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.

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