Get smart: Fire your teachers, read for pleasure

Setiono Sugiharto ,  Jakarta   |  Sat, 06/06/2009 12:27 PM  |  Opinion

Can literacy competence be developed without instruction? More specifically, can our ability to read and write mature styles, complex grammatical structures and good diction improve automatically without the assistance of instruction?

Traditional wisdom suggests it can’t. No pain, no gain has become a common credo in language learning. Direct instruction, after all, is believed to have a powerful effect on one’s language development.

Nonetheless, there are good reasons to suspect that literacy development can be facilitated without instruction. Language acquisition theory to date is replete with empirical evidence (well-documented in Stephen Krashen’s The Power of Reading) that reading for pleasure alone is potent enough to facilitate the growth of one’s language development.

Instruction, on the contrary, isn’t always necessary. In extreme cases are findings from research which reveal that people both young and adult are able to read and spell in the absence of formal instruction at home. In fact, these people are already good readers and spellers before attending school.

With growing evidence to support the notion that language competence can be attained without instruction, people don’t always need to resort to learning grammar, vocabulary and spelling, to read and write better.

Research has demonstrated convincingly that the effect of instruction is weak, fragile and disappears over time. Furthermore, given our brain’s limited memory, grammar and vocabulary are too intricate to learn and memorize.

Worse, too often instruction leads students to the path of pain, causing increased anxiety, insecurity and boredom. Homework, for instance, an infamous supplementary device to instruction, has been accused of depleting students’ interest in pursuing something they value most – doing “pleasure reading,” or what Krashen calls “free voluntary reading”.

It is well established that schoolchildren are burdened cognitively with obligatory assignments to read textbooks – books which often disinterest them, or which are not comprehensible or meaningful to them.

Moreover, students are often forced to memorize vocabulary lists or made to understand complex language rules. Instruction has been perceived as a source of frustration. This being the case, we need to advise students to “fire their teachers”.

We should instead exhort our students and children to read for pleasure, to read any kinds of books on topics that interest them, without any obligation to finish them if they choose not to do so.

When they find themselves absorbed and “lost” in books, forgetting their dinner time, play time and bed time, we can be sure they love what they are reading. In such cases, there is no reason to “bribe” and offer them rewards to arouse their reading habits.

Giving children freedom to self-select what they want to read not only offers tremendous pleasure to them, but more importantly stimulates their cognitive development, which eventually accelerates their acquisition of vocabulary, grammar, and written styles, effectively.

A recent reading campaign posted on advertorial boards on many streets around Jakarta, with the slogan Yuk, membaca !(let’s read) is a good step toward boosting pleasure reading awareness, particularly among the younger generations.

Far more important is the establishment of perpustakaan keliling (mobile libraries) and Taman Bacaan Rakyat (community libraries), which have won praise for providing informal education and free access to books to the community.

Needless to say, easy access to libraries is strongly correlated to reading achievement. Those who frequently visit libraries, just to read for pleasure, are more likely to develop literacy skills than those who don’t.

Probably the most important way to stimulate pleasure reading for literacy improvement is through the establishment of print-rich environments in remote areas, where the adult illiteracy rates are still high.

The writer is the chief editor of the Indonesian Journal of English Language Teaching. He also teaches English composition at Atma Jaya Catholic University, Jakarta.

Fraud in teacher certification program: Who’s to blame?

Setiono Sugiharto ,  Jakarta   |  Sat, 05/16/2009 2:05 PM  |  Opinion

The teacher certification program, which has been in place for the past three years, is reportedly fraught with shameful fraud. Findings from the Independent Monitoring and Evaluation (Monev) teams concerning the teacher certification program (from the 2006-2008 quotas) have revealed the widespread use of forged certificates in teachers’ portfolios (Kompas April 9).

Among the three components being assessed in the portfolios, the last component, i.e. involvement in scientific forums, organizational experiences in education and social fields, and rewards relevant to education, has been alleged to have contained many counterfeit documents. Specifically, Monev suspect that the certificates of seminar attendances, training participation, and workshops often contain fictitious names, dates, and signatures.

However, as one of selected assessors involved in the teacher portfolio assessments during the 2006-2008 periods, I found the other two components – academic qualification, teaching experiences and lesson planning, and education and training, superordinate evaluations, academic achievement and professional development – were also by no means free from bogus documents, which other assessors also found.

This certainly sets a bad precedent for future candidates who are eagerly waiting to be certified. Unless stern measures are taken, it is highly likely that this year’s certification program will be laden with similar fraud – disgraceful acts that can tarnish the image of the profession.

