Trimming primary school subjects toward character building

A.Chaedar Alwasilah, Canterbury, UK | Opinion | Sat, October 06 2012, 12:11 PM

Paper Edition | Page: 6

Deputy Education and Culture Minister Musliar Kasim recently stated that the government planned to trim the existing primary school subjects into four, namely religion, Indonesian language, civics and mathematics. The plan implies that the current primary curriculum does not work as well as expected.

At this juncture, it is wise to realize that the curriculum is not the only factor of success in primary education. Education is problematic in many aspects and pointing the finger at the curriculum is erroneously simplistic.

The curriculum is a sacred document, but when it does not work or is not implemented well, it will be judged a waste.

The inclusion or exclusion of school subjects is always controversial. Many schools have expressed their worries over the exclusion of social studies and science. It is crucial that all stakeholders are well informed about the rationale. When a decision is made, everyone should be committed to it.

Primary age children have huge learning potential that will otherwise be wasted if this learning potential is not developed optimally in schools.

The existing primary subjects include religion, civics education, Indonesian language, math, science, social studies, arts and skills, physical education, local content and self development. The last two are actually a generic name for areas that are subject to individual school policies.

By way of comparison, in England what is to be learned by primary school students is defined by areas rather than subjects, namely language, mathematics; environmental studies (society, science and technology), expressive arts and physical education, and religious and moral education with personal and social development and health education. Information technology is cross-curricular, i.e., to be used in teaching all subjects.

In this regard, there are two competing groups: subject-oriented and area-oriented academics. On one hand, subject-oriented academics believe that science and social studies are too important to be excluded from the curriculum. They have no patience to postpone teaching those subjects until the students reach secondary school age when the subjects will definitely be taught.

These people overlook the fact that children are in the golden age to acquire knowledge and skills and develop their character, such as self-confidence, self-esteem, independence, creativity, skills of collaboration and cooperation and respect for others.

Recurring interethnic conflict and high school student brawls are indicative of a failure to instill character in school.

On the other hand, the area-oriented academics believe that in primary education what counts is what students feel, do, and appreciate; while the labeling of subjects such as social studies, science, geography, history, etc…, is insignificant and sounds too academic for primary school students.

Further, it is feared that within subject-oriented paradigm teachers would tend to be theoretical.

Primary education is no more than character building. Religion, Indonesian language, civics and mathematics are to be taught for building children’s character. Stay away from conceptualizing learning a subject for the subject’s sake.

Primary school teachers are expected to be generalist practitioners for teaching all subjects to develop character. Religion is taught mostly for teaching theology or strengthening students’ beliefs and to teach jurisprudence or normative ways to worship God.

Nothing is wrong with this. However, religion, Islam in particular, does not end there.

Take the haj pilgrimage as a potential example for teaching mathematics, geography, social studies and science. Over 200,000 Indonesians perform the haj every year and there are around three million people flocking at the same time for haj. How much do they contribute to Saudi foreign exchange?

Teachers may challenge students to locate Mecca in relation to Indonesia, Oman, England and Japan for teaching geography. They may also be encouraged to think of diversity of pilgrims in terms of language, ethnicity, skin color and social status. The concept of relativity of time is also explorable in the topic of haj. Why is there a time difference between Mecca and Jakarta? What causes the difference?

Those examples illustrate how the topic approach rather than subject approach is flexible for critically teaching almost any school subject. Such an exploration will strengthen their belief in God, their conviction of scientific truth and appreciation of social differences among peoples.

Being a class teacher rather than subject teacher, primary teachers should feel very confident to explore topics for intercurricular discussions. Besides, they should be flexible in moving from topic to topic as the class moves on.

However, caveat should be taken that in every act of teaching, teachers should identify clearly the intended focus of teaching, say, mathematics, geography, social studies, or science.

We have revised the curriculum quite often, and the barrage of directives, requirements and regulations has left primary school teachers feeling insecure and, probably, confused and undermined in their profession.

