No artificial curriculum overhaul, please!

Yanto Musthofa, Jakarta | Opinion | Sat, July 05 2014, 11:39 AM

Many well-informed practitioners of education nowadays are pegging Finland as a dream education model. The Finnish Lessons — a trending topic adapted from the title of a new book by Pasi Sahlberg — is getting more and more popular everyday — not because of the country’s top ranking in the PISA’s (Program for International Student Assessment) hall of fame, but for a more substantial and essential reason: the emphasis it places on humanism.

Yes, the Finnish model of schooling offers a humanistic approach to educating children. Students spend less time in the classroom than their counterparts in other developed countries like the United States, Canada, Italy or Great Britain. They have less daily homework, fewer class-subjects and a reduced atmosphere of competition.

Students do not compete against each other for admittance to high-quality schools because authorities impose standards of excellence that ensure that nearly every school is high-performing. That is why students don’t have to take mandatory national standardized testing, except for one at the age of 16. Those matriculation assessments, which are carried out twice a year, are nowhere near our national mandatory exams, which virtually place the students’ whole academic career in a race to acquire their stratified future life tickets: graduation certificates. Growing up in a comprehensive education system rather than a selective one, Finnish students learn more and are certainly happier learners.

As far as the current presidential race is concerned, there has been no indication that either candidate is interested in discussing such a Finnish dream. Indeed, there are plenty of good reasons to avoid merely copying and-pasting a foreign model of schooling. While the Finland story has shown a journey from “worst to first”, Sahlberg himself would not advise any other country to transplant Finland’s policies verbatim. All education debate and reform, he writes, should be catered to cultural contexts at the local level.

However, Education and Culture Minister Mohammad Nuh once claimed that the controversial 2013 Curriculum had been developed from the Finnish process-based curriculum model. There are too many differences between the two to support such a claim. One crucial difference is that the Finnish model of schooling has long diverged from the American-style emphasis on standardized testing, while our 2013 Curriculum still pursues that model vigilantly.

As is the case with political campaigns elsewhere around the world, it would be wishful thinking to expect the articulation of a comprehensive, well-elaborated and executable solution for critical-strategic issues like national education. Indeed, it would be worrisome to hear promises that claim to be a magical panacea to heal the nation’s ailing system of education. The truth is that Indonesia needs no brand new curriculum introduction; especially no routine, artificial ones that are merely overhauls by new administrations. No way.

In 1996, long before the controversial 2013 Curriculum surfaced, Wismiarti Tamin, a well-known Jakartan dentist-turned-educator, brought home with her an American model for early childhood learning. The curriculum was called Beyond Centers and Circle Time (BCCT).

Created and developed by Pamela Phelps in her Florida-based Creative Center for Childhood Research and Training (CCCRT), the curriculum was finally adopted by the education ministry in 2002, six years after being comprehensively tested and analyzed at Wismiarti’s Al-Falah School in Jakarta.

In the hands of the ministerial bureaucracy, the BCCT was treated as nothing more than a practical guide for teaching young children. At the outset, a couple hundred persons were trained to bring this teaching guide to locations all over the country. The BCCT did in fact become popular under various local names like Pendekatan Sentra, Model Sentra and Lingkaran or Metode Sentra. But, deprived of its philosophical paradigm, the BCCT has become just another alternative model to prevailing models of early childhood education.

Meanwhile, The Al-Falah School’s experiment proceeded under constant supervision by Phelps and her CCCRT team. The consistency of the BCCT experiment to its philosophical paradigm enabled the Al-Falah School to develop a continuous schooling model, from the level of preschool all the way to senior high school.

The BCCT paradigm has turned out to offer a comprehensive model of schooling that guarantees positive outcomes in both cognitive-academic achievement and in character building. Further, there’s no need to worry about the existing national standards, because the model constitutes an alternative means of delivering the national curriculum.

The experiment has seen three models of national curriculum; the 2004 competency based curriculum (KBK), the 2006 school-level autonomy curriculum and the 2013 integrated-thematic curriculum. Every year, Al-Falah School graduates 100 percent of its primary-to-senior high school students. The students, including those with varying degrees of special needs, pass the final mandatory national exams with high levels of performance.

But perhaps the most important result is that students build in themselves discipline and mental qualities that preempt cheating, or fraudulently acquiring academic achievements. They have also acquired integrated life skills and become lifelong learners, creative thinkers and motivated, capable individuals.

The negative aspects of the experiment by the Al-Falah School are that it is affordable only for well-to-do families and has a slow pace of dissemination.

Hundreds of schools across the country have sent their teachers to participate in the intensive training held independently by Al-Falah. However, the two week training, which requires the participants to perform observations, engage in intensive discussions and simulations, as well as to perform micro-teaching sessions, can accommodate no more than 20 participants at once.

The Al-Falah model has been successfully “cloned” by the writer Yudhistira Massardi and his wife, Siska Y Massardi, who established a free-of-charge school for students from poor families in Bekasi in 2006. This year, the Massardis graduated their first batch of primary school students, all of whom (100 percent) graduated.

Named Batutis (baca-tulis-gratis), under the supervision by Wismiarti, the school has also become a laboratory for teachers who come from afar to take the intensive training program or to observe classrooms. Still, the number of participants that can be accommodated is limited.

These two experiments, which contrast diametrically in terms of socioeconomic strata, suggest one crucial conclusion: a substantial reform in education does not necessarily require a brand new curriculum. Instead, a shift toward a newer, truer paradigm of education is urgently needed.

Ask any student at Al-Falah or Batutis whether they are as happy with their education as their counterparts in Finland, and you will realize that we already have our own Finnish Lessons.

The writer sits on the central governing council of the Association of Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals (ICMI). He is also editor-in-chief of the Media Panduan Sentra publication.


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