Curriculum for adding meaning

A. Chaedar Alwasilah, Bandung | Opinion | Sat, January 19 2013, 10:58 AM

Paper Edition | Page: 7

When anything goes wrong in society, people promptly point the finger to education. Recurring social problems such as student clashes, interethnic or interfaith conflicts, corruption and moral decadence are assumed to be indicative of failure in the education system.

Recently, some people, including government officials, enthusiastically proposed that anticorruption, character building, sustainable development, scouting, traditional martial arts, and even soccer should be included as school subjects. In brief, people want to put anything valuable into the curriculum.

Granted, those additional subjects would have made the curriculum inflated and unmanageable. Parents complain that their kids are burdened by the number of school subjects and extended learning time. This brings us to the issue of school subjects versus education aims. Confusion begins when people mix them up.

Education in general is aimed at making man more human, enabling him/her to understand human nature and the universe. Without a proper education, people become meaningless and they are bound to fail in life.

As meaning is abstract and infinite and learning time and space are limited, the curriculum should be structured cost-effectively. Therefore, education should be conducted on the basis of knowledge about human nature, its actuality, potential and possibility within a particular culture.

Philip H. Phenix in his book Realms of Meaning identifies six classes of meaning, indicating general kinds of understanding a person should have as a member of a civilized community. They are symbolic, empiric, esthetic, synnoetic, ethical and synoptic meaning. People should challenge the curriculum when it fails to inculcate the meaning. The meaning, not the subject, matters.

Students develop meaning through school subjects or disciplines. Meaning is more or less fixed while school subjects are not always clearly assignable to a single class of meaning. Literary works, for example, can be used to teach multiple meanings — be it symbolic, empiric or esthetic meaning.

Classification of meaning is important for facilitating student learning and for allocating school subjects. Practically speaking, meaning delivery is in the hand of teachers. The six categories of meaning are elaborated as follows.

Students are taught empiric meaning through language and mathematics to enable them to use symbols meaningfully in communication. Literacy and numeracy are basic for human life. Therefore, language and mathematics, along with science, constitute core subjects in schools across the globe.

Students are taught empiric meaning through the scientific enterprise, i.e. physical sciences, life sciences and social sciences to discover truth. While symbolics is based on form, empiric is based on observable facts. The teaching of sciences is to enable students to discover truth.

At lower elementary levels, where play-based teaching is appropriate, there is no necessity to separate natural science (IPA) from social studies (IPS), as both are assignable to teach empiric meaning. The Education and Culture Ministry, commencing this year, is now redefining both subjects. From a pedagogical point of view, the focus should be on inculcating the empirical meaning rather than school subjects.

Students are taught esthetics through music, visual arts, the arts of movement, literature, etc., to enable them to grasp esthetic meaning in life. Esthetics sharpens student feeling and sensitivity. The focus of teaching music is not to train students to be musicians but to develop musical sensitivity. The very end of teaching art is appreciation, not description of it.

Synnoetic meaning is simply tacit knowledge as opposed to explicit knowledge. Different from symbolic meaning, which is abstract, synnoetic meaning, is personal meaning based on experience. Through literature, psychology and religion, teachers develop in students an existential meaning of their own life.

Ethical meaning provides students with informed decisions to do things. It arises out of disinterested perception, while esthetic meaning arises from subjective perception. Students may have active personal commitment to a particular type of dancing at the cost of ethical meaning. In ethics, activities are done for purposes of public participation, as the public tends to share intersubjectivity on what is right or wrong.

Through religious education, citizenship (PPKN) and Pancasila, teachers instill moral teaching on students. The outcome is not explicit student knowledge on the subject but rather putting moral values into practice. Physical education can also be used for teaching moral values such as fairness, sportsmanship, team work and a respect for rules.

Synoptics, or synopsis of meaning, suggests an integrative function of all meanings elaborated above. History and religion are the major school subjects that promote synoptic meaning. Teaching history is not to memorize past events but to make sense of them in an integrated way. In the end, learning history is to improve the present and future.

We have elaborated on the aim of general education — to provide students with six realms of meaning to make sense of themselves and the universe — however, we cannot put everything praiseworthy and desirable into the curriculum.

The six meanings can be inculcated through multiple school subjects. Obviously elementary, secondary and tertiary students need different levels of understanding of the meaning. The curriculum should be
designed accordingly.

Which subjects propagate what meaning and at what level of education are vital curricular decisions to make. What matters most is the teacher who controls the class to inculcate the meanings.

The writer is a professor at the Indonesian Educational University (UPI) Bandung.

