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The English-language curriculum in the national education system has been a bone of contention among parents and education experts for many years, with many lamenting its focus on grammar and structure at the expense of creating a fun learning experience for students. The Jakarta Post’s Iman Mahditama talked to the Education and Culture Ministry’s director general for secondary education, Hamid Muhammad, about the importance of instilling students with excellent English communication skills and the significance of extracurricular activities such as the Youth Speak Fun Day in helping students to master the language. Below are excerpts of their conversation.
Question: What is the significance of Youth Speak Fun Day (YSFD) for your directorate, given the bigger picture of the national education system?
Answer: The secondary education directorate general has two main programs. The first is to ensure access to education for junior high school graduates. Every year, there are 1.2 million graduates who cannot be accommodated in senior high schools. We are working to solve this. We are currently creating a layout for a national 12-year compulsory education scheme.
However, access to education alone is not enough. We also have to ensure the quality of education, which is our second program. It means nothing if we build more schools, but cannot develop students who are competent in their respective fields.
In improving educational quality, the directorate general must be able to devise a scheme that will not only enhance the students’ intellectual ability, but also improve their character, as I believe that character is the basis of their future success. We have many smart kids who cannot do anything once they are out in the real world as they lack in communication skills.
This is where extracurricular activities, such as the YSFD, can help. It can be a medium for students to do fun stuff, interact, communicate, and play with others. We have to develop these activities to prevent our kids from getting too bored with academic stuffs.
In short, we really, really support YSFD. If children in various regions in Indonesia seem to be enthusiastic over the event, it’s because they really do love it -because it gives them a space to really show their talents and skills.
Without undermining the significant role of Indonesian instruction, what are your hopes for such events as the YSFD in the campaign to learn English?
In Indonesia, English is deemed as a foreign language instead of a second language. However, as our local communities are becoming more global, coupled with our country’s booming economy, learning and mastering English has become a must. So far, the local English curriculum is too focused on grammar and sentence structure at the expense of instilling excellent English communication skills, when, in fact, the latter was what we hope from our local schools. The YSFD can serve as a place for our kids to self-actualize themselves in fun and challenging ways. I believe “fun and challenging” is the key. Some programs are just too challenging and too rigid that it can’t be fun. YSFD is different. I think that this is something good that needs to be spread to all regions in Indonesia.
How do you think such activities as the YSFD can help stop students from the brawls that have broken out as of late?
Brawls are a problem of metropolitan areas and large cities, many of which are lacking in facilities for teenagers to interact with each other in fun and positive ways. In the end, those kids are overflowing with energy, which they then release in negative, and sometimes destructive, behaviors. I sincerely hope that activities like YSFD can be held in large cities as a place for these kids to channel their energy in positive, productive, and competitive ways. I think the effect will be exceptionally tremendous. By having more activities, we can prevent teenagers from forming gangs and involving themselves in negative activities.
What is the role of partnerships with companies like The Jakarta Post Foundation and PT Chevron Indonesia for the directorate general in executing its programs?
I sincerely thank both companies. At least, we have good news in promoting our students who have tremendous skills and talents, rather than telling the bad news of student brawls all the time, which is honestly exhausting. I truly welcome every company who wants to help us with our program. It will be beneficial for all, no doubt about that.
There will always be those who see the country’s huge population and when they see what we’ve done, they’ll say that what we do won’t mean much. I don’t agree with that. At least, we’ve done something good. The thing that we do may only be on a small scale, but the ripple effect will be incredible. People will see that we’ve done something good and that the result on the kids is also good.
The Education and Culture Ministry plans to streamline the national curriculum and erase English as a compulsory subject for elementary schools starting from next year. Will that affect the English curriculum for secondary education?
I think not. The plan was not to entirely erase the English subject, but rather to make it as an optional school subject. Even now, when it is compulsory for students to learn English starting in the fourth grade, many elementary schools are not teaching the subject. There will be streamlining, but that does not mean that we will ban elementary schools that voluntarily wish to teach their students English from doing so.
Elementary schools that have the capability to teach English well will be allowed to teach the language.
We will keep providing attention to the teaching of English anywhere in this nation, but we don’t want to make the subject compulsory when most schools are incapable of carrying it out. It is better for the subject to be optional.
The most important thing is that the schools don’t have too many core subjects, but we open more possibilities by giving them optional subjects.
What plans and ideas do you have in mind for future campaigns of the use of English and prevention of student brawls?
I think the most important is to change our English curriculum to focus on improving student communication skills. In fact, the current school-based curriculum [KTSP] has attempted to use that approach, but it fails because the teachers are so used to grammar and structure. It is impossible to tell our kids to learn to communicate in English when their teachers cannot do so. I believe that teachers of English at our schools must use English, instead of Indonesian, in class. That is what we are trying to reinforce in the new curriculum. Training for teachers, therefore, is a must.
I think it’s a huge mistake if English teachers use Indonesian while in class. It’s fine in primary education levels. But in senior high schools, everyone must be brave enough to talk in English.
I also encourage schools to have one day when everyone must speak English. In this aspect, the curriculum of Gontor Islamic Boarding School [in Ponorogo, East Java] is better than ours. They implemented a dual-language teaching system, using English and Arabic. Their graduates can speak English fluently because they use it every day. No one seems to protest that, whereas when we try to enforce our international standard project (RSBI) schools to use English, everyone protested. They say that enforcement ran against the spirit of nationalism.
How can they be so narrow-minded? Mastering a foreign language does not mean your love for your country will fade away.
Haji Agus Salim, a national hero, was widely known during his lifetime for having mastered more than five foreign languages. No one has ever questioned his nationalism.