Some serious flaws in RI’s childhood education

Setiono Sugiharto ,  Jakarta   |  Wed, 07/23/2008 10:53 AM  |  Opinion

One fundamental issue we often forget when commemorating National Children’s Day, which falls on July 23, is the extent to which our childhood education system has produced the real benefits children need for their future.

It is axiomatic that our cognitively overloaded curriculum has become the major weakness in childhood education. Critics say this ambitiously dense curriculum does not foster creativity, critical thinking and enjoyment in learning.

Neither does it foster a love of learning which is a necessary precondition for children’s cognitive, affective and psychomotor development, for example, observing, imitating, practicing and adapting keyboard skills.

By contrast, it makes learning a mundane activity, and positions children as passive, submissive and servile recipients of knowledge.

What the critics say is undoubtedly true. Nobody would deny it. However, the outstandingly poor feature of our childhood education, in my view, is that the curriculum promotes children’s literacy development (reading and writing) in the wrong way.

That most of our children lack reading and writing habits provides clear evidence that our childhood education system fails to implant the seeds of love for books.

The common and erroneous practice here has been the introduction of heavy and demanding reading materials on many school subjects during the early years of learning. This assumes that heavy reading results in better acquisition of knowledge.

This assumption is not well-supported by current research on childhood literacy.

Early childhood is the golden age for developing literacy skills. Contrary to popular belief that the exposure to reading and writing at early ages produces deleterious effects, and should be deferred until children are older, children’s early acquaintance with these skills can bring out optimal results.

Literacy skills can best be instilled in young children, provided we choose the correct path — in a manner consistent with children’s learning philosophy.

The wrong path, on the contrary, hinders literacy development, in turn creating indifference or even hostility to learning, eventually leading to resistance to all things academic.

Sadly, what is often excluded from the childhood education curriculum is something that is intuitively appealing, but overlooked by many practitioners. It is called light reading — reading not necessarily related to an academic genre, but that offers enjoyment and entertainment to the reader. The sources of light reading can be bestsellers, comic books, magazines, story books, simplified novels and folk tales.

This kind of reading is certainly compatible with children’s learning philosophy. Through light reading, children are free to choose what they want to read. They aren’t held accountable for what they are reading. They will not be punished and treated as a wrongdoer in the pillory if they don’t grasp what they are reading. More importantly, light reading provides children with happy learning experiences.

There is, however, fear among teachers and parents that exposing children to light reading may impede their ability to absorb academic works, which are more demanding and complex.

So prevalent is this fear among educational practitioners that light reading has hardly had any place in the curriculum. After all, heavy academic texts are believed to gear children up to higher academic achievement.

The value of light reading has been increasingly acknowledged by pedagogic specialists in the United States. Not only has light reading been proven to stimulate children’s inquisitiveness and love of learning, but it also provides impetus for reading more demanding and serious academic works.

Overwhelming evidence exists, buttressing the claim that light reading accelerates development of literacy. Those who initially access light reading will gradually move on to read more demanding books and write better than those who don’t.

Research has also shown that light reading helps children accumulate background knowledge and develop sensitivity toward different styles in writing, vocabulary, and grammar.

Given its valuable pedagogical benefits, light reading deserves a place in the curriculum. Its inclusion will bolster not only children’s literacy development, but more importantly a life-long reading and writing tradition in our country.

The writer is chief editor of the Indonesian Journal of English Language Teaching and teaches English composition at Atma Jaya University, Jakarta. He can be reached at

Discriminatory education and violence

Salvatore Simarmata ,  Makassar   |  Mon, 07/14/2008 10:08 AM  |  Opinion

Society is a complex system with interrelated parts, with one part affecting another when a certain aspect is crippled. This idea was long ago introduced by Talcott Parsons through his well-known system theory, but it’s still relevant today, as evident in Indonesia’s education sector.

In the education field this idea of a complex system is much more obvious, as discussed by Budi Hermawan in his article (The Jakarta Post, June 25, 2008), which is worth thinking about and elaborating on. His challenging point is that classrooms can become representative of the whole society we live in.