The rampant use of forged certificates indicates that most of our teachers either have no opportunity to attend scientific forums or remain indifferent to upgrading their knowledge in a forum of discussion. As a consequence, they have no valid documents to submit to fulfill the requirements for their portfolio.

However, as far as my experience is concerned, not all documents are fictitious; many teachers did include genuine documents in their portfolio, showing their active participation only as the attendants of a seminar. Few however became paper presenters both nationally and internationally. This suggests that despite the fact that research activity, apart from teaching, is integral to their teaching career, they lacked awareness of the importance of doing research and presenting its findings in a forum of discussion.

It is indeed ironic that a teacher who is supposed to be a role model for their students sets a bad example by committing a fraudulent act in their attempt to achieve professional recognition. In a patriarchal society like ours, teachers are seen as trustworthy and are therefore often emulated. A teacher is portrayed as someone who commits to valuing truth and honesty despite whatever conditions he or she is facing.

It would be unwise, however, to put the blame on the teachers alone. At this juncture, it seems reasonable to surmise here that they justify the means to achieve the ends simply because they wanted to express their long-endured frustration. The teaching profession has long been marginalized. Teachers are low-paid; they receive little appreciation; and their efforts toward professional development are hardly supported.

Yet, despite these controversies, the teaching program should be seen as a government’s noble mission to boost teaching professionalism nationwide. It could be a conduit in which teachers can healthily compete with each other by showing how they have contributed to their profession.

Teachers need also to remember that the prestige of one’s professionalism cannot be measured simply by a piece of paper, even if it is a certificate and most importantly, that the pursuit of professionalism is a never-ending affair, requiring a long-life commitment to the profession one has decided to devote oneself to.

The writer is chief-editor of the Indonesian Journal of English Language Teaching and teaches English composition at Atma Jaya Catholic University, Jakarta

Bettering how teachers teach

Teuku Zulfikar Akarim ,  Melbourne   |  Sat, 01/10/2009 10:19 AM  |  Opinion

Adequate facilities including textbooks, laboratories, libraries and other learning equipment are important in efforts to produce intelligent students, but the most important factor here is the presence of qualified teachers.

To be able to teach effectively, teachers are expected to be both knowledgeable in content and skillful in their teaching methodology or pedagogical knowledge.

Skillful teachers are indeed important, as a failure to apply appropriate teaching methods renders the instructional process ineffective.

Having understood the importance of pedagogy, teachers should be empowered through effective teaching techniques.

Scholars in the field of teacher education, including Thomas L. Good of Arizona University and Jere E. Brophy of Michigan State University, have developed a number of techniques that can be used to empower teachers.

Two teaching methods that are considered effective in improving teachers’ knowledge of pedagogy are appreciation and power sharing.

Appreciation refers to teachers’ ability to appreciate student work, while power sharing means teachers’ willingness to reduce their domination of the classroom.

Appreciation has various manifestations depending on the education level, with different levels of education requiring different approaches. For example, elementary school teachers may prefer to use simple rewards such as issuing certificates or prizes for students who excel.

University professors may express their appreciation in different ways, for example by providing personal supervision in particular subject areas.

While appreciation may seem like a small reward for students’ success, it can boost their self-confidence and self-esteem which can in turn improve their academic performance.

Teachers are also expected to be able to create a healthy and supportive environment necessary for student learning. Power sharing means teachers do not dominate the classroom.

Teachers must not infuse their students with ideas before recognizing and acknowledging their students’ own perceptions. Teachers will never be able to fathom their students’ understanding if they do not provide them with time and space to express themselves.

In power sharing, the idea of “the truth” is not centered in teachers, but is shared among students. Power sharing enables students to have “their say” — to be heard and understood — which in turn helps teachers understand students better. The ability to understand students’ personal feelings and capacities helps teachers develop more effective teaching approaches.

The third technique worth considering is the process of self-development. This technique can be practiced through reflective teaching.

The notion of self-development has gained popularity in teacher education for its effectiveness in boosting teachers’ abilities. Several methods of reflection are available including self-video recording, peer conferences or journal keeping. Teachers using video, for example, can record themselves teaching, allowing for later observation and critique.

The cheapest method of observation, however, is through inviting other teachers to observe a colleague while teaching a class. Colleagues can provide feedback for the betterment of teaching approaches.

Teachers may also choose to reflect by keeping what is known as a reflective journal. This type of journal can help teachers to focus and determine their teaching goals. The other benefit of the reflective journal is that it permits teachers to review and evaluate their teaching experiences and revise and improve on them for the future.

The question is how can we familiarize Indonesian teachers with self criticism. At least for the time being, most teachers are probably reluctant to criticize themselves, but need to be encouraged to undertake this difficult task.

The writer is Ph.D. candidate at Monash University’s Faculty of Education.