‘Naturalizing’ Indonesian formal education

The new education minister is bringing much needed change to the way we educate our children

‘Naturalizing’ Indonesian formal education AP Photo/Eko Siswondo Todyudho/Anadolou Agency

The many radical changes proposed by new Indonesian Minister of Education and Culture, Nadiem Makarim have been met with both jubilance and resistance. I for one am for the changes. “The business as usual” mindset on how education is perceived and ran in Indonesia has been in need of a shake up for years.

The changes, dubbed the Merdeka Belajar initiative, which can be freely translated into either “Freedom in Learning” (as in freedom in how to learn) or “Freedom to Learn” (as in freedom/right to receiving education), include: abolishment of the National Standardized Final Graduation Exams (USBN), changing the National Exam (UN) to a Minimum Competence Assessment and Character Survey, more flexibility for teachers in developing learning modules, and a more flexible implementation of zonation for student intake.

My belief is that the gist of the first to third changes is to make the learning process (and ultimately, culture) in the Indonesian formal education system more organic, more natural, which will be the emphasis of this article. The fourth change is a whole different dimension, which is subject to a different discussion.

The USBN and UN have had different names but similar essence through the years. When I graduated from high school in the late 90s, the UN was called EBTANAS. Another exam that we had to take if we were to continue to a state university was the UMPTN. I remember vaguely that my friends and I lived and died for these two. Every single effort to learn (or to cheat) was to get adequate grades for passing these two exams. Granted, I still got bad grades for several subjects in the EBTANAS - “learning for knowledge” was overshadowed by the pressure to achieve. 

So strong is the pressure and so distorted is the objective of learning, many have resorted to cheating. Cheating has been reported in the UN year in, year out. In the last UN (2019), there were 126 cases that were reported and verified. According to recent research, cheating in the UN is caused by lack of self-confidence, time pressure, lack of punishment, and, surprisingly, encouragement from parents, which is a portrayal of our society’s moral and ethical state. This cheating culture might be carried on in higher education, and even when turning professional. 

The same research, which probed the cheating culture of the National Exams in North Sumatera, found that from 118 first-year university students that were randomly selected, 113 cheated in the UN. That is a staggering 95.8 percent of cheaters in comparison to the 4.2 percent who were not (cheaters). Ironically, on the front page of USBN’s and UN’s official website, is written Prestasi Penting, Jujur yang Utama (achievement is important, but truthfulness is key/more important). 

From personal experience, having integrity with bad grades is less valued by society than having no integrity with good grades. The former has more social consequences than the latter, in which jobs will be more difficult to come by, and other consequences stemming from a simplistic negative perception of academic failure.

Thus, what the minister has done by abolishing the USBN and modifying the UN, is a baby step to nudge the objective of education and intention of students to its organic state, which is to learn. One of the challenges in education is to retain the love for learning, which is inherent in children. This love for learning can often be withered away through mistaken methodologies and objectives. So much so that learners can transform into cheaters.

The third point of the Merdeka Belajar initiative puts emphasis on the teachers. Teachers are no doubt one of the most important influencers of the learning process in formal education. Often looked down upon and compensated by minimum financial reward, teachers in the Indonesian formal education system have also been shackled by the sheer amount of learning material to convey and the rigidity of how to convey it.

Teachers in Indonesia are often seen only as a tool for conveying the national curriculum to the students. In reality, they are so much more than that. Recent research mentioned the importance of teachers in developing students’ emotions and other aspects of their being. Thus, by giving more freedom to teachers to express themselves, teachers can choose whatever methodologies are suitable for the wellbeing of the class to convey the curriculum. As demonstrated by research done in Papua by a group at Cowan University, changes in teaching practices can improve the quality of student-teacher relationships and interaction with colleagues, which will also foster a more organic environment for learning.

Going into his third month as minister, more scrutiny has been put on Nadiem, and every little thing that he has said and will say will be amplified, sometimes even out of proportion. However, I still have good faith in what is being done. The Merdeka Belajar initiative may indeed give freedom to Indonesian formal education to a certain extent, especially in terms of giving students and teachers more freedom in developing the learning process. 

The new regulations are much needed in rectifying some of the issues in Indonesian formal education, but are still a short-term solution. A deeper education culture transformation is needed to make learning a more organic process here. 

Safendrri Komara Ragamustari, PhD, is Chairman at the School of Government and Public Policy Indonesia and a homeschool practitioner.

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  • user

    It sounds to me like cheating, not the entrance exams, is the problem. New regulations won't help fix that problem, and removing exams will just move the problem from cheating to corruption.

    Jan 20, 2020 12:05 pm