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

Teacher, not curriculum, matters

A. Chaedar Alwasilah, Bandung | Opinion | Sat, January 05 2013, 8:04 AM

Paper Edition | Page: 6

The imminent introduction of a new curriculum in 2013 will not provide any guarantees for resolving the current problems in education in the nation. A new curriculum is always a good notion. However, drawbacks invariably stem from implementation. Thus, what is urgent is not to change the curriculum, but to implement it.

Curriculum implementation means simply putting into effect the curriculum as intended, including a system to appraise its effectiveness. An appraisal process provides feedback for the development process, where the data is utilized for curriculum improvement. The educational curriculum needs continuous improvement, not continuous change.

Curriculum improvement is not necessarily sequential; oftentimes it occurs in parallel as well as in tandem. It is usually begun in a certain area of the curriculum on a trial-and-error basis as an alternative to present practices. Evaluative data is useful for seeing the curriculum in action and is valuable for improving it.

The 2013 curriculum, as Education and Culture Minister Mohammad Nuh has said, is an improvement over the 2004 and 2006 curriculums, which have been said to be competence-based and school-based respectively. Meanwhile, teachers are still learning how to put into action the 2006 curriculum.

Regrettably, most teachers and the public in general are not informed about what essentially went wrong with the 2006 curriculum. The government should have publicized the evaluative data to identify which aspects of the curriculum were problematic. Such data would have made the curriculum change more sensible.

Organizations such as teacher professional development networks (MGMP) should produce best practices that enrich not only the immediate community, but the profession as a whole. MGMP-based programs seem to be more context-specific, teacher-generated, and immediate-needs-driven.

It is a disservice to the MGMP community when we fail to probe the effectiveness of MGMP-established programs and overlook their results. Such a mechanism utilizes the continuous professional development (CPD) of teachers.

Curriculum improvement, rather than curriculum change, is focused on certain problematic aspects. Thus, curriculum improvement is more economic and problem-based. To repeat, what is essential for teachers is CPD, namely a career-long process in which teachers fine-tune their teaching to meet student needs. The major benefactor of CPD is the student. CPD directly tackles teachers’ teaching styles — the patterns of decisions to optimize student learning.

Considering the huge number of teachers, the obstacle of CPD is the inaccessibility of professional development opportunities. Professional development opportunities seldom reach teachers in need. Only around 1 million out of 2.9 million teachers have currently been certified.

However, a recent study by the World Bank on the impact of teacher certifications revealed that certification has improved teacher living standards but failed to upgrade teaching performance. They have failed to motivate students to learn. Obviously it is the teacher that matters most, not the curriculum.

Any of the following could explain why the current government-initiated PLPGs (mandatory teacher professional development programs) have failed to upgrade teacher professionalism.

First, not all teachers are talented and devoted individuals who have a commitment to teaching. The recruitment undertaken by teacher training institutions fails to differentiate teaching-talented prospective teachers from non-talented ones.

Second, teachers differ from one another in terms of their theoretical and professional knowledge and the stages they are at in their careers. At present there are 10 state teacher training universities and dozens of public and private FKIPs (teacher training colleges). All these teacher training institutions vary in terms of resources, and this could explain the disparity in quality of their graduates.

Third, the professional program is not necessarily tailored to teacher needs and motivations, so they do not develop ownership of it. Some teachers do not have good mastery of content knowledge, general pedagogical knowledge or contextual knowledge. Thus the content should be tailored accordingly.

Fourth, some teachers regard professional development simply as an administrative duty, rather than as a career-long endeavor. Once the program is completed, teachers go back to their old way of teaching. True CPD is aimed at determining the factors that contribute to the success of all students and teachers.

Fifth, the professional development program is detached from the entire school culture and climate. The CPD program will have an effect on student learning if it involves knowledge about teaching and learning in the school involved. The success of a CPD program is not measured by the completion of individual factors in the programs.

The effect of CPD program is pervasive through an examination of how factors and stakeholders interact with one another. Professional development should be embedded in their daily schedule. In short, CPD should be schools-based.

To be effective, the professional development should be developed by fulfilling the criteria suggested by Díaz-Maggioli in his book Teacher-centered Professional Development (2004) as follows: (1)collaborative decision-making, (2) a growth-driven approach, (3) collective construction of programs, (4) inquiry-based ideas, (5) tailor-made techniques, (6) varied and timely delivery methods, (7) adequate support systems, (8) context-specific programs, (9) proactive assessment, and (10) adult-centered instruction.

The enactment of a new curriculum has always been greeted with doubt and cynicism. It is the teachers who will be held liable when it fails to function as expected. It is time to change the paradigm from government-initiated and top-down curriculum change to the teacher-centered and school-based continuous professional development as a part of curriculum improvement, rather than curriculum change.

The writer is a professor at the Indonesian Educational University (UPI) in Bandung.

What actually matters, new curriculum or what?

Khairil Azhar, Jakarta | Opinion | Sat, December 08 2012, 12:03 PM

Paper Edition | Page: 7

“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.