Indonesian Government Is Right to Change Curriculum
There has been a lot of criticism lately of the government’s proposal to radically change the elementary school curriculum and reduce it to six subjects: maths, Indonesian, religious studies, Pancasila, sports and art. However, critics have put forward some very weak arguments and have failed to see how the proposed curriculum would help Indonesia — much more effectively than at present — establish a first-class educational system.
One good a priori reason for thinking that the government is right and the critics are wrong is that the proposed curriculum looks very much like the curriculum taught in primary schools in England and universally admired in educational circles throughout the world.
This is a system with which I am familiar, having had four children go through primary education in Canterbury and having observed practice in schools as a parent governor. The reason why the English primary education is so admired is because it does precisely what the critics of the Indonesian system wish for elementary education: to develop children’s sense of wonder and curiosity and encourage critical thinking and creativity. And it does this through not burdening them with too many set subjects but using the time available to integrate teaching according to various topics.
So in classes where children are ostensibly learning maths or English or religion or art, they are at the same time being exposed to knowledge of the world around them and of their social and physical environment, a broad understanding of selected periods in history, moral ideas, and an awareness of their own potential. All this occurs in a context where children are learning to take responsibility for their own learning through discovery and enquiry, reading, asking questions, watching video clips, making use of IT resources, libraries and educational classroom aids.
The model is sometimes referred to as child-centered learning and although it has over the years come in for some criticism — “children these days don’t know their times tables” — it has stood the test of time in terms of preparing children with the critical skills and intellectual curiosity that enables them to derive the greatest benefit from the secondary education that follows.
Note that it is not knowledge that is emphasized in such a curriculum but the skills and ability to acquire knowledge and communicate what is learnt. Consequently the emphasis is on the learning of English to a high standard, both to allow children to learn independently through reading and critical understanding and to empower them with the ability to communicate their ideas in speaking and writing and through performance in the arts. In maths, basic arithmetical rules are taught so that children can cope with everyday contingencies and transactions and as a stepping stone to the further maths they will be exposed to at secondary school.
In the last decade or so, in order to ensure that minimum standards are reached in English and maths, so-called SATS tests are taken as a check on the teaching in schools throughout the country. (The administration of SATS in primary schools is still a matter of strong controversy, since it is felt that exams at this stage are inappropriate and put children and teachers under unnecessary pressure.
In the English system there is no specific reference to science, certainly nothing called chemistry, physics and biology, and — in most schools — there is no teaching of foreign languages.
The research regarding the latter is clear. Do not start teaching a foreign language until pupils have mastered their own to a sufficient level of competence that the foreign language does not interfere with their mastery of their own language but in fact enhances it. And as for a knowledge of science and technology and a nation’s need for specialists in those fields, in the English system the acquisition of this knowledge is considered best left to secondary level, the philosophy being similar: the pushing of science and technology at too early a stage of education can lead to unnecessary cramming at a point when we are trying to awaken the individual creativity and critical awareness of children.
(As an aside here let me refer to my own education in a good private boarding school — ironically called a public school — in
England. Up to the age of 16 we did not learn physics; this was no disadvantage to one of my schoolmates who two years later won the highest scholarship in this subject for entry to Balliol College in Oxford.)
Where does this description of the English model leave us in relation to primary school education in Indonesia?
From the comments I have seen so far, although the government’s intention is to limit the curriculum to six official subjects, the intention is that pupils, as in the English system, will be exposed to a wide range of knowledge in different areas. Their reading will stimulate their curiosity and encourage them to learn and reflect, think critically and experiment creatively, while at the same time making them more sensitive to their environment and developing a sense of responsibility to their fellow citizens at a local, national and international level.
In terms of the proposals, then, I have nothing to object to in principle. On the contrary it will be far better than what is currently on offer and in the long run it will make Indonesian children more capable of independent thinking and indeed make them better scientists and linguists.
However, there is one major proviso, one that has so far escaped attention in the discussions on the proposals.
The new system will only work if the following conditions are met, again along the lines of the English model. First, teachers need to be properly trained to use the opportunities of the new curriculum imaginatively so that pupils enjoy the experience of learning.
Second, existing textbooks need to be scrapped (in England books are kept in the classroom and are the property of the schools whose teachers decide what books they think are most appropriate for classroom use). Third, the current examination system of multiple choice, which drives the whole educational system at primary and secondary levels and shackles both teachers and learners by tying them into knowledge-oriented learning instead of the development of critical skills, must be abandoned.
Actually, the discussion about the government’s proposals that should be taking place is not one about curriculum change. It should be about how that curriculum will be delivered.
C.W. Watson, emeritus professor of the School of Anthropology and Conservation at the University of Kent, is a professor at the School of Business and Management at the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB).