School curriculum change and common sense

Tony Crocker, Jakarta | Opinion | Sat, July 27 2013, 12:17 PM

Negative political reaction to any government initiative, regrettably including education (The Jakarta Post, July 22), can only be expected in the run up to a general election. Given the poor communication skills apparently displayed by the education minister and the ministry spokespersons, the equally negative comment from academics and representatives of teacher associations are equally understandable.

So far, the most perceptive article on curriculum change in selected schools has been the editorial in the Post for July 19. This identified the motivation behind the rapid introduction of change as an essentially political reaction to inter-school brawling. Although it could have gone further and identified the subsequent diversion of ministry staff time from recurrent duties to making a reality of the sudden announcement of change as being the probable reason behind many of the problems with delivery of this year’s final exam (UN) for senior high school (SMA).

Interestingly, both the articles by academics and statements from teacher associations frequently appear to confuse the roles and responsibilities of the various players in this activity. Minister and ministry are often used interchangeably, although the ministry is only responsible and accountable for implementation of policy, not its formulation. In this respect, the ministry has actually performed well this year in that the senior individual civil servant held responsible for the problems with the UN promptly resigned.

Although the minister is responsible and accountable for both policy and the performance of the ministry under his or her management, there is another group of people who play a major role in policy formulation, but who are rarely identified and never held accountable.

These are the special advisers attached to many ministerial offices, including education, whose role is to assist the minister with professional and technical aspects of the minister’s work.

One possible reason why this group escapes the censure of academics, who are only too willing to blame “bureaucrats”, is that these advisers are themselves predominantly academics. In a field such as education, the use of academics alone in policy formulation runs two major risks.

First, the work cultures of university and school are very different. Higher education focuses on developing and communicating knowledge about a subject. Its stock-in-trade is ideas, innovation and personal reputation. Schools focus on the best way to help children and adolescents realize their potential to become fulfilled and productive adult members of society.

The teacher’s main role is to help children. The practicing academic, with no requirement for example, to spend sabbatical time back in the school room, may easily forget the day-to-day reality of helping children learn in a village primary school in a remote district.

Second, in higher education the students themselves are primarily responsible for their achievement. This is quite different from activities where achieving change requires demonstrable, practical results. It is unlikely that any trainer in for example, the aviation industry or the military, where training success and achievement of standards are essential, would be content to limit training to a five day course with a heavy information load.

That is, the “training” model predominantly employed in preparing for behavioral change in education is most frequently an academic model of talking about objectives rather than ensuring their achievement through extensive practice.

Most of the articles on curriculum change recently published in the Post amply illustrate this lack of practicality. As articulate as they may be on educational theories, they are invariably full of jargon, references to authors and publications unlikely to be familiar to a general reading public, and confine themselves almost exclusively to discussion of concepts, with hardly ever a mention of children.

They, thus, appear to be more a continuation of academic debate in the public sphere than a genuine contribution to ensuring equitable access to effective education for all children throughout Indonesia.

Few of these articles mention for example, the fact that virtually all the concepts and practices required by the curriculum change have actually been legislated requirements for teachers for over five years through ministerial regulations concerning teacher competencies and “standard processes” in school.

Nor do they point to the simple fact that the attitudinal development of children in school depends as much if not more on their daily experience than on any subject matter they may encounter.

That is, the dominant classroom activity, whether they are encouraged to cooperate or compete, if they are helped to question rather than just accept, and the role models they see around them both in school and in the wider community, are likely to play a greater role in developing attitude than any amount of instruction.

If the articles by academics are largely theoretical, it is difficult to say what the comments by representatives of teacher associations are, besides oppositional. They are certainly neither constructive nor practical.

Whereas it is only right for these associations to protect and promote the interests of their members, they never mention that for example, since the reorganization of the then National Ministry for Education in 2010/2011, the largest of these associations PGRI, provides the senior ministry official responsible for teacher development, that they thus have a permanent voice on how changes are introduced to teachers and have their own major activities sourced from ministry, that is public, funds.

Typical of these comments are those reported immediately after the start of the new school year (the Post, July 16), “[…] five-day training was not adequate for teachers to change their mind set from conservative to interactive and creative methods” (secretary-general of FSGI).

