A RICE WAY TO LEARN ABOUT LIFE © Duncan Graham
It looked like a scene from the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
The pampered white-skinned elite toiling barefoot in the broiling sun and black mud of East Java’s rice paddies, swinging hoes. The conical coolie hats were no disguise; it was clear these air-con mall rabbits were right out of their natural environment.
But dig they did – and slash and thresh and plant. Some even tried to wrestle the cumbersome wooden plough dragged behind two frisky buffaloes to the great amusement of their brawny master who handled the primitive tool with dexterity.
“There’s a social awareness component in this exercise,” said science teacher Stien Matakupan from Ciputra, a private school in Surabaya. Lessons are taught in English and the school prepares students for the international Baccalaureate.
“These children come from rich families with maids and gardeners. They’ve probably never been with rice farmers before. This is a good way to broaden minds and develop high-order thinking skills.”
To their great credit the kids really did get dirt under their fingernails. And up their arms and legs and even in their hair. (Tip: Don’t scratch your head when planting rice.) They also cut their hands when wielding sickles, but made little fuss.
Here seemed to be an example of why the Chinese tend to succeed wherever they go – by adapting to the situation.
The feared snakes never slithered out of the stubble and no-one got washed down an irrigation channel so the exercise looked a success.
Stien is an extraordinary teacher whose path as an environmental educator was set by her parents. Most weekends the family, led by her academic father who’d studied in Europe, would get out of Jakarta and into the countryside for picnics. These experiences had a profound effect on their daughter.
In the late 1990s she met Suryo Prawiroatmodjo (see The Jakarta Post 19 April 2005) the founder of the Environmental Education Centre at Seloliman in East Java.
“He was an inspiration and I was determined to promote understanding and care of the land,” she said. “However I found few teachers interested.”
Since then she’s been to Australia, Sweden and Vietnam on scholarships and to boost her knowledge of teaching. She’s a member of Caretakers of the Environment International, a network of educators who share their experiences and teaching techniques across the world.
Ciputra’s high school coordinating principal Andrew Vivian said Stien was “very good at picking up overseas ideas and making them work in Indonesia.”
“She’s pioneered programs and applies a rigorous assessment to practical work,” he said. “She’s a great role model for her colleagues.”
Stien wants students to get out of the classroom and into the field – in this case Purwodadi, a rural village one hour’s drive south of Surabaya.
Ironically the enthusiasm she found among Australian teachers who run hands-on educational excursions has been dampened by the recent imposition of heavy safety and duty-of-care requirements.
Occasional accidents have led to court action and the payment of big damages. Now classes must be accompanied by teachers trained in first aid and life saving, while special insurance cover has escalated costs.
Such litigation has yet to become common in Indonesia so more flexibility is allowed.
This must have been a difficult event to coordinate.
I got permission late last year, so it’s taken six months. Of course some parents were anxious. We had to postpone the class for a few weeks because of heavy rain and fear of floods. The 36 students are all volunteers. They’re living under canvas.
What are you hoping to achieve?
The Indonesian national curriculum includes environmental education but doesn’t say how this can be taught, other than through reading texts. This is a pilot project so I hope other schools will see what we’re doing and follow suit.
We have teachers from the humanities, languages and maths here so we’ll all be applying this weekend’s experiences in other disciplines. For example costs and yields in primary production could be an economics exercise.
How did you find farmers willing to let students trample over their fields, inevitably causing damage? I saw retaining banks broken.
We cooperated with Pring Woeloeng, a conservation foundation which has a share farming arrangement with local farmers. (The coordinator, Siegfried Tedja said he was keen to offer similar services to other schools.)
Why didn’t you just let the students observe? Why is it necessary to get them to work?
People learn by doing. Competence can’t just be gained in the classroom. Teaching values is also important, to learn respect for different classes in society, to be able to mix in the community.
When we’re born we can’t chose our class. These children have been blessed by fortune – but who knows what will happen in the future?
What’s been the feedback?
More students have signed up for a future weekend in the paddy. They want the fieldwork to be longer.
As an outsider it concerns me that schools like yours are offering rich and varied educational experiences, while poor schools and many government schools don’t have these opportunities – or don’t make them.
I agree there’s a huge gap in our society and we must all do our best to close it. Later many of these students will become big businessmen. I hope that through this experience they’ll understand and appreciate the way other sections of our nation live and work.
(First published in The Jakarta Post, Monday 29 May 2006)