Fri, 08 Dec 2000

RI almost illiterate in essential knowledge

An international study on mathematics and science which found Indonesia among the lowest six countries reflects the basic flaws of the education system here, Mochtar Buchori told The Jakarta Post. The following are excerpts:

Question: How do you see the results of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study?

Answer: It reveals our basic flaws which lie in the absence of a clear design in the curriculum. Models of curriculums ... show that knowledge can be described as a circle ... the basics being mathematics and science ... Then there's the strata of empiric knowledge, which is inseparable from (among others) esthetics and ethics ...

All these are inseparable from the others. In maths, for instance, you can't cheat in (a subject teaching) the beauty of thinking. But we've let cheating happen, it's a legitimate tradition and a corruption of values.

We're still largely a poor country. Can that be an excuse for our low ranking?

No, there was a time when (we) were fairly good in mathematics and science. In the 1970s we were training Malaysian teachers for elementary and secondary levels ...

So we were on the decline even as the economy improved?

Yes, because of our elitist education system inherited from the Dutch. When this system expanded, we didn't have enough teachers. Decline in the quality of education was clear since 1975.

What about the quality of teaching?

They go together. A teacher who can teach inspiringly is one who has really mastered his material. A mature teacher is one who asks himself, "What don't I need to teach?" While our teachers are busy asking, "What do I have to teach?"

There's a big difference between the two ... Five years ago it was found that physics teachers mastered only 45 percent of their material; this ranking shows the result ...

Maths and science teachers have the reputation of being "killer teachers." What for? They regard students who don't live up to their expectations as waste. Each student must indeed have an adequate degree of understanding of maths and science but they may have a lot of potential in other fields.

Given all our ministers of education and attempts to change the curriculum, the latest in 1994, hasn't there been any improvement?

No. A minister can do only so much. Implementation depends on the bureaucracy and teachers. There are a number of models to choose from but there must be a clear curriculum, which is lacking because of an unclear philosophy of education.

This in turn is because we simply follow tradition, assuming it's right, not even knowing what it really is in terms of philosophy of education.

You mentioned teachers. We're back to the issue of lowly paid teachers.

Yes but even if their salary is increased by ten folds it would not mean anything if we don't have teachers with competence and ethics in teaching. We're abandoning old norms ...The old norm was that teachers must arrive 15 minutes before class. They must be properly dressed. The clothes of teachers who had taken part in recent demonstrations were not exactly in tatters but their attire was not enough to invoke the students' respect.

So we need a structured curriculum with competent, ethical, and well-paid teachers. The ranking reminds us that we have sunk that low.

A good curriculum needs subjects which can be strongly absorbed. The changes so far have been piecemeal. For example, the subject on environment was added without seeing how it could be incorporated into an existing subject like biology.

Schools say parents should play their part too.

The fact is most parents here have limited capabilities. They should be laying down the basics but it is the schools' obligation to correct (shortcomings). What is the implication of the results of the study?

Any nation with such a result will never catch up with the latest technological innovations. The economist Jeffrey Sachs divided nations into innovators, adaptors and the technologically excluded.

On a macro level, we would be adaptors but across the country we have so many pockets of those who are technologically excluded ...

Science and mathematics provide the basics of discipline and critical thinking; sloppy conclusions are unacceptable.

Even in expensive schools, science classes are accompanied by little laboratory work. Why is this?

We're still trapped in the tradition of verbalism which changed with the Renaissance -- teaching everything with words. Curiosity is killed. Theoretically, teachers know now that they should encourage curiosity but how strong are they in maintaining that awareness?

Feeling upset, facing a class which is too big, fatigue -- all that could (affect teachers).

But all that schools care about is the results of the final examinations. This has betrayed the purpose of education which is to develop one's knowledge and character.

Why has Singapore and Taiwan be able to reach the highest ranks in maths and science respectively?

Their governments consistently overhauled and improved their basic, secondary and tertiary educations over the years. So has Thailand (ranking 27th and 24th in maths and science respectively).

Indonesia does have potential students in those subjects ...

Sure, it's evident from the results of the annual students' science competitions. Winners are mostly from outside Jakarta; in their cases there have been outstanding teachers. There's less distraction among teachers in terms of material interest outside Jakarta

Everyone should be literate in maths and science to a certain degree. The rankings show we're close to being illiterate. (anr)