Motivating students to become independent learners

Susan J. Natih ,  Contributor ,  Jakarta   |  Sun, 11/09/2008 11:05 AM  |  Supplement

For teachers, life’s unsung heroes and heroines, every day is a busy day and children’s assessment an ongoing and multi-faceted process which must seek, among other things, to provide valuable clues about how a child is learning and to enable each child to learn in the way that suits them best.

Formal examinations are often a key part of this process and for many national plus and international schools in Indonesia, besides an increasing number of state schools that offer international programs together with the national curriculum, November heralds the onset of various international examinations both at primary and secondary levels.

While an international test such as CIPAT (Cambridge International Primary Achievement Test), taken at the end of the primary years, provides recognized benchmarking and feedback that can support a child’s ongoing learning, high grades in international examinations such as Cambridge IGCSE (International General Certificate of Education), AS (Advanced Subsidiary) and A Levels (Advanced) taken at the end of Grades 10, 11 and 12 respectively, facilitate entry to top universities around the world and to a growing number of universities in Indonesia that offer international programs.

However, the challenge for schools, particularly those that offer a combination of Indonesian national curriculum and international programs, is not only to guide and motivate students to be successful in these various examinations but to inspire them to become independent learners who love learning for its own sake and who possess the motivation and skills to enable life long learning.

While the process toward independent learning begins during the earliest years of childhood, independence becomes especially significant as students rise to meet the challenges of the secondary phase of their school education.

For teachers, in the words of Alastair Smith, 2006, “Our job in schools is not so much to get students through the secondary school course, as to ensure their satisfactory completion of a course in higher education.”

When we consider the school world as a microcosm of the real world with all its opportunities and challenges, it becomes clear that children must be equipped with a range of skills that not only enable them to do their best in formal examinations at school but also to do their best academically, socially and emotionally, in college, university or whatever their chosen career or life path beyond school may be.

Exploring the most significant influences on a child’s learning, we find that their own attitude to learning is of paramount importance followed by the active involvement of parents/guardians, guidance and mentoring by teachers, and fourth, the curriculum implemented by the school.

Each of these factors is interconnected, with teachers and parents making their own special contribution to a child’s self reliance, ability to think, to plan and to make choices. Teaching is very much about winning the hearts and minds of children and about developing genuine partnerships with parents.

The universal goals of parents and teachers are for children to be happy and healthy, to be academically successful and to reach their full potential while at the same time getting along with others, making friends and developing socially; in other words, “We want to develop self-sufficient, dependable members of our community and of the world.”

As teachers, if we think about the essential skills that a child needs to develop to become an independent learner, we find the following to be of great importance: questioning, communicating, self-reflection, decision-making, collaboration, the selection and assimilation of facts, comparison, evaluation and synthesis of facts and to confidently and respectfully challenge, criticize and disagree.

For each skill, teachers need to guide and model, for example, to demonstrate good questioning and encourage open-ended questioning rather than closed questions that can intimidate rather than stimulate a response.

Skilled at using a variety of media and styles to present their ideas to a range of audiences, encouraged to become involved in setting their own criteria and evaluating their own success, to make decisions, to plan, listen actively and contribute in peer groups, students grow in confidence and take charge of their own learning.

When teachers provide a caring, stimulating and challenging learning environment, encourage curiosity, risk taking and creativity while enabling students to recognize both their strengths and weaknesses, giving them confidence to undertake new challenges, motivation will be achieved.

It is also very important that success is celebrated in a variety of ways and that students appreciate their future role and responsibilities in a changing global society. When we empower students to act in accordance with the principles of social justice, the long-term sustainability of life on our planet will be facilitated.

Students benefit in many ways when parents are involved in their education, tending to get better grades, to have a greater likelihood of going on to university and a more fulfilling education experience.

Schools that make parents feel welcome and valued, provide opportunities for involvement, besides regular and meaningful communications, help to build strong teacher-family relationships.

In conclusion we may observe that a student’s motivation to learn is connected to three life goals. The first of these is “personal maturity”, which is supported by a school’s commitment to character building.