After RSBI is dismissed, what’s next in the agenda?

Afrianto Daud, Melbourne, Australia | Opinion | Sat, January 19 2013, 10:06 AM

Paper Edition | Page: 6

The Constitutional Court (MK) again made a historic decision to grant a judicial review of Article 50, paragraph 3 of Law No. 20/2003 on the national education system, which was the legal basis for the establishment of the international-standard school pilot project (RSBI) by the government.

The review was submitted by the Coalition for Anti-Commercialization of Education over a year ago. With this decision, more than 1,300 RSBIs across the country, by law, must be dissolved because they no longer have a legal basis.

This decision has been welcomed by many, especially those who have criticized the existence of the RSBIs. They agreed that the RSBI are not in line with the spirit of the 1945 Constitution and has led to discrimination and social segregation in education. The Court also considered that the use of English as the medium of instruction in the RSBIs could potentially erode national identity.

I agree with the Court’s decision. It is undeniable that the program (intentional or not) has been disriminatory in terms of access to good education. This is because the RSBIs usually pick and select prospective students from certain circles in society (upper-middle class).

It has always been widely considered that the RSBIs have frivolously spent funds from the national education budget. It can be said that the government has wrongly subsidized education for the upper-middle class by spending billions of rupiahs every year on the RSBIs development, thereby ignoring other groups.

A program once considered a “lighthouse project” that many were proud of is now ending with the pounding of the judges’ gavel. Moreover, if we calculate how much of the state budget and public funds has been spent on this program, our sense of sympathy only grows.

For your information, the Research and Development Center of the Education and Culture Ministry said that total revenue for the RSBI block grant funding since 2006-2010 had reached Rp 1.07 trillion (US$108.75 million). This does not include budget support from local government and public donations.

So, what next? After this decision, the government (like it or not) is certainly obliged to obey the Court’s decision. If the government is stubborn and maintains the existence of the RSBIs, as stated by the mayor of Surabaya, Tri Rismaharini, and confirmed by Akil Mukhtar (Court spokesman), it could be considered against the law.

Therefore, all schools with the RSBI status must be returned to regular schools, all levies on behalf of the RSBIs need to be stopped, all forms of school administration, even the name on the school signpost must be replaced.

Education and Culture Minister Mohammad Nuh on several occasions said that he respected the Court’s decision, but that the government did not expect closures to be immediate as school was still in session. Nuh even said that until the end of the school year, the RSBIs were still allowed to collect fees from parents.

However, the Court’s decision was firm and binding and any activities related to the project must be stopped.

There is concern, however, that local governments will just rename the RSBIs — “Sekolah Unggul”, “Sekolah Mandiri” or “Sekolah Model”, for example. If these (public) schools remain discriminatory, expensive, and enforce the use of English as the language of instruction disproportionately, people should, of course, refuse it.

Furthermore, It is important to reemphasize that the Court’s decision does not dissolve the existence of a school itself. What the decision cancels is only the implementation of the RSBI program. Therefore, teaching and learning processes in all former schools have to continue as usual. The spirit to go forward and excel at all schools, however, should be kept, and if possible, improved.

I understand that there will probably a little “cultural shock” after this dissolution among teachers, students, principals, or perhaps in some parents as some of them could have greatly enjoyed all the privileges that the RSBI label gave them over the years.

For the school management, they might be shocked by the fact that they no longer receive the large amount of funding they once did. Some students or parents may also be a little disturbed by the termination, as for them, the RSBI was a symbol of a good life. They were proud to be part of the RSBI as it symbolized that they belonged to a group of people with social and economic advantages.

However, these kinds of shocks should not bring down the spirits of the affected parties. These former RSBIs certainly have a lot of good values and the potential to be further developed. They already have better facilities, a conducive learning culture and possibly cooperate with several international institutions. These could all be used as motivation to excel.

On the other hand, in addition to its responsibility to make sure that these former RSBIs continue to grow and excel, the government is expected to continue programs for improving the quality of education for everyone.

Some good programs in the Education and Culture Ministry that are now running, such as school accreditation, teachers and schools certification, subsidizing the cost of education through the BOS program, and the provision of a physical development block grant, deserve to continue, and certainly by continuously evaluating and improving the system of implementation.

Implementing competitive grants as an alternative solution to improve the quality of schools, after the removal of the RSBIs, is also a good idea. This is of course by taking into account the fact that there are still sharp differences among certain urban schools and schools in rural areas.

Specific requirements or different mechanisms to enable these so-called “marginalized” schools to have the opportunity to win this grant is necessary. I believe that if the programs I mentioned above can be implemented well, evaluated and improved, slowly but surely, our education will get better, without the RSBIs labels.