If we want society to move on the right track we should start from the classroom, including by disseminating pluralism to cope with any ruthless action by radicals and extremists. As usual, teachers (or lecturers) are at the forefront in making this work

Positioning the classroom as a “prototype” of society is much more complex indeed because so many interests intersect invisibly. Schools have goals that are likely different to those of the teachers. Also, teachers have been powerless in deciding what to teach in their classroom.

So, teaching pluralism without political will or a fundamental curriculum rearrangement could end up dissuading people to be open and attentive to pluralism. Government, schools and teachers should be on the same page in disseminating pluralism and other universal values.

However, it’s not always about the content of curriculum which teaches our students to be pluralist-minded society members, but even more so the policy either of the school or government in managing the classroom. The existing discriminatory treatment over the heterogeneous students at schools in terms of learning ability would reap new seeds of social turbulence.

There are three kinds of such discriminative approaches in schools that are highly possibly to bring about subtle but dangerous effect on student lives and threaten the pure goals of education.

* First, the leveling system which is so familiar in today’s school trend. Many schools take it as a pride when they can run a leveled-class system and promote it as a newly developed education management tool.

There are two common reasons why schools arrange leveled classes.

First, it is easier for the teachers to teach students with the same (high) ability in a class since they don’t need to make extra efforts in explaining the subject thoroughly. Ironically, the focus of this argument is only the highest level of the classes. As can be predicted as a result, the modules can be finished prior to the time prescribed. But, what about the lowest class students? Then problems appear.

In my point of view, consciously or not, this kind of school could spark envy and early structural discrimination in society, at the very least in the students and their parents. The leveling system has been a stigma-generating system which underestimates students’ ability to learn. Shouldn’t the equality of education prevail as guaranteed in the Constitution?

Second, the school has a chance to promote its “most prestigious class” as a selling image to parents and student candidates. But honestly, that’s just only for the short-term purpose.

Those education institutions set a discriminative education and undermine cooperative learning just for the sake of easiness and narrow-minded achievement. If the purpose is to make the learning process become smoothly flourishing, dividing students into hierarchical order of stratification is not a sage solution. But it is in the learning process that needs to be well-orchestrated by the teachers and schools administrators so every student can experience the same pleasure of learning through interesting and accommodating activities.

Cooperative learning is undoubtedly the answer for the heterogeneousness of the students’ ability. The fast students can share his understanding, and his/her slower classmates will comprehend and respond in their own way. Besides, this is the very beginning where social interaction and cooperation begin and lasting forever in the form of harmonious relations in society. Accommodating the way students learn is an added value to boost a satisfactory result of learning despite differences in students’ learning ability.

Howard Gardner, an educational psychologist, suggests that this kind of phenomenon is best implemented by putting into practice the theory of multiple intelligences. Intelligence is the ability to solve problems, or to create products, that are valued within one or more cultural settings (Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind, 1983). If we see it from the teachers’ side, teachers could modify varied learning methods for meeting different conditions of the students’ learning styles.

* Second, the accelerated class which undermines social development of students ending up in isolating personalities. Accelerated classes are no more than just a trick of schools to spark self over-pride. Students with bulky financial support feel proud of the services they are given, but at the same time, regular class students put the second group of students at the same school implicitly. Of course, accelerated class is much more expensive that the regular classes. This is just another pattern of the result-oriented education.

* Third, the new standardized types of school passed by government recently. Three types of school: International School (SBI), National Standardized School (SSN) and Favorite Schools (SU) show a strict segregation of leveled types of schools. Again, another daunting figure of education threat which segregates society based on their possessions or wealth toward education need.

Leveled class, accelerated class, and these three types of school signal a questionable orientation of education. Students belong to that trend of education practice are coming from high class families and at the same time is the first school’s priority.

What seems possible to reoccur again is the colonialist implementation of education where early young generations of this nation were struggling so hard to have a chance to step into school which hardly they succeeded at.