The second is, “Loving relationships and family”, which is cultivated by the recognition and facilitation of parental involvement in a school’s character and academic objectives. The third life goal is “contribution to society”; this is modeled by community service activities and creative school projects in conjunction with business, government, the media and community agencies.

This three life goal framework pulls together the three crucial elements of comprehensive character education — home, school and community. It are these very same elements that foster an independent, lifelong love of learning. Best wishes to all students who have exams this November!

The writer is a founder and adviser of Central and Sevilla schools.

Adopting international curricula for the Indonesian context

Frederik Dharmawan and Eric Koo Peng Kuan ,  Contributors ,  Jakarta   |  Sun, 11/09/2008 11:04 AM  |  Supplement

Importing international curricula to Indonesia became a booming trend after the nation slowly recuperated from the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis. For many Indonesians, the arrival of such an option gives them an alternative when they would prefer to give their children a taste of foreign education without having to pay the expensive cost associated with sending their kids abroad. One question that could be asked from such an arrangement is to whether international curricula are ready to serve the needs of Indonesia students. This question is a rational one because these curricula are built based on the needs of students from various foreign countries. Will such curricula prepare the students for the next level of education in both Indonesia and other countries? These are legitimate concerns that we must ponder because educating children is not a light matter, nor is it a small investment for parents.

The educational system in Indonesia is a unique one. Many schools in Indonesia inherited the model from the Dutch colonial era, but simultaneously many miscellaneous facets from educational systems of other countries have also been adopted. As a consequence, the Indonesian curriculum could be said to be an amalgam of many other curricula. Certain unique problems could therefore arise.

First, one definite feature of the contemporary Indonesian educational system is that it is designed to merely supply fixed study materials for students rather than evoke their creativity. The international curricula adapted for the Indonesian context, however, does not work this way, but is designed to nurture students’ creativity and this presents contradictory problems. When freedom is given to a rigid system in place for a long time, there is the danger that the system may end up running wild without direction or purpose.

The second problem is that of the fact that the expatriate teachers who are capable of teaching these curricula have to be recruited from overseas. Schools must recruit such teachers from foreign countries with different cultures and expectations. Differences in culture might lead to misunderstandings or miscommunication with the students. Often there is not enough time to equip such expatriates with the necessary skills to assimilate with the local population and to fit in with Indonesian society. A crash course or seminar is probably enough to give expatriate teachers rudimentary skills in daily dealings with other local people, but that is definitely not the right solution in the long term. Such small problems of ineffective communication may subtly but eventually snowball into situations where the damage done could well become irreversible.

Third, universities in Indonesia tend to be reluctant in accepting high school students with foreign qualifications. That being the case, one must also take into consideration that the economy of Indonesia has not fully healed from the 1997-1998 crisis, meaning that parents who have given their children a foreign-based international education may not necessarily have the means to let the latter carry on tertiary studies outside Indonesia. Therefore, it is a wise policy to prepare a ready alternative available for such disfranchised students, without denying them a fair chance to further their education just because of the financial factor.

Last but not least, the presence of the former Indonesian curriculum will then defeat the purpose of importing alternative international ones. For the sake of argument, assuming that a school wishes to give its students all possible options, finding the correct balance between Indonesian and international curricula is a very tedious task that may not be very feasible to accomplish fully in reality. This can be a literal dead end where neither systems can concede or adapt flexibly to the other.

However, adopting international curricula is still a noble policy that needs to be examined to see whether they are suitable for Indonesians or not. On the one hand, it is benevolent to give students the chance to experience foreign education without the burden of the cost, but at the same time we are faced with the hurdle of methodology, cultural expectations and qualification differences. If there are ways to remedy such problems, both Indonesian and foreign educators must sit together on equal terms and discuss how to bridge the difference between these two systems. This is an issue that must be given attention and addressed at the national level.

The writers taught at an international school in Jakarta. They can be reached at: pkkoo@hotmail.com.

Inter (cultural) national education: Implications for teaching English composition

Setiono Sugiharto ,  Contributor ,  Jakarta   |  Sun, 11/09/2008 10:59 AM  |  Supplement

International education, an ubiquitous catchphrase in education today, implies intercultural education, the features of which emphasize cross-cultural understanding, tolerance, heterogeneity, appreciation, plurality and inclusiveness.