The writer is a PhD candidate in the School of Education, Monash University, Australia.

RSBI and the politics of pedagogical choice

Setiono Sugiharto, Jakarta | Opinion | Sat, January 12 2013, 10:22 AM

Paper Edition | Page: 6

The fierce debates over the international pilot project schools (RSBI) that once raged between education activists and the government have come to a halt with the Constitutional Court ruling that the establishment of the often-dubbed “elite” schools is not in line with the Constitution.

In its verdict, the Constitutional Court said that the RSBIs had created dualism and discrimination in the national education system.

Also, with their exclusive use of English as the medium of classroom instruction, the schools have been lambasted for eroding national identity.

Yet, one day after the ruling the Education and Culture Ministry seemed adamant that it would not immediately dismiss RSBI.

The government’s efforts to improve the system of national education and to pursue quality education ought to be commended.

This is especially true given that most Indonesians have been casting doubts over local education and opting instead for overseas education.

While we have to extend our full support to the government for its seriousness in boosting the country’s education, we need to call into question the blind adoption of the label “international standard” in the RSBIs, which is associated mainly with the mandatory use of English (as an international language), imported curriculum and assessment instruments and the idea of English native speaking.

Perhaps this label is attributed among teachers, students and educational technocrats to pedagogical jargon like international standard competence, which has become the guiding principle in the curriculum design.

Needless to say, the idea behind the establishment of the RSBIs is more political than pedagogical if contextualized in the global spread of the hegemonic forces of Western education.

Thus, the often-voiced claim that the national education system needs to adjust itself to the rapid changes of the globalized world (through the establishment of RSBIs), so that local schools are poised to compete with schools overseas is certainly a political statement — a statement that cannot be perceived as neutral and innocent.

Complicating this statement, we can raise critical question: From which perspective is the banal notion of globalization viewed?

Clearly, in common knowledge the phrase “international Standard” is construed as designating globalization from the outside world, or what is often referred to as the Center World (the colonizing countries) as opposed to the Periphery World (the colonized countries).

It is this understanding that the opponents of the RSBIs object to and harshly denounce.

It is also because of this perception that they have accused the RSBIs of perpetuating liberalism and capitalism in education and also language imperialism.

Describing the fetish of the dissemination of English through education, as has been the case in the RSBIs, linguist JE Joseph (2004) said: “When members of the ‘peripheral’ population are themselves the ones opting for education in the ‘center’ language or promoting it for their countrymen, this merely means they have been co-opted into linguicism; they are internal colonialists.”

Interestingly, most education observers through their published writings in the media have unwittingly helped promote pedagogical imperialism by extolling the superiority of education of the center.

They uncritically believe in the reports released by international associations such as Trends in International Mathematics and Science Studies (TIMSS), Progress in International Reading Literacy Studies (PIRLS) and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) — reports that provide a statistical comparison of the quality of academic performance across different countries.

Inferences on quality education are made based on these reports. Thus, if the reports show that other countries better Indonesia in terms of academic performance, the conclusion is often hastily drawn that the latter performs worse than its counterparts and is eventually condemned for not having competitive values.

If these reports are used as a sole reference for improving the country’s education system through, say, the creation of the RSBIs, then we become engrossed in a pedagogical determinism without taking into consideration the fact that the geopolitics of every country differs considerably.

After all, just as resorting to the RSBIs as the ostensible panacea of the country’s educational snag is a political choice, so too is the attempt to revive national-based education as a reaction against it.

The reconsideration of the relevance of national identity, culture and ideology amid the suppression of Western hegemonic pedagogy also has a political overtone.

To counter the spread of international schools in Indonesia, A. Chaedar Alwasilah, a professor in education, has recently proposed what he calls “ethnopedagogy” — a local genius-based pedagogy that tries to reinvigorate local languages, cultures and ideologies.

This proposal certainly has a political nuance, suggesting therefore that all pedagogical choices are value-laden and political.

In the face of globalization, educational policies certainly need to be altered in line with the needs and demands of the modern world.

Yet, this shouldn’t always be done by upgrading the status of local schools with an “international” label.

Instead, the revitalization of local wisdom in education can strengthen the foundation of national education and serve as a counter-politics to pedagogical determinism.

It can also give teachers the confidence to face the unexpected challenges of the globalized world. Quality education should begin from such an effort.

The writer is an associate professor at Atma Jaya Catholic University. He is also chief editor of the Indonesian Journal of English Language Teaching.