Teaching science, the best

Third-graders from the Cempaka Putih 3 state elementary school, East Jakarta, in a math class given by teacher Tuti Suharti. (JP/Ricky Yudhistira)
Third-graders from the Cempaka Putih 3 state elementary school, East Jakarta, in a math class given by teacher Tuti Suharti. (JP/Ricky Yudhistira)

It will take time to phase out the method of memorizing from the country’s educational system.

Indonesia is due to test run a new national curriculum in June, which at its core aims to do away with traditional rote learning that has been practiced in the country since its independence.

The concept of the new Curriculum 2013 follows the modern path of education in other countries, which encourages greater conceptual thinking in learning, leaving behind the dense subject material that students should memorize.

Natural and social sciences will be phased out in elementary schools and first-graders this year will only learn about both subjects through math, Indonesian language and citizenship classes.

While both subjects will still be taught at junior high schools, high school students will no longer be strictly limited to three majors — social, science and language — but will be able to opt for other subjects outside their major as additional subjects.

There is, however, much skepticism that the government can get anywhere near its targets since, despite its modernizing spirit, the plan is paralleled with an equally strong effort to instill religion and morals into students.

Indonesia’s conceptual thinking approach — referred to locally as the “thematic and integrated” approach — appears, based on glimpses of new curriculum documents, to argue that the concept of God and religions is instilled in direct ways, leaving many critics wondering how teachers will determine the right way to teach the subjects.

According to the curriculum guidelines for Indonesian language studies in elementary schools, for example, teachers are required to make children comprehend that the Indonesian language is “a blessing from God and the language of unity”.

Parents and first-graders at Pekayon 18 state elementary school in East Jakarta on the first day of school 2011. (JP/P. J. Leo)

In another sample of teachers’ guidelines, “Eyes are an instrument of the senses”, for eighth-graders, one of the indicators of learning success is that students “admire eyes as a sense instrument given by God”.

Confusion and pointed criticism have emanated in equal measure from both teachers and educational observers, who say that the effort involved will not provide a greater understanding about science among students.

Science lecturer and head of the Surya Institute, Yohannes Surya, said that the removal of science and social studies would have a devastating impact on the development of such knowledge in the country.

“The integration of science and social studies with other subjects, Indonesian language for example, will almost certainly decrease by 70 percent the material of those two subjects,” he said, adding that he had tried to implement such methods with students under his guidance.

“It will be a major setback for us because it will encourage kids to shun science,” said Yohannes.

He added that children would also end up with knowledge gaps in science as soon as they reached junior high.

To avoid such gaps, he said, it would be better not to completely phase out the two subjects, but to allow students to begin studying them in the fourth grade.

“The problem is never about a subject’s material but the competence of teachers who deliver it.”

Despite accepting the changes in the new curriculum, educational observer Itje Chodidjah said the government would have problems in assessing science students’ comprehension.

“What worries me the most is the assessment method. If, for example, science and social studies are merged into Indonesian language classes, then how will we assess them? Will it be assessing the language element, the science or the social studies?

“The failures to produce sufficient teaching guidelines and prepare teachers thoroughly will lead to misleading information being passed on to students,” said Itje.

Indonesia has been a lowly performer in various international studies on students’ abilities. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2009 placed Indonesia in the bottom 10 out of 65 countries in terms of student skills in reading, math and science.

Another PISA study last year showed that Indonesia had almost the same amount of school hours for students aged 7 to 14 as South Korea and Sweden — about 6,000 hours a year — but the latter two countries performed far better.

Parents are equally worried but many have only modest expectations. Two mothers of second-graders this year, Nitra and Angki, remain confused and worried.

“My son’s teacher and I have talked informally about the new curriculum, but we both think that the curriculum won’t be applied soon, especially as my child goes to a private school,” said Nitra, who believed that the new curriculum would be implemented first in state schools.

In fact, no distinction is made between public and private schools regarding the curriculum’s implementation.

“I don’t really understand the idea behind our curriculum. Each time we have a different education ministry, we soon get another new curriculum. I really hope this new one won’t be a problem for my child,” said Angki.

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