In their perception, curriculum is a battlefield for bureaucrats and politicians, and they are just the fallen victims. We should trust our professional teachers to flexibly approach the imminent change to the curriculum.

The writer, a professor at Bandung Indonesian Education University (UPI), is currently a visiting researcher at Canterbury Christ Church University, England.

Rampant student brawls and our character education

Zulfa Sakhiyya, Jakarta | Opinion | Sat, September 29 2012, 10:45 AM

Paper Edition | Page: 6

The latest series of student brawls in Jakarta that has claimed two lives has harshly reminded us to revisit and reevaluate our system of character education.

Believed to have a long history of brawling, students from two senior high schools in South Jakarta fought each other after school hours on Monday, brandishing sharp weapons and hurling stones violently, ending in the death of a student.

Although some have argued that the incident was an assault rather than a student brawl, I would argue that some student brawl cases might have assaults in them, and at the heart of the brawl is violence.

Within 48 hours, another life was lost in South Jakarta following a brawl between students of two vocational schools. The student was killed after being stabbed in the stomach.

While violent teenage behavior occurs everywhere, school brawls are more common in Indonesia. A student brawl is a form of collective social behavior of adolescent aberration and aggressive behavior resulting from group conformity. Usually a conflict flares up between two schools, and on the battlefield, students are actually wearing their school uniforms.

Student brawls are nothing new in our country, but it is very devastating to learn that the number of cases is mounting rather than abating.

The National Commission for Child Protection (KPAI) recorded at least 128 school brawl cases in 2010, which rose to 339 last year. The brawls claimed 82 lives last year, up from 40 in 2010. More worryingly, acts of violence involving students became more prevalent when character education was integrated into the school curriculum.

Therefore, these statistics should prompt us to revisit and evaluate the current system of character education. Are we teaching them the right things?

I still remember when I had a Pancasila moral education lesson (PMP or now civics) back in secondary school during the New Order era, I was only asked to memorize the principles of and the attitudes that reflect Pancasila state ideology. That time I was questioning myself, why bother memorizing good attitudes but not practicing them?

Character education is not simply a formal lesson that occurs at a cognitive level (moral knowledge), but rather, it should go beyond understanding and arrive at reflecting upon what is right and doing the right thing.

For instance, an elementary school teacher in my region implemented an exemplary form of character education. She brought her students to a nursing home and assigned the students to assist and entertain the elderly.

Surprisingly, those eight-year-old children played games with the elderly, sang a song, read them a story and even did a small stitching project. In short, students have to feel and experience for themselves the concepts of love, respect, empathy and many other good traits and characteristics.

Simply expelling students from schools due to their role in a brawl does not resolve the problem, but may instead perpetuate the culture of violence. The expulsion will deprive the students of their bright future and may lead them to a larger gang of criminals.

Character education should not only be shouldered by teachers alone. There should be a harmonious synergy among schools, families, communities and the government as the stakeholders of national education. This is because character is not taught, rather, it is shaped.

Ki Hajar Dewantara, the founding father of national education, has bequeathed to us a prophetic motto: “Ing ngarso sung tuladha; ing madya mangun karsa; tut wuri handayani,” which means “Provide a model; create an intention; and give constructive support.”

His philosophy on education reflected in this motto is still relevant now. It echoes to the system of character education that has become one of our chief concerns nowadays.

Teachers, parents, communities and the government should be models, motivators and supporters for young generations — modeling good character, motivating youth to do good things and supporting them to do the right thing.

Character building is a long-term project that requires patience and perseverance.

Here are some questions that may help us contemplate our awareness of character education for our children. How can we ask our students/children to think if we do all the thinking?

How can we ask our students/children to talk, if we do all the talking? How can we ask our students/children to respect us, if we do not respect them?

The writer is a researcher at the Center for Multiculturalism, Democracy and Character Building in the Semarang State University.