Evaluating religious education

Kamaruddin Amin, Jakarta | Opinion | Fri, November 15 2013, 11:32 AM

During a recent one-week visit to the United Kingdom, I found that religious education there was substantially different from that in Indonesia. It is not a matter of whether the UK system is wrong or right, better or worse. Rather, it is a question of how religious education is designed to meet the needs of the respective country.
In the visit we had discussions with various officials and professors at Oxford University and visited a number of elementary and secondary schools. We directly observed how teachers delivered religious education, the content and the response of students of different faiths. It was interesting to note the purposes of religious education, the teaching and learning process and the method of teachers’ training.

The population of the UK is multicultural and multi-faith. The existence of six large religious groups — Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism — significantly colors its socio-economic and political life. Not surprisingly, religious education in the UK is compulsory by the Constitution.

As a secular country, however, the inculcation of religious values to students is not a priority. Religious education essentially promotes social cohesion, peaceful co-existence and mutual respect amid the diverse British society.

Differently put, religious education in the UK is not intended to nurture or instill religious doctrine in students. Students are not directed to be devout Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Jews or Catholics. Instead, they are encouraged to inquire about their religious teachings and practices and to have a critical and reflective understanding of their beliefs.

Thus the delivery of religious education is to investigate the impact of religious beliefs and teachings on individuals, communities and societies, to evaluate beliefs and the impact of religion in the contemporary world.

Given that students have to learn many religions in a limited time and given the lack of emphasis on subject knowledge, the superficial understanding of any religion becomes unavoidable. Consequently, one cannot hope to grasp an extensive understanding even about one’s own religion.

One may consider this as a weakness of the British religious education system. However, given that its purpose in the UK is to realize social cohesion, mutual respect among believers and not to create a devout religious community, the strengths and the weaknesses of the British religious education system is dependent on to what extent this purpose has been achieved.

Religious education in Indonesian schools aims essentially at creating a religious community, where a deep, extensive and even critical understanding of religion is nurtured. Religious teachings and values are not exclusively to be understood but to be internalized and to be accordingly acted upon.

Religious education is expected to transform a student’s behavior and to build his or her character into a religious one. To what extent these goals have been achieved, however, remains a challenging question.

Based on our Education Law, religious education is compulsory for every Indonesian student. Every Muslim student has the right to study Islam from a Muslim teacher. This also applies to other religious groups. So, the purpose of religious education in Indonesian schools, be it Islam and other religions, is to inculcate religious values in students, to make them devote Muslims or Christians, Catholics, Hindus and Buddhists. This may be called a mono-religious approach.

Why are other religions not taught to students (the inter-religious approach)? This question has been raised by many, assuming that a proper understanding of other religions could potentially promote virtues of respect and social cohesion that is tremendously important in a diverse society as Indonesia. Let us learn from the UK experience.

By applying the inter-religious approach in religious education, the UK could be considered as highly successful in achieving its goal — peaceful co-existence among religious groups, though religious extremism cannot be totally eradicated. However, this system, at least in the UK experience, substantially lacks deep understanding of the subject knowledge and nurturing of the essential doctrine of any religion.

One may argue the importance of introducing other religions to every student in Indonesian schools. This is definitely justifiable, but inculcating religious values, nurturing a religious doctrine, creating a religious society and being a devout believer is no less important. Truly devout believers should genuinely respect others, thus helping to create peaceful coexistence. Therefore religious education in Indonesian schools is theoretically and ambitiously dual-purpose.

Have we become devout Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists or Catholics? Have schools achieved this dual goal of our religious education? Given the fact that integrity, which is central to any religious teachings, remains low among former students, resulting in rampant corruption, and that religious-based conflicts are still widespread in Indonesia, we have to bravely admit that religious education here needs to be seriously reevaluated.

The problems could be due to the content or textbooks of religious education, the way it is delivered or the teachers’ competence. This is the big challenge that the new 2013 curriculum is trying to deal with. The curriculum has been designed to meet the need of this multicultural country, to promote mutual respect and peaceful coexistence, and at the same time, to create a religious community.

The writer is secretary to the Directorate General of Islamic Education at the Religious Affairs Ministry. The views expressed are personal

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.

