What actually matters, new curriculum or what?

Khairil Azhar, Jakarta | Opinion | Sat, December 08 2012, 12:03 PM

Paper Edition | Page: 7

“I won’t be at school on Saturday,” said a 12th grader, “since my mom told me to prepare for a final exams try-out.”

“Aren’t we having such a great program ‘the Slovakia Day’ that the Slovak ambassador himself is visiting our school?”

“Yes, I know. But what can I do?”

The good female student wished to join her friends running the program, especially because she is an active and creative member of the students council. Besides, being a 12th grader, she realizes that involvement in the organizing of a big school event is a learning activity itself.

She was trapped in a dilemma. Her mother, trapped in the myth of national exams and a cognitive oriented paradigm in education, forced her to go to a Bimbel (non-school learning center). Her “real” school, where more actual and creative learning was facilitated, offered her something more fitting to her own choice.

Yet, what could she do? She is in an educational system where not many choices are available.

The Education and Culture Ministry has just disseminated a new curriculum which will be effective in the next academic year, 2013/2014. The subjects are fewer and the learning periods are longer.

There is, for instance, no English or science at primary level and the emphasis is now on moral or character-building education and basic academic skills.

We surely do hope that it is not just “the exchange of a macaque with a monkey”, as a Malay proverb says. There is a big hullabaloo but we have nothing new other than the noise itself.

Our educational history has frequently shown our preference for a panacea to cope with the problems. We are accustomed to referring to metaphysical reasons to understand problems instead of taking the reality itself as the ground.

What reliable and valid research does the ministry have, for instance, to support its argument for the new curriculum?

Meanwhile, in practice, the endorsement of new curriculum never means much. It just makes the school administrators and teacher busy for a while to adjust the costly administrative or procedural documents and then arrive at the same amnesia: Running a school and teaching are the same routines since the olden days.

Back to our story above, what matters in schooling is actually how the students can be better served with fruitful activities. “I hear I forget, I see I remember, I do I understand,” taught Confucius more than two millennia ago.

“Education” should be the processes of learning, through which students actively and creatively actualize themselves. Understanding is the problem of being able to do or make something instead of merely taking an exam.

Education succeeds best when the students are not objects, listeners or memorizers, but conversely when they are the subjects, actively finding knowledge through concrete experiences.

Sudents’ knowledge is built on the bricks of fun and creative activities. Learning is facilitated to enable students to construct what their senses perceive from the reality and at the same time use their imagination as the active medium to glue up the perceived concepts which in turn materialize into greater and fruitful knowledge constructs.

The academic knowledge of the students — different from what they acquire in the conventional learning based on textbooks or chalk-and-board — will be mainly obtained through self-endeavor. It is not only because of their being excited psychologically but also because of the atmosphere intentionally or unintentionally created.

As such, the less-motivated students — who are often improperly handled in the conventional educational system — will be encouraged to participate more actively.

With this conditioning, the students obtain both the width and the depth of academic skills compared to conventional learning. Quantity and quality of the explorations will multiply. Well-motivated students will search for sources and resources which previously were unthinkable and unusable.

In the psychomotor domain, a program like “Slovakia Day” helps students to materialize concepts, imagination and their abstract knowledge into a product. In building a castle miniature, for instance, they not only have to work out with their psychomotor organs but at the same time must apply what they learn from history, math or science in order to ensure the miniature represents its original being.

Affectively, the program enables the students to wisely function in organizing it. They learn to come up with initiatives as well as be responsible and solve problems in teamwork at various levels. This fact is different from what they learn conventionally, where abstract concepts of ethics are deductively introduced in a teacher-centered pattern if not through rote learning.

Such program encourages students into cross-cultural understanding, acceptance of the diversity of cultures, religions, or races. They must be able to present themselves as an entity with dignity, being proud and fully respected as a part of world society. Here, tolerance disseminates and civilized attitudes are fertilized.

So, what matters in our education is actually applicable initiatives and commitment to run them, not to repeated changes to the curriculum. Willing teachers and administrators are the main actors, whose mentality should be enlightened.

