Deconstructing the national exam

Setiono Sugiharto, Jakarta | Opinion | Sat, October 05 2013, 9:08 AM

As many had predicted, the two-day national exam convention ended with what the public saw as a rather disappointing consensus: the national exam is still needed as an instrument for measuring the final learning achievements of students.

Despite facing harsh criticism from education experts and teachers represented mainly by the Indonesian Teachers Union (PGRI), the Education and Culture Ministry is adamant that the implementation of the national exam ought to be retained.

That opinions from teachers and education experts went unheard or ignored should come as no surprise. It is not the first time critical voices have been suppressed in the policymaking process of national exam implementation.

In its last decade of implementation, the national exam has always been replete with brouhaha, with public criticism falling on deaf ears.

The ministry’s insistence on maintaining the national exam as the sole testing tool nationwide and its defiance of critical insights from convention participants serve to indicate several important things.

First, the national exam has been used clandestinely as a bureaucratic mechanism to monopolize and homogenize utilitarian knowledge-making practices.

Elana Shohamy (2006) views such a mechanism as an ulterior endeavor to create a “de facto” educational policy and to elide knowledge in multicultural societies.

As the UN is imposed on all schools nationwide without exception, diverse knowledge developed from the grassroots is severely restricted and demoted. In such multicultural societies, Shomamy envisions a democratic principle of having testing of the people, for the people and by the people.

Furthermore, the ministry’s dominant role in the national exam suggests the dissemination and imposition of a bureaucratic ideology on the public — a suppressing ideology that cajoles them into believing that standardized state-mandated exams are trustworthy, valid, dependable, fair and infallible.

Here the intention is that both teachers and students are treated as what Shohamy calls “bureaucrats”, not “professionals”.

Through the maintenance of the national exam, the ministry exercises and perpetuates its power (and hence the power of the national exam) to hegemonize and legitimize the educational policy it has made, proscribing any resistance from those having no power. In a more extreme analogy, teachers are deliberately made powerless “servants” whose function is simply to implement the agenda of the powerful.

Finally, the sustainability of the national exam is maintained due to its power as a gate-keeper to sort out those who are considered academically competent and incompetent, and then to exclude the incompetent ones.

While it is true that the discrimination index has commonly been employed as the criteria of a good test, in the context of a highly centralized national exam, with participants hailing from diversified knowledge traditions, the yawning gaps created by the exam serve to mirror unfairness and unethical conduct.

If the national exam has been used as a political mechanism to help sustain the legitimacy of the authority, then debates over whether or not it should be scrapped from the national education system from a sole pedagogical perspective need to be reconsidered.

A radical perspective from which to interrogate the usefulness of the national exam is now badly needed. This perspective can draw insights from the philosophy of liberal knowledge-making, which can not only challenge the existence of the national exam and question its value, but also politicize it.

This perspective can therefore complicate the implementation of the national exam. It goes beyond queries related to the technicalities of the exam, such as the real value of the exam, its validity and reliability, its efficiency in the printing and distribution process, and the possibility of cheating.

What the above perspective encourages is issues related to the interrogation of power relations and ideological bases underlying the construction of the national exam, the interests served by its implementation, the democratic processes included in its construction (the involvement and collaboration of stakeholders with shared authority), and the transparency in and public accountability of its program evaluation.

This reorientation is vital and must be made explicit at the outset, given that the national exam is a high-stakes test, and more importantly, that it is always used as a covert mechanism to hegemonize power and control and to spread bureaucratic ideology uncongenial to the democratization of knowledge-making processes among teachers and students in multicultural societies.

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

Education that builds tolerant minds

Khairil Azhar, Jakarta | Opinion | Fri, October 04 2013, 11:35 AM

Around 50 people sat on the carpet in the school hall and listened to the lecture on how to achieve higher spirituality through understanding Sufism. They were university lecturers, school teachers and around forty junior and senior high school students.

That Saturday night, they learned together and amid their effort to discern the metaphysical concepts they could laugh crossing age and status boundaries.

Nearing midnight, after the students went to their dorm to rest, teens of the salik — the people who are stepping on the path of Sufism – moved to a multi-function building. For half an hour, they stayed in the library enjoying snacks and a flowing dialogue on some topics.

Again, in the dialog with religious nuance, smiles and laughter became the dominant fragments. There was nobody speaking with anger or shouting voice of opinion.

There was not hatred reflected on their faces and words. Their time and energy were spent all flowingly to understand what was going on around and to locate themselves wisely in the life course.

In the next 20 minutes, seven new members underwent the initial process to join the Sufi brotherhood. Physically, they had to take minor ablution.

Spiritually, they had to clean up their minds from everything that might stain them — worded as satanic substances — through verbal and mental rituals guided by a Sheikh.

Happiness, the Sheikh preached, would be reached whenever our hearts could be freed from unnecessary feelings — such as greed, hate, envy and arrogance — and focused on the act of causing God to be present. Minds must be continuously employed to look inward contemplatively and not to look outward as they are ordinarily used.

After the closing prayer in the initiation procession, all of the salik sat around a table with books, food and drink. A tranquil talk on music started, soothed with Sufi music with a Turkish tinge.

It was not merely a spiritual talk, for sure, as there was a business element there. Yet, it was very comforting and constructive as business was planned with the effort to positively create a distinctive value with spiritual improvement in the core concept.

That night, put simply, comparing to what is going on nowadays among Muslims, we first learned that learning and practicing religious teachings could be very different.

That night, instead of blemishing the hearts with contemptible qualities of hate, hostility or the idea of war, tens of people focused themselves on how to achieve higher spiritual levels where nobody else could be bothered.

As what the “modern” salik do, someone practicing religion, if he would like to find it beneficial in his life, would be better cultivate golden qualities such as compassion, empathy and tolerance in his heart through rituals, heartfelt dialogues, poetry, music or even movies.

This way will be more appeasing compared to listening to the hate speech in the mosques or joining assemblies or destructive protests and mobs in the name of religion.

Second, Sufism, as the above story tells us a bit, makes its disciples psychologically healthy. Contemplative mind, with the “proper diets” of spirituality, will be very positive. Jalal al-Din Rumi, a prominent Sufi from the 13th century, taught it beautifully,

With the positive mind, once it is successfully constructed, negative feelings or destructive ideas will be only like thought bubbles. Once one realizes they have no essence, they dissolve.

In the social life, where interactions often take place uncontrollably, the ones with the quality will play the appeasing part.

Lastly, as an alternative to the positivistic paradigm in education, as learners are positioned more as learning machines who must be able to calculate, explain and analyze, contemplative education can be a better or at least a supplementary choice.

As human beings, the learners should also develop their inner capabilities, not only to understand the virtues or characters prescribed in their school curriculum cognitively, but also to livingly live in those values in real world settings.

In the practical ground, for example, Padmasuri de Silva (2011) suggests that critical listening model — as one listens in order to be able to develop a counter argument and mentally grade what he hears — can be complemented or even changed with a deep listening model, an empathic form of listening as one listens with deep, open and ungrudging way to the other person.

This way, with the more complete picture of what the other means as well as himself, empathy and tolerance can gain more space and play a significant part in dialogs.

The writer is a researcher at Paramadina Foundation, Jakarta.