Assessment is education

Totok Amin Soefijanto, Jakarta | Opinion | Fri, May 24 2013, 10:55 AM

Paper Edition | Page: 6

The national exam was an unfortunate series of events and the troubles are pouring in like Lemony Snicket’s thought-provoking fiction. They keep coming and disturbing everyone, certainly for the test taker students, their parents and teachers alike.

However, we have a delusional education and culture minister who finds excuses at every turn of the exam process. The public is left in the dark about the role of assessment in education.

Education has at least three important processes: curriculum, instruction and assessment. Let us discuss the last part of the process. Assessment takes an important role in education because it has at least five goals. First, it provides information about the students’ understanding of the subject matter. Second, it emphasizes the important aspects of the subject matter that students must master. Third, it gives teachers an important tool to adjust and adapt the subject matter. Fourth, it guarantees an objective evaluation of students and teachers. Fifth, it inculcates good values in society, such as discipline, fairness, honesty and promptness.

What is important in meaningful learning, according to Dietel, Hermann and Knuth (1991), is how and whether students organize, structure and use the learning subject matter in the context to solve complex problems. Have we educated our children properly? More importantly, have we assessed our students properly as well?

We have been conducting high-risk testing annually and dutifully, amid the criticism. The National Education Law is a blanket guarantee for the national exams. Indonesian educators, bureaucrats and I may overlook the essence of assessment due to the gravity of routine and administrative tasks around us. We learned from history that this kind of attitude might shoulder a risk of sacrificing the bright minds of future generations all over the country.

There are two types of assessment: formative and summative. National exams or other high-risk testing are summative type. In summative testing, a student is assessed in the end of learning process, one time and one chance only. An interesting analogy by Stake, R. as cited in Earl (2004) as the following, “When the cook tastes the soup, that’s formative; when the guests taste the soup, that’s summative.”

Formative testing type, on the other hand, is a continuous assessment during the learning period. Students take the test on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. The advantages of formative testing are twofold. First, it gives the students an early warning to study now, not later. The test persuades students to study frequently, to be aware of his or her gap between what s/he knows and what s/he should know in certain stage of learning subject matter. Cramming, studying in a hurry just before the test day is discouraged.

Second, it provides the teachers information about the students’ comprehension and gives warnings to adjust, adapt and improve the teaching process. Formative evaluation facilitates a meaningful and constructive learning process. Students learn new things based on what they have known; meanings were developed and created by the students from their reflection and experience.

Assessment is not a rocket science. Why can’t we conduct formative and summative assessment harmoniously in our schools? The answer is teachers. Our teachers are not trained to conduct proper assessments. Some experts believe that teachers with good assessment skills will overcome many learning problems in their classrooms because they know what is needed to deliver the subject matter. A skillful teacher can integrate assessment in a classroom action research through a quantitative or qualitative method or both.

For example, teacher A just delivered the theory of gravity. At the end of session, she asked students to fill out a quiz that neatly listed all the knowledge items from the subject matter. The quiz can be arranged as building blocks of gravity theory and its each relation to the teaching and learning techniques that have been implemented. Teacher A then could build a schematic platform that describes the relationships between students’ comprehension and the teaching techniques.

In the next session, the teacher can adjust her teaching technique to the one that is most effective in conveying the knowledge to students. This test-and-adjust process runs along the learning process until the end of semester or year. At the end of the learning period, the teacher can be rest assured that the students can take a local, regional or national level summative assessment.

The national exam in this scheme is assembled on the formative assessments. Students have been taking the tests and building their knowledge on the subject matter from day one. Ideally, the formative tests are conducted every time students complete certain stages of the learning process. Students learn from their mistakes and successes because assessment is an important part of teaching and learning.

A good assessment develops good learning; good learning builds good education. Indeed, it is a beautiful concept that first and foremost requires qualified teachers. We need to train and upgrade our teachers, especially in assessment and research skills.

In conclusion, assessment must be done thoroughly by teachers. Failure in managing assessment is a failure in managing education.

The writer is the deputy rector for academics, research and student affairs at Paramadina University, Jakarta.