dyatmika School, Aprile Denise, says the gap became evident when the dual-language school realized the English reading program had a plethora of books and resources compared with that of the under-resourced Indonesian counterpart.

What was available for the Indonesian children were generally translated texts and there was little that spoke to the identity of the Indonesian child.

Part of the hurdle surrounding literacy is shifting cultural attitudes to reading, she says, particularly in a country where reading hasn’t become a widespread cultural norm, as may be the case internationally.

A lack of Indonesian texts for children at bookshops, for example, risks hindering and denying further engagement with texts in school programs.

Coupled with a fixed curriculum and standardized approach to learning across a large country, this only adds to a weakened reading culture in Indonesia, Aprile said.

To remedy this, they purposefully engaged Indonesian writers, artists and photographers to work alongside the educators in establishing more than 75 homegrown titles and support texts.

Children, she hoped, would connect to the ideas in the stories and therefore feel proud and connected to their identity.

“They are very much ideas that children would be [engaging with] and experiencing … not something pulled out of another country and planted here.”

The program, which is unique in Indonesia, was something very new for teachers to engage with, Aprile said.

Despite Indonesian schools being allowed the freedom to deliver the prescribed curriculum how they wish, this is often restricted through the standard traditional training methods for teachers.

Much guidance and teaching methodology was needed with a focus on interactivity — how to ask good questions and engage response to the text, questioning back and encouraging this within children, as well as reading stories to class — which was considered “unusual.”

But there is receptiveness growing within the emerging middle class toward alternative pedagogical styles.

“Parents want to see something different for their children,” Aprile said. “There’s a desire to have innovative teaching approaches. I think there is a change in the tide. We’ve come to a point where there is a lot of interest and it seems to be creating its own energy.”

Furthermore, schools are utilizing their networks to speak to one another and impart new knowledge — something the Literasi program hoped to see.

“Ultimately, that will be a really positive thing,” Aprile added.

Local champions

But it isn’t just teachers and the government that need to fulfill their role in education, said public engagement manager for Indonesia Mengajar (Indonesia Teaches) Rahmat Danu Andika.

Indonesia Mengajar, an NGO founded by Anies Baswedan in 2010, deploys trained teachers to 132 remote villages in 17 provinces across Indonesia.

The aim is to equip local teachers, or “local champions” as they are referred to, with the skills to teach, lead and encourage communication and participation within a child’s education at a community level.

“[The quality of education] depends on behavioral changes from parents, teachers, principals and elders in the village,” Rahmat said.

A common challenge, he added, is not so much in the infrastructure and resources, but within the community expectations of their children.

An example being when he proposed to take a group of children from the remote village, Pelita in West Java, to a science competition in the district capital — a three-hour boat ride away.

Initially, he was met with resistance from parents who believed their children would not be smart enough to compete against children from the district capital and would, therefore, bring shame upon their families.

When his persistence prevailed and eventually the parents agreed to the trip, two of three of the students reached the semifinals, and “just like that, the expectation changed,” he said.

The following year, parents wanted their children to enter the competition, Rahmat said.

The organization receives no government or international funding and is “non-transactional” within the communities it assists.

When teachers volunteer to be sent to a village, they do not expect anything in return from the local government, Rahmat explained, adding that “it is forbidden to receive or transfer funds.”

Despite the NGO’s links with the minister, Anies’s involvement now remains purely at a volunteer level.

“Even though [Anies] has moved into politics, he made his position clear that Indonesia Mengajar should continue as a non-partisan organization,” Rahmat said. “We are fighting for the same goal in different paths.”

Helping hand from Australia

The central government has accepted funding from Australia to help “build the capacity” of principals and school leaders.

Australian-Indonesian education partnership Professional Development for Education Personnel, or ProDEP, covers 250 districts across Indonesia’s 34 provinces and aims to provide improved professional development for school leaders.

ProDEP senior professional development advisor Yaya Kardiawarma said better training for principals would have a trickle-down effect on teachers and students, and big-picture support for government education planning was also on the ProDEP agenda.

“We’ve started with supporting national strategic planning in education and then we also work with the government of Indonesia, especially with the Ministry of Education and Culture, and the Ministry of Religious Affairs to support their strategic planning,” he said.

There is still a need within government-prescribed teacher training for good working models and research to see how teaching methods will impact children, Dyatmika School’s Aprile said.

But Aprile, like other educators, appears hopeful the new administration alongside education minister Anies will deliver on policies required to strengthen these areas, as well as tackle issues like misuse of school funds and corruption in the education system.

“There seems to be a lot of openness from this new government and especially from this new minister to listen to innovative ideas. He set up something innovative himself — Indonesia Mengajar — [so] he has a desire to see change happen, especially in the early part of education curriculum,” she said.

There are high expectations upon the minister to elicit change and deliver reform within the education sector.

But similarly, there is a pervading trust that a systemic shift, pioneered by Anies, will be realized.

“We believe he is a real educator,” Godeliva said. “We hope that the minister is able to improve mostly the quality of the teachers, because … from the starting point of the teachers we believe the quality of students is able to be improved.”

“There is a lot out there that has to be weighed up in terms of ‘will this work in Indonesia’,” Aprile added.

“But if you can show that it is working, is sustainable and it is making a difference in schools — he will sit up and start to take note of that,” she said. “We are excited about the change, which seems to be around the corner.”

Original story: Turning the Tide for Indonesia’s Unsettled Education Sector

Source:Jakarta Globe


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