School curriculum change and common sense

Tony Crocker, Jakarta | Opinion | Sat, July 27 2013, 12:17 PM

Negative political reaction to any government initiative, regrettably including education (The Jakarta Post, July 22), can only be expected in the run up to a general election. Given the poor communication skills apparently displayed by the education minister and the ministry spokespersons, the equally negative comment from academics and representatives of teacher associations are equally understandable.

So far, the most perceptive article on curriculum change in selected schools has been the editorial in the Post for July 19. This identified the motivation behind the rapid introduction of change as an essentially political reaction to inter-school brawling. Although it could have gone further and identified the subsequent diversion of ministry staff time from recurrent duties to making a reality of the sudden announcement of change as being the probable reason behind many of the problems with delivery of this year’s final exam (UN) for senior high school (SMA).

Interestingly, both the articles by academics and statements from teacher associations frequently appear to confuse the roles and responsibilities of the various players in this activity. Minister and ministry are often used interchangeably, although the ministry is only responsible and accountable for implementation of policy, not its formulation. In this respect, the ministry has actually performed well this year in that the senior individual civil servant held responsible for the problems with the UN promptly resigned.

Although the minister is responsible and accountable for both policy and the performance of the ministry under his or her management, there is another group of people who play a major role in policy formulation, but who are rarely identified and never held accountable.

These are the special advisers attached to many ministerial offices, including education, whose role is to assist the minister with professional and technical aspects of the minister’s work.

One possible reason why this group escapes the censure of academics, who are only too willing to blame “bureaucrats”, is that these advisers are themselves predominantly academics. In a field such as education, the use of academics alone in policy formulation runs two major risks.

First, the work cultures of university and school are very different. Higher education focuses on developing and communicating knowledge about a subject. Its stock-in-trade is ideas, innovation and personal reputation. Schools focus on the best way to help children and adolescents realize their potential to become fulfilled and productive adult members of society.

The teacher’s main role is to help children. The practicing academic, with no requirement for example, to spend sabbatical time back in the school room, may easily forget the day-to-day reality of helping children learn in a village primary school in a remote district.

Second, in higher education the students themselves are primarily responsible for their achievement. This is quite different from activities where achieving change requires demonstrable, practical results. It is unlikely that any trainer in for example, the aviation industry or the military, where training success and achievement of standards are essential, would be content to limit training to a five day course with a heavy information load.

That is, the “training” model predominantly employed in preparing for behavioral change in education is most frequently an academic model of talking about objectives rather than ensuring their achievement through extensive practice.

Most of the articles on curriculum change recently published in the Post amply illustrate this lack of practicality. As articulate as they may be on educational theories, they are invariably full of jargon, references to authors and publications unlikely to be familiar to a general reading public, and confine themselves almost exclusively to discussion of concepts, with hardly ever a mention of children.

They, thus, appear to be more a continuation of academic debate in the public sphere than a genuine contribution to ensuring equitable access to effective education for all children throughout Indonesia.

Few of these articles mention for example, the fact that virtually all the concepts and practices required by the curriculum change have actually been legislated requirements for teachers for over five years through ministerial regulations concerning teacher competencies and “standard processes” in school.

Nor do they point to the simple fact that the attitudinal development of children in school depends as much if not more on their daily experience than on any subject matter they may encounter.

That is, the dominant classroom activity, whether they are encouraged to cooperate or compete, if they are helped to question rather than just accept, and the role models they see around them both in school and in the wider community, are likely to play a greater role in developing attitude than any amount of instruction.

If the articles by academics are largely theoretical, it is difficult to say what the comments by representatives of teacher associations are, besides oppositional. They are certainly neither constructive nor practical.

Whereas it is only right for these associations to protect and promote the interests of their members, they never mention that for example, since the reorganization of the then National Ministry for Education in 2010/2011, the largest of these associations PGRI, provides the senior ministry official responsible for teacher development, that they thus have a permanent voice on how changes are introduced to teachers and have their own major activities sourced from ministry, that is public, funds.

Typical of these comments are those reported immediately after the start of the new school year (the Post, July 16), “[…] five-day training was not adequate for teachers to change their mind set from conservative to interactive and creative methods” (secretary-general of FSGI).

What these representatives – of some three million teachers – do not say is why they have not equipped their members with the necessary competencies and skills over the past five years.

If these professional associations have not apprised their members of the meaning of receiving a “professional allowance” which doubles income, they can hardly complain about the ministry’s efforts within the resources available to implement a demanding timetable within an unrealistic timescale. If they had carried out their role, then a five day familiarization with any new teaching material might possibly have been sufficient.

Significantly, none of this public debate includes comment from the group most directly affected by the curriculum change, the students themselves. However, one report does stand out, “[…] a teacher at elementary school [SD] said that after she attended the training, she began to understand that the new curriculum would encourage the students to use their reasoning in following lessons as it would increase their curiosity about the subjects” (the
Post, July 16).

Amongst all the political and academic posturing, this simple statement about beginning to learn and student motivation is a bright point which must reassure us that ultimately our children’s future is in the right hands — those of teachers who care whether the children in their charge really want to learn.

The writer is currently assisting the Ministry for Education and Culture develop a system for the appraisal and development of performance for teachers in basic education.