When testing matters more than learning

Yanto Musthofa, Jakarta | Opinion | Sat, May 03 2014, 9:42 AM

The debates on the necessity of nationwide final mandatory exams for both junior and senior high school students, which mounted again in the wake of alleged widespread fraud, actually relates to a peripheral issue of education.
These debates could have been easily settled if national education stakeholders were willing to return to the essence of education.

The 2003 law on national education states three basic elements of education: by-purpose and planned efforts; learning conditions and processes; and students who develop their own potential.

The first element refers to the need for qualified accountable providers of education — parents, teachers, schools and authorities.

The second implies the necessity of best conditions, situations and processes to enable the third element, students developing their own potential.

The debates on the quality of the first two elements should never cease as quality needs constant improvement. They must always develop to enable students enjoy increasingly better facilities, environments and necessary support to develop themselves.

Herein is the cause of the destruction of our education. Over decades, the whole energy to promote the quality of those first two elements has been focused on the peripheral, numerical data of achievement.

There is virtually no happy learning in our schools. Schooling has long been reduced to merely creating the best test takers in the three-day final mandatory exams, which have been taken for granted as the only ticket to future success.

Worse, the selective-system schooling paradigm screens only the best test achievers to be able to enroll to the next level of qualified, reputable schools or universities, which are always in limited number and capacity. The rest, the large majority of losers, are steered out of the game as the residue of education, which cannot possibly find another way, because there is just no other way.

Their individual specific potential has disappeared along with the standardized-buzz saw schooling to pursue the uniformed scores. The schools do not provide them with the learning processes to acquire necessary life skills. They have been prepared to be only good at working answering the test questions.

Basically, the numerical data of school achievement should have been the accountability instrument for the providers of education. Instead, the instrument has become the burden to be inflicted on — and an intimidating tool against — the students since the earliest stage of formal schooling. We have got exactly to the point where testing matters more than learning.

The unintended effect is fraud, unfairness, as immoral practices become inevitable not only for students, considering the mighty power of the crucial scores for their future, but also for parents, teachers, schools and local authorities altogether. They all share the interest of determining the highest performance written in the students’ certificates at all costs.

This unhealthy model of education has stemmed from the 19th-century industrialist paradigm of American education, which had adopted the Prussian authoritarian-military education model. This compulsory schooling, which became the forerunner of American public schools was a breakthrough in fulfilling the needs of quickly available, massive and cheap labor for the industry since Horace Mann ceased standardized testing in 1837.

Of course, the compulsory schooling was not designed to encourage every student to become long-life learners, creative thinkers and independent and capable workers, because the industry needed only human bodies with standardized skills, uniformity and conformity.

Whoever becomes the next education minister in the new cabinet should bring back the basics of learning and learning process to our schools. In doing so, he or she need not to be a spectacular new curriculum super creator.

Instead, the minister would just need to make sure that every single Indonesian student is invaluable with his or her inherent potential. Every single Indonesian child is entitled with the right to be free from any negative stigma. We should no longer see the majority of losers after high school ends. For everyone should be a winner.

The writer is a member of the central governing council of the Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals Association (ICMI) in Jakarta

Tolerance Day: Learning from Wahib

Nicholaus Prasetya, Jakarta | Opinion | Fri, November 22 2013, 11:40 AM

International Tolerance Day was commemorated on Nov. 16. Lack of tolerance is still a problem, as evident in the ongoing inability of the GKI Yasmin congregation in Bogor, West Java, to use their own church building. The Ahmadiyah minority still faces discrimination even by the Religious Affairs Ministry, which should cultivate tolerance amid diversity.

Then there are the Shiites in Sampang, Madura, East Java, who are being required to convert to the “proper” Islam if they want to return home. Meanwhile, Indonesia’s President was honored earlier this year for his efforts to instill a culture of tolerance.

The crucial issue at stake is integration in society. Many think that the majority should be respected because of their dominance in numbers. That is why it is not odd to see a regulation stating that to build a religious building one has to seek approval from neighbors.

This requirement reflects two sources of fear: First, to integrate in a society, people need to seek approval from the “host”. In asking for such approval for a house of worship, there are three possible answers: yes, no or conditionally accepted. If we are lucky, people will be quite open to receiving new neighbors.

Second, it is clear that the government neglects Indonesia’s diversity, because to avoid inter-religious conflicts, the regulation instead prevents people from living together in a diverse environment.

It is then clear that this is a problem of integration. Such a regulation is ridiculous. By passing a law that potentially prevents people from living with others of different faiths, people will then never learn how to live in diversity based on tolerance.

Unsurprisingly newcomers often find their proposals to build houses of worship rejected, when residents of the majority faith refuse to consider leaving their comfort zone to admit others.

To strengthen the objection, issues of religion and blasphemy are often abused In the name of integrity and social harmony, the government is actually throwing out tolerance and diversity.

The annual Ahmad Wahib Award encourages inter-faith tolerance, expressed through essays, videos and also blogs. The late Ahmad Wahib was a Muslim imbued with openness and tolerance, a fearless young man known for his controversial thoughts on Islam.

In his diary, first published in 1981 as Pergolakan Pemikiran Islam: Catatan Harian Ahmad Wahib (The upheaval of Islamic thought: The diary of Ahmad Wahib), we can read how his thoughts shaped him to be an advocate of tolerance. His most important aphorism appears to me to be this one: “I am not a nationalist, a Catholic, or a socialist. I am not a Buddhist, Protestant, or Westernist. I am not a communist. I am not a humanist. I am everything. Hopefully this is what is called a Muslim. I want people to value and view me as an absolute entity without having to associate me with any group or school of thought. Understanding human beings as human beings [free translation].” Wahib clearly sought to say that if people want to be true human beings, we must be inclusive. To act beyond every kind of identity that would eventually exclude us from others is a must because by doing so, people will make a break from their bias of identity.