However, unless critically scrutinized, these features will become meaningless traits that try only to deceive people for the sake of quenching the thirst for capital.

In the case of English writing pedagogy, for instance, teachers of writing still cling to the prevalent monolingualist assumptions that conceive foreign students’ rhetorical convention (i.e. the way one organizes reality) as a big hindrance, hence interference, for the successful attainment of English writing convention.

Their teaching practice is still dominantly shaped by this assumption, perpetuating the privileged status of English rhetorical convention as if it were the most superior to other rhetorical conventions.

There is no other way of emulating English rhetorical convention, except for the students to strictly conform to this convention and discard their way of organizing written thoughts. This is reflected in the textbooks used for the teaching of writing in English, which exclusively adhere to English rhetoric.

Within the framework of inter (cultural) national education, such an imposition to acquiring English rhetorical convention certainly runs counter to the idea of inclusiveness and cross-cultural sensitivity.

On the contrary, it disseminates stereotypes, creating an image of the supremacy of English rhetoric to other rhetorical conventions typical in every culture. It also reinforces the idea of cultural hegemony and exclusiveness.

Such stereotypes are indeed real and widespread among writing teachers who are mostly non-native English speakers, but are pedagogically and politically unarmed to resist the dominant monolingualist assumptions.

English rhetorical convention, for example, is described as direct, linear, systematic and logical, while Asian’s is infamously labeled as circular, digressive, non-systematic and full of extraneous narrative. The latter is to be avoided at all costs when one is writing in English, and the former is to be conformed as the sole norm.

International students — students from multilingual, multiethnic and multicultural backgrounds — who study in universities overseas are often accused of not being academically ready at best, and intellectually deficient at worst when they write an English academic prose in a way that is not considered linear and direct by their professors.

In a context radically different from theirs, these students are both linguistically and culturally conditioned to write to meet the expectations of their new audiences who share distinct rhetorical conventions.

However, inter (cultural) national education, which values heterogeneity, opposes the idea of imposing specific written conventions on students from diverse cultural backgrounds. It strongly rejects a fixed and static understanding of language and cultural identity. It resists the dominance of exclusive ideology used as a basis for teaching written language.

In writing pedagogy, inter (cultural) national education legitimizes different rhetorical conventions the students bring from their home culture. Inter-linguistic/cultural influence in writing in English is not deemed deviant. Instead, it is seen as a valuable resource that demonstrates the vitality and dynamism of language and culture.

The implications of inter (cultural) national education in teaching particularly English composition in whatever contexts it takes place are then obvious.

First, it will be no more relevant to exhort the student to emulate, for example, linearity in organizing written ideas if they are not accustomed to writing using such a convention in their native languages. Such exhortation denies the uniqueness of students’ cultural identity inherent in individual students.

Second, differences in rules and thought pattern organization in written language are not an unwitting error. Students have a variety of strategies in trying what they want to say in order to achieve an effective communicative purpose. Thus, different text constructions can be seen as a depiction of students’ creativity motivated by cultural and ideological considerations.

Third, instead of teaching students to focus mainly on adhering rules and rhetorical convention, teachers’ main task now is to equip students with effective communicative strategies of rhetorical negotiations. Writing is not just simply a matter of text construction, but it is also a way of expressing one’s identities, values and interest. Equipped with these strategies, students are poised to challenge the dominant convention, resist it or modify it to suit their own communicative purposes.

Finally, there should be a flexible means of responding to students’ written products. Overzealous attitude of imposing a single correct standard to be adhered to can stifle a student’s creativity in communicating intended messages.

Admittedly, cross-cultural writing poses a great challenge for teachers of writing. Not only does it require them to understand the complexities of multilingual students’ composing processes, but it also demands that they be ready to accept possible alternatives of style, tone and convention in writing, which may be radically different from English writing convention.

-The writer is chief editor of Indonesian Journal of English Language Teaching and teaches English composition at Atma Jaya University, Jakarta. He can be reached at setiono.sugiharto@atmajaya.ac.id.