What these representatives – of some three million teachers – do not say is why they have not equipped their members with the necessary competencies and skills over the past five years.

If these professional associations have not apprised their members of the meaning of receiving a “professional allowance” which doubles income, they can hardly complain about the ministry’s efforts within the resources available to implement a demanding timetable within an unrealistic timescale. If they had carried out their role, then a five day familiarization with any new teaching material might possibly have been sufficient.

Significantly, none of this public debate includes comment from the group most directly affected by the curriculum change, the students themselves. However, one report does stand out, “[…] a teacher at elementary school [SD] said that after she attended the training, she began to understand that the new curriculum would encourage the students to use their reasoning in following lessons as it would increase their curiosity about the subjects” (the
Post, July 16).

Amongst all the political and academic posturing, this simple statement about beginning to learn and student motivation is a bright point which must reassure us that ultimately our children’s future is in the right hands — those of teachers who care whether the children in their charge really want to learn.

The writer is currently assisting the Ministry for Education and Culture develop a system for the appraisal and development of performance for teachers in basic education.

School, fraud and the sacrifice of Socrates

Khairil Azhar, Jakarta | Opinion | Sat, May 04 2013, 11:42 AM

Paper Edition | Page: 6

Two days after the story of the embarrassing administration of the national exams broke, a parent looking for an elementary school for his son asked me if my school was ready to implement the new curriculum.

After several seconds, I said that my school would surely follow it. We have tried to learn whatever we could about it and have been following a subject-integrated curriculum for some time. The school has been waiting to receive a complete version of the new curriculum.

The new academic year is drawing near. No comprehensive documents detailing the new curriculum have been released.

As a private school, we have had difficulties in answering those kind of questions from parents. We realize that parents have often been bewildered by corruption in our national education system. Their emotional burden regarding the future of their children very frequently leads them to unnecessary hesitation. They easily forget that school is just a part of a child’s entire education. Many of the parents make choices based on incorrect referrals.

In implementing programs, whether a new curriculum or new government policy, private schools are always in second place behind state schools.

An instance of this unfair treatment can be seen in the requirement that private schools to follow the lead of state schools, although the state schools might be poorer in quality. Here, poor quality should not be misunderstood as a dearth in operational funds. State schools receive more than enough cash from the government and they also raise funds from parents.

Private schools, especially new ones, those with a small number of students or with those with limited financial capability, are in a difficult position.

While most policies are administrative or procedural in nature, schools must implement them at an expense of funds, energy or time. This happens for the national exams, changes to the curriculum, new school accreditation processes and also for policies made by subdistrict or district state educational agencies.

In the district where I manage a school, for example, we have to spare certain amount of money every month to anticipate such policies. Recently, for example, related to a program called National Standard School Exams (USBN) for sixth graders, we had to pay, without protest, Rp 260,000 (US$26.80) per student.

What we have received in return has been poor quality exam papers prepared by local educational agencies as well as infuriating service provided by the school used by our students to take exams.

Back to the parent’s initial question in the opening of this article, as a private school, we tend to develop our own way to survive and in many cases to perform better, not only than private schools, but fully state-supported schools, too.

So, in responding to the above question, we must be able to ensure parents that we have distinct values. We often have to make them realize that changes in the national curriculum never amount to much and that the changes are more in administrative.

We actually do not want to misunderstand any alternatives proposed by the Education and Culture Ministry. But it has been often that change has been introduced to whitewash a problem and not to cope with it.

The plan to omit English from the curriculum of primary schools is a clear instance of the whitewash policy. The inability to assure fun, creative and effective learning processes at schools has camouflaged with an injudicious move: removing difficult topics from the curriculum.

By the same token, the ministry is disorganized. Questionable policies have been introduced to show that the ministry exists and does something. In fact, besides its 2.6 trillion rupiah cost, the plan to unnecessarily change the curriculum just makes things worse in the eyes of the public.

However, as citizens, we might learn something from what Socrates did thousands of years ago. Because of his dissenting opinion, he was forced to commit suicide, despite the public belief that he was right and the state was wrong. We in the end have to respect the existence of the state while at the same time hoping that all of the fraud and incompetence springs from ignorance, not heartlessness.

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

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.