Budi Hardiman in his treatise on human rights, culture and religion, said people had two innate natural drives: motivation and intuition.

Thus, if people help others because they share the same faith, religion can be a motive but they should have an intuition to help others regardless of their religion.

Would one remain silent in the face of the needs of someone else of a different faith, while religions
always teach goodness?

This is what Indonesians need, to be more open toward others as humans. Human beings are very vulnerable and need others to cooperate, not to divide. If integration is only based by religion, it will be a step backward.

If we always fear the presence of others, when will we become an absolute entity, as Ahmad Wahib mentioned, one that can break free from religious identities and mingle with others to build a better society?

The government has a big task in promoting a culture of openness instead of neglecting diversity. Human beings should not be regarded as a blunder by God; thus people should be able to integrate amid diversity as God has created each of us to be unique in our nature.

The author, a chemical engineer, won the Ahmad Wahib Award at its annual interfaith writing contest in 2012


Hell and religious learning

Khairil Azhar, Jakarta | Opinion | Fri, June 21 2013, 9:21 AM

Paper Edition | Page: 6

One night, when we were about to sleep, my 5-year-old daughter said, “Daddy, I want to wake up early and perform dawn prayer (subuh) with you tomorrow morning.”

Spontaneously, I asked, “Why?”

She quickly answered and it shocked me, “If we don’t do prayers, we will go to hell.”

“Go to hell? Who told you that?”

“My teacher at school.”

It took several seconds before I said “yes” and rubbed her head to help her get to sleep. Waiting for her to fall asleep, I kept thinking until I concluded that there must be something wrong in the way religion was taught at her school.

As far as I know, in some standard textbooks on the psychology of religious teaching used in Indonesian Islamic teacher colleges, such as the one written by Prof. Zakiah Daradjat more than two decades ago, it is clearly stated that the concepts of problematical things such as hell or Satan should not be introduced theoretically during early education.

Instead, the students must primarily learn to admire any beautiful or great creatures they can see as the manifestation of the graciousness and mercy of God. They should be made accustomed to exploring the concrete exposures before they are in proper time directed to the abstract ideas of religion.

Simply put, religious understanding should be implanted by using meaningful ideas to construct positive “fact-finder” young minds.

Along with the argument, in a study conducted in Finland from 1987 to 1988 where the researchers conducted psychological tests, “negative” religiosity as in the story can be an additional burden for children, as can the severe feelings of guilt that can precipitate suicide.

Affectively, in other research (Pargament et al. 2001), negative religious coping such as avoiding difficulties through religious activities and blaming God for difficulties has been associated with higher levels of depressive symptoms. Also, conflicting religious environment in a family can be a stumbling block for children’s development and foster division.

However, we cannot blame the teacher. First, her insufficient knowledge on educational psychology or pedagogical capacities required for being a teacher must be related to how she had been inappropriately educated or trained.

If she was a teacher with relevant educational background, as her credentials show, we should unhesitatingly question the quality of the education she had received. If she had a poor educational background, we should question the reason for her employment or the responsibility of her employer to provide proper didactic training.

Second, and it is more problematic to deal with, the teacher must have expressed her own understanding on religion in her teaching activities and it very likely reflected the way she was educated. Here, in the same pack as the hell and condemnation doctrine, we could find other teachings on the inequality of people, jihad war, or many kinds of threats to make the students abide by uncompromising religious rules.

More regrettably, the teacher’s understanding actually represents a common religious cultural system where she lives and works and therefore, as long as no complaints emerge from parents or evaluation from her superintendent, it is silently accepted at the school.

Such understanding and practice, speaking more broadly, can be found not only in other schools but also in other places where religious educational processes are intended to take place. When the children are taken to religious services, for instance, they will inevitably listen to the same improper things.

In conclusion, the internalization of the mistakenly placed religious concepts occurs repeatedly and

To the people standing up for religious indoctrination of children, however, threatening a young child with the doctrine of hell and even a condemnation is usually viewed as a moral action before the law of God. It is thought to be the way to make young children accept religious belief unquestionably and to take it on as faith.

And as we easily find, many parents are among the pro-indoctrination group that makes it difficult to complain about the indoctrination practice at schools. They send their children to religious schools because they believe that religion is the backbone of moral education.

They assume that by going to such schools children are more likely to avoid wrongdoings, such as engaging in delinquent behavior, and to gain a good attitude, such as respecting their parents or other people.

Some research actually supports the religious indoctrination argument. Benson and Donahue (2010) and Smith and Faris (2002), for example, found an association between religion and pro-social values and behavior. Bridges and Moore (2002) found that religious values promote children’s physical and emotional health and well-being.

After all, especially for the teachers, as in the above story, some training with a great pedagogical load, both theoretically and practically, combined with proper “moderate” religious materials is urgently needed. It hopefully may make them look at their religiosity and teaching practice differently.

Regarding religion, there might be absurdity. More precisely, because of the way it is perceived and embraced, with the hope that it will provide existential security, a sound mind might be forged and senselessness taken as something ordinary.

Yet, it might also be a peculiarity if we do not consider an Indonesian proverb, “Do not throw away a whole sugar tree while only a part is rotten.”

The writer is a school manager and a researcher at Paramadina Foundation Jakarta.