What do our students need to learn?

Anita Lie, Surabaya | Opinion | Sat, September 22 2012, 11:30 AM

Paper Edition | Page: 6

As the Education and Culture Ministry is about to evaluate the school curriculum, schools need to be prepared for the reallocation of resources, a reduced number of subjects and longer school hours.

The results of the curriculum evaluation should input into the revision and development of the next curriculum and be used in elementary to senior high school levels. To assess what to retain and what to let go in the upcoming curriculum, it is important that we remember the three imperatives of schooling: personal, economic and social.

At the personal level, schools facilitate students to discover themselves, grow and enhance their interests and talents. Throughout their years of schooling, children learn to shape themselves to become better human beings, appreciate life, and glorify their Creator.

At the curricular level, certain subjects help students achieve this particular purpose of schooling. Religion, literature and the arts provide knowledge and values to lead young people to be whatever they are capable of becoming. Physical education helps them form healthy habits. In addition to these subjects, the hidden curriculum, including any human interaction happening in schools, also helps students enhance their personal growth.

Schools have also prepared students to contribute productively to the economy by providing vocation-related and skills-based subjects. A 21st century curriculum requires that students be equipped with information technology skills and media literacy. In this era of global competitiveness, the economic purpose of schooling has overridden the personal and social purposes of schooling.

It is easy to get rid of the seemingly less practical subjects such as literature, arts, history and philosophy to make room for the math, science, technology and vocation-related subjects. Focusing heavily on the economic imperative and neglecting the personal and social purposes of schooling will lead to the formation of individuals with capabilities to use their minds and skills but who lack an understanding of the purpose of their work.

The social purpose of schooling is to establish each student’s connection to humanity. A global economy, too, requires more knowledge of world cultures and world history. The study of humanities will enhance students’ lives and enable them to contribute productively to the economy while maintaining their sense of purpose as part of the human race.

A terrorist’s action is an extreme demonstration of a human capacity to utilize knowledge and skills to destroy life, when the learning process is disconnected from personal and social purposes. Terrorists who aim to destroy individuals and groups whom they label as infidels fail to understand the history of their nation-state building and to feel connections to the people they hate.

Less dramatic than these terrorists, but just as abominable, are individuals and corporations that accumulate wealth at the cost of ecological destruction and the impoverishment of local communities. They too are the product of a system and culture that celebrates economic success and competitiveness per se.

So, what do our students need to learn? Concerns that there are currently too many school subjects have been raised by educators as well as by stakeholders. The number of subjects does not automatically correlate with how much students learn in school.

By the same token, reducing the number of subjects in our next curriculum should not be equated with reducing essential knowledge content and values our students should be acquiring in schools.

To prepare our young people so they engage in personal growth and become contributing citizens of their country and the world, our national curriculum should cover general education that provides liberal arts and humanities, math and science, as well as 21st century skills such as information technology skills and media literacy.

Reducing the number of school subjects should mean simplifying the organization of units of studies into fewer subjects and making the scope and sequences of knowledge content more efficient, not watering down what our students ought to learn.

Furthermore, an effective curriculum takes into account the delivery or implementation levels, that is classroom instructions. A well-written curricular document will not result in its intended outcomes if teachers are not properly developed to deliver them at the classroom level. A competent teacher should be able to deliver the appropriate breadth and depth of a curriculum and translate it into engaging classroom activities.

The writer is a professor at Widya Mandala Catholic University, Surabaya, and a member of the Indonesian Community for Democracy.

Between curiosity and mandatory schooling

Jennie Siat Bev, San Fransisco | Opinion | Sat, September 08 2012, 1:45 PM

Paper Edition | Page: 7

Our parents taught us early on that we needed to go to school so we could get a good job and live a decent life. In other words, education is the ticket which enables us to climb the social and economic ladder, despite our current class.

Yet the “mainstream” school system worldwide favors conformity, intellectual intelligence and competitiveness — the things that are required in typical, profit-making workplaces.

As Astra Taylor in Unschooling wrote, at school she experienced greed, envy, fear and conformity, all of which overpowered the desirable attributes of childhood: compassion, curiosity, imagination and playfulness.

In Indonesia and the United States, schools have been fashion runways for rich kids, while those who have less must accept that their parents cannot afford to provide them with everything they may want — usually the things they see other kids have.

We call friendships fostered at school, and experiences with bullies: “learning to interact socially.” It may be true that a school is a “miniature society”, yet it is not realistic.

The natural state of learning that occurs when an individual uses his or her own independent thoughts and internal focus of control rarely occurs at school.

Most activities are led by teachers, teacher’s aides, coaches and other students.

Every type of higher education, for instance, is designed to create a specific breed of graduates. Trade schools create low-class rank-and-file workers, research universities with strong scientific programs create upper-class professionals and educators, and liberal arts schools create free and independent thinkers with fancy degrees — hence “classless”.

The subjects studied in any of those schools may not even be connected to each other.

These schools are logical choices for those who graduated from “mainstream” schooling, even though the liberal arts path is likely to be “less prestigious” in a modern and materialistic society like the United States, where engineers in Silicon Valley are earning a good living while those who graduated with “liberal arts” degrees, such as those in philosophy or the fine arts, will likely have a hard time getting by.

We often forget that even homeschooled children aren’t completely free to explore their minds and hearts, as oftentimes homeschool programs are nothing more than structured classes completed in the convenience, safety and seclusion of the home.

While conventional schooling is apparently the most preferred type of schooling, we should keep in mind that learning occurs throughout our lifetime, from the day we are born.

While it feels prestigious to get into top schools and universities, we are actually conforming to the edifices of other’s past experiences.

Of course, it is relatively more efficient to understand things and discover truths using proven methods, but to a certain extent, it reduces our independent intuitive thinking.

The challenge is, of course, finding a mentor who can help with independent thinking even when our schooling forbids us from exploring this deliberately. Or, we can rely on ourselves to find the beauty in our own thinking skills.

Edward DeBono in his book How to Have a Beautiful Mind states that higher education teaches us how to debate and demonstrate superiority through disagreement. Though it might be a useful method to find a consensus among scholars, it is quite irritating in everyday life. Habitual debating isn’t only a turnoff, it also provides for a useless ego-based battle to occur.

According to DeBono, a “beautiful mind” lies in between agreements and disagreements. He said, “You do not have to agree with everything. You should not disagree with everything.”

What we need to foster independent thinkers is a liberal education. This is an approach that empowers learners by preparing them to face the complex world with a specific purpose or cause, through creating an ambience where social responsibility, compassion and problem-solving skills can flourish.

In the end, every individual must make peace with him or herself and realise that the world doesn’t revolve around us, but we revolve around the world.

And what we have learned today might not be useful tomorrow. Only through a continuous state of learning, unlearning and relearning, can we prepare to face a tumultuous world.

Curiosity, thus, is probably the best tool we have. Mandatory conventional schooling may be a better alternative than no schooling, but the so-called “unschooling” schooling is an important alternative for those who believe in independent thinking and living a fruitful life, unbounded by conventional notions and other people’s past experiences.

The writer is an author and columnist based in northern California.