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Deputy Education and Culture Minister Musliar Kasim recently stated that the government planned to trim the existing primary school subjects into four, namely religion, Indonesian language, civics and mathematics. The plan implies that the current primary curriculum does not work as well as expected.
At this juncture, it is wise to realize that the curriculum is not the only factor of success in primary education. Education is problematic in many aspects and pointing the finger at the curriculum is erroneously simplistic.
The curriculum is a sacred document, but when it does not work or is not implemented well, it will be judged a waste.
The inclusion or exclusion of school subjects is always controversial. Many schools have expressed their worries over the exclusion of social studies and science. It is crucial that all stakeholders are well informed about the rationale. When a decision is made, everyone should be committed to it.
Primary age children have huge learning potential that will otherwise be wasted if this learning potential is not developed optimally in schools.
The existing primary subjects include religion, civics education, Indonesian language, math, science, social studies, arts and skills, physical education, local content and self development. The last two are actually a generic name for areas that are subject to individual school policies.
By way of comparison, in England what is to be learned by primary school students is defined by areas rather than subjects, namely language, mathematics; environmental studies (society, science and technology), expressive arts and physical education, and religious and moral education with personal and social development and health education. Information technology is cross-curricular, i.e., to be used in teaching all subjects.
In this regard, there are two competing groups: subject-oriented and area-oriented academics. On one hand, subject-oriented academics believe that science and social studies are too important to be excluded from the curriculum. They have no patience to postpone teaching those subjects until the students reach secondary school age when the subjects will definitely be taught.
These people overlook the fact that children are in the golden age to acquire knowledge and skills and develop their character, such as self-confidence, self-esteem, independence, creativity, skills of collaboration and cooperation and respect for others.
Recurring interethnic conflict and high school student brawls are indicative of a failure to instill character in school.
On the other hand, the area-oriented academics believe that in primary education what counts is what students feel, do, and appreciate; while the labeling of subjects such as social studies, science, geography, history, etc…, is insignificant and sounds too academic for primary school students.
Further, it is feared that within subject-oriented paradigm teachers would tend to be theoretical.
Primary education is no more than character building. Religion, Indonesian language, civics and mathematics are to be taught for building children’s character. Stay away from conceptualizing learning a subject for the subject’s sake.
Primary school teachers are expected to be generalist practitioners for teaching all subjects to develop character. Religion is taught mostly for teaching theology or strengthening students’ beliefs and to teach jurisprudence or normative ways to worship God.
Nothing is wrong with this. However, religion, Islam in particular, does not end there.
Take the haj pilgrimage as a potential example for teaching mathematics, geography, social studies and science. Over 200,000 Indonesians perform the haj every year and there are around three million people flocking at the same time for haj. How much do they contribute to Saudi foreign exchange?
Teachers may challenge students to locate Mecca in relation to Indonesia, Oman, England and Japan for teaching geography. They may also be encouraged to think of diversity of pilgrims in terms of language, ethnicity, skin color and social status. The concept of relativity of time is also explorable in the topic of haj. Why is there a time difference between Mecca and Jakarta? What causes the difference?
Those examples illustrate how the topic approach rather than subject approach is flexible for critically teaching almost any school subject. Such an exploration will strengthen their belief in God, their conviction of scientific truth and appreciation of social differences among peoples.
Being a class teacher rather than subject teacher, primary teachers should feel very confident to explore topics for intercurricular discussions. Besides, they should be flexible in moving from topic to topic as the class moves on.
However, caveat should be taken that in every act of teaching, teachers should identify clearly the intended focus of teaching, say, mathematics, geography, social studies, or science.
We have revised the curriculum quite often, and the barrage of directives, requirements and regulations has left primary school teachers feeling insecure and, probably, confused and undermined in their profession.
In their perception, curriculum is a battlefield for bureaucrats and politicians, and they are just the fallen victims. We should trust our professional teachers to flexibly approach the imminent change to the curriculum.
The writer, a professor at Bandung Indonesian Education University (UPI), is currently a visiting researcher at Canterbury Christ Church University, England.