Revisiting the notion of childhood education

Setiono Sugiharto ,  Jakarta   |  Sat, 07/25/2009 1:24 PM  |  Opinion

In a photo published in the July 14th edition of The Jakarta Post, a number of minors were shown standing trial for crimes they allegedly committed.

Wearing school uniforms and masks to conceal their identity, these children face charges at the Tangerang District Court for illegally offering shoe-shining services at Soekarno-Hatta airport and for allegedly gambling at the airport vicinity.

It is not surprising to see many children in Indonesia dropping out of school to help their parents make ends meet. With many living below the poverty line, child labor has become an everyday occurrence in the greater parts of Jakarta.

What is shocking however is that minors wearing school uniforms dared to *gamble’ in a public area. What is even more shocking is that rampant social problems such as child prostitution, drug abuse, gang activities and student brawls are on the rise among young people.

Child psychologist Irwanto suggests that the increase in juvenile delinquency across Indonesia is the result of government policies which are not sensitive to children.

He estimated that statistically 60 percent of Indonesian children no longer attend school by the time they reach 15, and instead choose to work in the informal sector, or even on the street. Some find more steady jobs, but others also become hooligans.

Viewed from an education perspective, criminal acts committed by school children are, in my opinion, the result of childhood pedagogy devoid of social structure and cultural practices.

Indonesian childhood pedagogy still zealously adheres to a theory of child development that takes its root from the Piagetian developmental psychology, which places an emphasis on development through linear stage: cognitive, linguistic, social, emotional, moral and physical development.

This approach to teaching children, known in developmental psychology as the biological determinism approach, is not without its problems, however. The most serious one is that this method is often applied to teaching children in all contexts. It denies the intricacies of the socio-cultural realities of each individual students’ life.

Another problem is that a linear view of childhood considers children as natural beings rather than as social phenomena. A child’s path to maturity is often viewed in a rigid and fixed order, where people only observe their cognitive, linguistic, emotional and physical development.

Our schools here adopt a school curricula that reflects this view of maturity and development. This approach totally ignores the social realities in which children grow as individuals and can have devastating consequences on the lives of children.

In this respect, it is quite plausible that children view their identity as hierarchical, fixed, static, linear and chronological.

Kerry H. Robinson and Criss Jones Diaz, experts on childhood education, contend that when applied to teaching children from diverse socio-cultural communities, such an approach denies the varied and often contradictory realities of social and cultural practice from which children’s identities are mediated.

Influenced by positivistic intellectual traditions, developmental psychology also stresses rationality, universal truth and objectivity. Seeing the maturity process of children from these standpoints, as has been the case in our contemporary childhood pedagogy, negates the uniqueness of individual children, which in turn causes a loss of identity.

These children facing criminal charges (which they were probably not aware actually existed) probably are only a few of the millions of children who have lost their identities. They are the victims of a structure which lacks a cultural or social interpretation or room for diversity. They are powerless, positioned as irrational, marginalized and underdeveloped beings.

Putting them behind bars is of course not the right solution. It will not guarantee that they will refrain from committing future wrongs, but will definitely impede on their effort to establish their identity as children.

What they need now is education which can empower them and open their eyes to their rights, so they can understand the context in which they live. In so doing, they will eventually develop a heightened awareness that in the process of maturity, their lives are always socially constructed through the contexts in which they are situated.

The writer is the chief-editor of the Indonesian Journal of English Language Teaching and teaches English writing at Atma Jaya Catholic University in Jakarta.

Some serious flaws in RI’s childhood education

Setiono Sugiharto ,  Jakarta   |  Wed, 07/23/2008 10:53 AM  |  Opinion

One fundamental issue we often forget when commemorating National Children’s Day, which falls on July 23, is the extent to which our childhood education system has produced the real benefits children need for their future.

It is axiomatic that our cognitively overloaded curriculum has become the major weakness in childhood education. Critics say this ambitiously dense curriculum does not foster creativity, critical thinking and enjoyment in learning.

Neither does it foster a love of learning which is a necessary precondition for children’s cognitive, affective and psychomotor development, for example, observing, imitating, practicing and adapting keyboard skills.

By contrast, it makes learning a mundane activity, and positions children as passive, submissive and servile recipients of knowledge.

What the critics say is undoubtedly true. Nobody would deny it. However, the outstandingly poor feature of our childhood education, in my view, is that the curriculum promotes children’s literacy development (reading and writing) in the wrong way.

That most of our children lack reading and writing habits provides clear evidence that our childhood education system fails to implant the seeds of love for books.

The common and erroneous practice here has been the introduction of heavy and demanding reading materials on many school subjects during the early years of learning. This assumes that heavy reading results in better acquisition of knowledge.

This assumption is not well-supported by current research on childhood literacy.

Early childhood is the golden age for developing literacy skills. Contrary to popular belief that the exposure to reading and writing at early ages produces deleterious effects, and should be deferred until children are older, children’s early acquaintance with these skills can bring out optimal results.

Literacy skills can best be instilled in young children, provided we choose the correct path — in a manner consistent with children’s learning philosophy.

The wrong path, on the contrary, hinders literacy development, in turn creating indifference or even hostility to learning, eventually leading to resistance to all things academic.

Sadly, what is often excluded from the childhood education curriculum is something that is intuitively appealing, but overlooked by many practitioners. It is called light reading — reading not necessarily related to an academic genre, but that offers enjoyment and entertainment to the reader. The sources of light reading can be bestsellers, comic books, magazines, story books, simplified novels and folk tales.

This kind of reading is certainly compatible with children’s learning philosophy. Through light reading, children are free to choose what they want to read. They aren’t held accountable for what they are reading. They will not be punished and treated as a wrongdoer in the pillory if they don’t grasp what they are reading. More importantly, light reading provides children with happy learning experiences.

There is, however, fear among teachers and parents that exposing children to light reading may impede their ability to absorb academic works, which are more demanding and complex.

So prevalent is this fear among educational practitioners that light reading has hardly had any place in the curriculum. After all, heavy academic texts are believed to gear children up to higher academic achievement.

The value of light reading has been increasingly acknowledged by pedagogic specialists in the United States. Not only has light reading been proven to stimulate children’s inquisitiveness and love of learning, but it also provides impetus for reading more demanding and serious academic works.

Overwhelming evidence exists, buttressing the claim that light reading accelerates development of literacy. Those who initially access light reading will gradually move on to read more demanding books and write better than those who don’t.

Research has also shown that light reading helps children accumulate background knowledge and develop sensitivity toward different styles in writing, vocabulary, and grammar.

Given its valuable pedagogical benefits, light reading deserves a place in the curriculum. Its inclusion will bolster not only children’s literacy development, but more importantly a life-long reading and writing tradition in our country.

The writer is chief editor of the Indonesian Journal of English Language Teaching and teaches English composition at Atma Jaya University, Jakarta. He can be reached at setiono.sugiharto@atmajaya.ac.id.