I am afraid if the historic discriminative education in the Dutch colonial era arises again within this current education policy, keeping in mind that education is still apparently a luxury in our society.

Those unjust education policies, sooner or later, could trigger violence in society, as proved by history. I ask myself; has our education today already given positive effects on our society? Or, could it be the economic trends of today’s capitalist society dominate our education goals and policy? If so, then I worry the mission of disseminating pluralism through education will be left in history and a time bomb of violence is ready to blow.

The writer is a sociology teacher at the Dian Harapan School. He can be contacted at

Education inconsistencies

Salvatore Simarmata ,  Makassar   |  Sat, 06/28/2008 11:54 AM  |  Opinion

Have you ever imagined you would fail a test that you had fought for years and would determine the rest of your life? Well, it’s just happened to so many young people of this nation. There was a decrease in national exam pass rate this year for all senior high and junior high students.

The reasons for this failure, according to Djaali, member of National Education Standards Board (BSNP), are the steep change in the average grade requirement and the accretion of more subjects tested this year.

We, as a nation, should be grief-stricken over their despair of not succeeding on the national exam. What could they think of getting out of the darkness? The Standardized Education Examination (UNPK) as an educational package program (Paket C) has been ineffective.

It might be doubly worse for being a failed exam attendee. If a student can’t get the standardized certificate by that date, he/she will never have a chance to apply for the same opportunity as other students this year. Of course, state universities have become the first priority for most of our students as tuition fees at private universities are hardly affordable for most parents now.

It would be best for the government to overhaul its national examination policy. And questioning educational reform in the country needs to becomes an open debate in redirecting our education path.

If these latest test results are any indication, we might be heading into regressive instead of progressive times. The national exam has been wreaking havoc on young lives, as seen in the suicide cases, unrest and the absence of human rights fulfillment.

The government has argued the exam is not the only requirement in determining students’ success in graduating, but also the school exam and attitude records as well.

There are contradictions here.

First, how is it possible to determine students’ success based on three general subjects (history, civics and computer)? The national exam tests six major subjects. It is apparently designed to control the evaluation process and leave schools powerless.

So, it’s an inconsistent statement by saying the national exam and the school exam should be equal in determining whether students pass or fail. Truthfully, the national exams have taken teachers’ authority to evaluate students’ competency as stipulated in the National Education Law.

Second, it seems the main reason the government still upholds the national exam policy is the assumption that it will help schools respect the education process. On other words, the national exam is used as a tool to gain respect from students in doing their responsibility to follow the entire learning process at school. And it is hoped they would take it seriously. Hence, a humane cultural process turns into a tool of power generating obedience and fear.

This kind of thought assumes that education is only linear, ending as its time period finishes. Education is no more a life-long process. It could be said that the national exam is a sign of a looming downturn in our education.

An early progressive education proponent, John Dewey said that schools should reflect the life of the society.

Therefore, education must be a continuous reconstruction of living experience based on activities directed by the child. The recognition of individual differences is considered crucial. Such a progressive education opposes formalized authoritarian procedure and fosters reorganization of classroom practice and curriculum as well as new attitudes toward individual students. Kinds of virtues have been cut from our education today.

Third, with regional autonomy the government still puts no trust on schools, and assumes no school has full understanding and authority of educational evaluation but the central government itself. Decentralization should have surely brought a new approach on each aspect of lives regarding people’s welfare, but it doesn’t work that way.

The national exam has nothing to do with assimilating local values and potential to be taught in the class. Local values and potential are priceless learning sources in life-long education where students find knowledge through real life experiences and have an opportunity to change something less to be more useful. The latest curriculum of KTSP even firmly prioritizes it to be a new subject added to every school which begins this school year.

Unfortunately, students would be busily focusing only on how to get through the three-day exam, again and forgetting how they could contribute to the society they live with. Either creativity or curiosity is ignored by then. Well, for how much longer?

The writer is a sociology teacher at Dian Harapan School. He can be reached at