The writer is a teacher in Jakarta and researcher at Paramadina Foundation.

Our obsession with moral shortcuts

Nathanael G. Sumaktoyo, Chicago, Illinois | Opinion | Sat, December 01 2012, 9:00 AM
Paper Edition | Page: 7

Much has been written about the incoming elementary school curriculum change, mostly concerns about the disappearance of science, social studies and English. As the subjects are crucial elements of elementary education, many fear that their disappearance will damage the competitiveness of Indonesian students in the global market.

The concern is legitimate. However, one crucial thing seems to be missing in the discussion: the examination of which subjects stay and go and what this says about us and our educational philosophy. The news is that science, social studies and English will go, whereas religious studies, civic education, physical education, mathematics, art and scouting will stay. The most intriguing question is why the three crucial subjects should go while religious studies and civic education remain intact.

Religious studies and citizenship education have long been regarded as the perfect embodiment of the Indonesian education goal of creating intellectually capable and, at the same time, moral students. As Khairil Anwar, the head of the Education and Culture Ministry’s research agency, said, the new elementary school curriculum will create children who are disciplined, honest and full of integrity. Nothing is regarded as better to do the job than religious studies, which teach students to fear and obey God, and civic education, which teaches students the basic principles of citizenry and social life.

If there is one thing Indonesians — lay citizens and bureaucrats alike — are preoccupied with, it is moral righteousness. We believe that morality is the answer to all social problems and that proper religious study, supported by civic education, will create moral citizens. Thus, no surprise, no matter what the problem is — be it student brawls, premarital sex, or radicalism — the proposed solution is always the same: more hours for religious study.

Unfortunately, such a rationale, though appealing on the ideological level, has little rational merit. The evidence is at best inconclusive. To start with, a chapter on The Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality explains that religious people are no more likely than the non-religious to help those whom they dislike, nor are they more honest.

Emphasis on religious studies may also contradict at least two educational goals. First, it may hinder the development of students’ critical faculties. Studies show that religiosity is related to a higher level of conformity and obedience to authority. Conformity and obedience are, of course, strange bedfellows for critical thinking.

Second, it is absurd to expect religious studies to be a remedy for social problems when some religious studies teachers themselves encouraging the extreme religious views that harm social harmony. A 2008 survey by the Jakarta Islamic State University on religious attitudes of Islamic studies teachers in Java found that 68 percent of respondents objected to having a non-Muslim school principal and 73 percent objected to the presence of non-Muslim worship houses in their neighborhoods. Only 3 percent of them thought their most important duty to help their students become tolerant citizens.

The case is the same for civic education. If there is anything which decades of social psychological research on the relationship between attitudes and behaviors teaches us, it is how inconsistent the relationship is. The sense of national identity expected to form through citizenship education will not necessarily lead to nationalistic acts such as tolerance or social cooperation. There are simply too many exogenous factors that render the effect of the subject negligible.

In the light of the evidence, the curriculum designers’ insistence on keeping religious studies and citizenship education at the expense of science, social studies and English is deeply troubling. If we take the official explanation for granted that the new curriculum is designed to create honest and moral students, we should afterward ask why the preferred way is through religious studies and civic education shortcuts —whose effectiveness is far from clear. Why are we not creating honest and moral students “the long way” — developing students’ moral by developing their critical faculties?

The curriculum designers know that science and social studies are not only about planets, animals, or history. More important than what the subjects study is how they study them. Unlike religious studies that are doctrinaire, science is about curiosity. It is open to debate and question. It invites critical thinking. The removal of the subjects seems to highlight what little value we place on critical thinking and our implicit belief that no morality can come from critical minds.

One question that begs a serious answer from policymakers is why, among many alternatives to develop moral students, we choose the easy way — “tell students what is right and wrong and teach them to obey.” Why do we not feel obliged to help students think critically? Why are we are more interested in instilling in them, through religious and citizenship educations, the values we deem appropriate?

Maybe we are still reluctant to have overly critical students, who one day may challenge our values. Are we not, in a sense, happy just to make our students photocopies of ourselves?

The writer is a Fulbright student studying social psychology at Loyola University Chicago.