First thing first, I have never spent the same school level in different countries — the reflections elaborated here come from my experience studying at Stanford University and spending kindergarten to high school in Jakarta, as well as stories I heard from friends.
Morality, Not Religion
For a country that prides itself on diversity — hence the ‘Unity in Diversity’ motto — Indonesia’s moral and religious education certainly doesn’t match up. Although the government confirmed six official religions, Indonesian students are generally only taught about our own religion since elementary school. I feel like I graduated high school without knowing much about other religions — aside from Catholicism and Protestantism — apart from the names of their scriptures, places of worship, and prominent figures.
The fact that religious education in Indonesia is only focused on a particular religion brought this notion: other religions are not my religion, so why should I care? An ideal moral education should take points from all six religions’ ideologies and analyze them universally. Conflicting parts should be discussed neutrally, without taking side. Education should not be focused on making students faithful, but it should only give students different perspectives so they can make their own mind and find their own faith if they choose to.
Trust and Responsibility
I still remember my first exam at Stanford — I walked in, sat wherever I wanted to, got my exam papers, and all the lecturers walked out of the room. Nobody watched the exam room, except a paragraph on the first page of the exam book that says: “I understand the Honor Code. I do not receive any prohibited help before, and when the exam is happening.”
After going through an Indonesian education that has a lot of restrictions, rules and general air of distrust around it, this is really a breath of fresh air. With trust, there’s responsibility and less things to rebel against. Obviously, this example is very extreme, but the point remains: Expect the best from students, and make sure they realize that.
This is totally missing in Indonesian education system, where we are dictated on the specific classes to take, the specific ways we should approach problems,] and, for non-science classes, the specific answers we should answer questions. I can count the number of argumentative essays I wrote before I came to the US, while the huge majority of assignments in high school are multiple choice and short answers.
In the US, students can even design their own majors. I really enjoy being able to write essays in, say, history class without being afraid that the teacher won’t like my position. One thing that stuck with me from Stanford’s orientation week is the quote “Don’t judge.” Everyone deserves to have their own belief system, opinion, and preference that other people should respect.
Contrasting introductory programming lessons at Stanford and back home is interesting. I was under the impression that people who study programming for the first time will always find it really boring and have to suck it up until the good parts come — when they can really do something. Stanford’s approach of computer science shows how practical computer science is from the get-go. Students code on top of a well-structured graphical library that makes assignments visually-interesting and learner-friendly. People who never coded three weeks beforehand are able to build a fully-functional visual game. In the end of the 10-week class, they built a simulation of Facebook where students can befriend each other.
In contrast, my junior friend back home got to make a text-and-terminal-based-game.
Internship and research are also prominent parts of top US education. Some schools even require students to have a certain length of internship experience in order to graduate. The impact and benefit of these programs, when done well, are immense. From what I’ve seen in Silicon Valley, interns are given real work and real compensation that they are able to pick up things they can’t learn in school. No, they are not fetching coffee or spend months doing presentations that don’t matter.
Humanities and Critical Thinking
This is probably the most important point. For starter, Indonesian school system has been terribly undervaluing the benefits of assigned reading. When we did have a reading, tasks will be on language, largely ignoring the topics and contents it brought forward. Books are perceived merely as a matter of language and not as a provoker of new ideas and thoughts. Somehow we are educated to read for the sake of the story itself, and not for the meaning behind it.
Humanities education is similarly undervalued. Even though we do have, say, history and sociology lessons, there is again a lack of open-ended and thought-provoking questions since the early stage of education. Discussion section format (around 15 people) should definitely be more encouraged, and the role of teacher as a facilitator and a discussant instead of the driver in the class should be promoted.
The usual format in Indonesia is to have really small (3-4 people) discussion groups, followed by presentations in front of the class. What usually happens is people will try to bring the other groups down — arguments become destructive instead of constructive. Contrast this with a one-table discussion, or even a debate, in a small-but-not-so-small-group of 15. Everybody tends to build arguments constructively, not necessarily to get better score, but to really engage and learn.
One of the things I appreciate most in the US is the opportunity to disagree and discuss various subjects openly with other people. With the many unspoken social norms and restrictions, it’s extremely hard to do so back home.
Top universities in the US have really good research programs for undergraduates. Competitions like Intel Science Talent Search, a research competition for high school seniors, also seem to be really popular. There is no such thing in Indonesia; my high school is arguably the best high school in the country, especially for science, and I didn’t have any exposure to research before I come to the US. My impression is that it’s hard for undergraduates to get research opportunities. There are definitely a lot of things that can be done in this area.
This is a rant to the university admission system, which is based almost exclusively on entrance test results. I’ve seen an International Biology Olympiad medalist got rejected from local university, then got accepted at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
It’s crazy; everything you do in three years of high school got literally thrown out of the window. It’s clear that US admission system’s holistic assessment is way fairer than Indonesia to applicants, and I wish more Indonesian universities will adapt this.
These are some of the fundamentals that I think Indonesian education system can learn from the US. Obviously a big and developing country like Indonesia has a lot of things to prioritize. For example, maintaining the decency of school buildings around the country takes precedence from giving research grants. To the government’s credit, they did try in the last decade to iterate on different curricula that incorporate some of the points above (mostly individuality and practicality), but nothing sticks yet.
We’ve been moving in the right direction though, so I’m very optimistic.
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