Sun, 07 Mar 1999

Yogyakarta experimental school teaches through doing

By Text and photos by Ahmad Solikhan

YOGYAKARTA (JP): The old traditional Javanese house with bamboo walls doesn't stand out among the other humble houses in the neighborhood. From the outside, there are no signs the house is used as school; nothing gives away its extraordinary function.

Founded by Y.B. Mangunwijaya in 1994, the school offers subjects carefully designed to develop the students' religious, intellectual and work ethos.

Indonesians who have such qualities were ones consistently praised by Mangunwijaya, a priest, social worker and intellectual, who died last month aged 69.

He was an ardent critic of the existing education system, which he considered to be more a form of indoctrination rather than a forum for training students to be independent and critical thinkers.

Affiliated with the Catholic Kanisius Foundation and the Kompas-Gramedia Group, the Experimental Elementary School is located at Mangunan village, 12 kilometers east of Yogyakarta.

The building, which has been rented from a local resident from 1994 to 2003, has four classrooms. All walls are made of bamboo and the teacher's room looks more like a roadside food stall.

A section of the house is used to accommodate poor students, who are paid to help clean the building. Initially, the division was designed to accommodate street children, but most of them dropped out of the school, and only four of the original remain there.

Currently, the school has 69 students, five teachers and a headmaster whose teaching speciality is math. Two of the teachers are graduates of the Sanata Dharma Teachers Training college, Yogyakarta, and the rest are graduates of teacher-training high schools.

Most of the students are from poor families in the area. Unless they come from a well-to-do family, they are exempted from tuition fees. Students from family's with adequate financial resources are required -- depending on the families economic situation -- to pay between Rp 1,000 and Rp 8,000 a month.

On a field trip, accompanied by their teacher who wore thongs, a group of students in white shirts and red shorts walked barefoot along the edge of a farm's canal. Carrying books and pencils, they talked to a man plowing his land about farming.

On another occasion, a biology teacher led students on a walk through villages. The students were free to ask their teacher about anything they saw -- trees, frogs, worms -- anything, as long as it was relevant to the subject. Upon their return, they discussed what they had learned from the field trip.

At the end of the day, the students had to submit a report, a requirement which is unusual for conventional Indonesian elementary school students.

The Mangunan school, originally a public school, existed in a different form before Mangunwijaya's involvement. The original school though, almost closed down because of dwindling student numbers. Mangunwijaya came to the rescue with the new idea of a nine-year elementary education, instead of the usual six years of study.

Romo Mangun -- as Mangunwijaya was affectionately called by his friends -- designed the curriculum with reference to the government one, which is compulsory for schools nationwide. However, he developed it in an innovative way and enriched it with aspects of local culture.

"We wish to help the students become more inquisitive and eager to create," says school headmaster AM Sri Mursitowati.

Last year, all 14 six graders passed the national exam -- the first the school has ever taken. All of the graduates continued their secondary education elsewhere. According to Mursitowati, the Berbah Education Ministry Office ranked the graduates the highest at the sub-district level.

Romo Mangun's basic concept is based on the philosophy that children are homo ludens (playing beings). He believed that the best way for children to learn is through playing and direct experience.

"Students in this school are encouraged to learn directly from their daily experiences," says Ninik Marheni, a teacher of the fourth graders.

Romo Mangun also believed that children should be taught the universal truths about religions, and therefore the school does not offer the usual form of religious classes. Instead, students take a subject called "communication of faiths", in which they are taught concepts such as ethics and mutual respect among believers of different religions.

To provoke student inquisitiveness, teachers give them homework in which they must find answers to specific questions, such as the reason a broom becomes shorter after daily use.

Pupils must read selected books for discussion. After they finish, independent analysis is encouraged.

"In discussions, we keep changing the seat arrangements to minimize the boredom factor," says Marheni.

Unlike other schools, teachers are strict about time usage during non-teaching hours. For example, when students have finished an assignment ahead of time, they may play with educational toys but not leave the classroom.

The toys are constructed by the teachers; others are from Germany and the Netherlands. Mathematics is taught with teaching aids to create a less intimidating learning environment. The English language, likewise, is introduced through activities such as singing and outdoor activities.

Biology is taught largely through experimentation. Student initiated reports on their work are placed on the school walls. One of the reports, belonging to fourth grader Yeny Rika Masyana, tells of her discovery that hot air has a lower pressure than that of cold air.

Another outstanding notice is a report by Sumarsih concerning her observations on cat fish.

The learning methods have turned out to be extremely effective. Students say that they enjoy learning. Mathematics and English are not dreaded as other students often find them. They do not worry that the subjects are markedly different from those in other schools.

Romo Mangun paid special attention to the qualifications of the school teachers. Every three months he would organize an upgrading course for them, while individual performances were evaluated every Friday.

He emphasized that the teacher should be conscientious and loving; one who can play the role of sibling, friend and parent for their pupils.

In their first months in the classroom, the staff are supervised by lecturers from Sanata Dharma University.

"You can imagine how unnerving it is to be watched while you are teaching," Marheni grinned. "If we made a mistake, they (the supervisors) would tell us as soon as the class was over."

Romo Mangun was serious about training teachers. To follow this course, he invited many experts to the school. Entertainer Butet Kertarejasa was one of those who trained the teachers in story telling.

These innovations and other show that the school is realizing Romo Mangun's ideal of training capable people with pioneering spirit for the 21st century.