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“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.