FORGETTING CHALK AND TALK © Duncan Graham 2007
Basitia Putri was adamant; she didn't like the letter U.
But what did the 14-year-old public high school student mean? Was this a new form of teenspeak, shorthand for 'you' and implying an identity crisis? However her same-age colleague Amirul had no such hang ups. "U is good," he said in the clipped, dismissive way that Generation Now uses for Generation Past.
It took time to decode: U is the shape of the new classroom configuration used at the students' Jombang school (SMPN 3), replacing the straight rows of desks facing a teacher.
"I prefer the old system," said Basitia. "Now we're always discussing things. I feel uncomfortable having to look at my friends. I feel embarrassed having to confront the teacher."
"I like the exchange of ideas, " responded Amirul who wants to be a biologist. "There's no way you can hide. I think this is a much better approach to learning. It helps us think."
Jombang is one of three towns in East Java (the others are Jember and Gresik) that have been involved in an Australian-funded program to lift education standards and help teachers cope with the new curriculum.
As with education policies anywhere in the world, a snappy new term had to be devised. In this case it's PAKEM. A dictionary search will be fruitless – the word is another of those linguistic soups that must consume hours of bureaucratic imagination.
The acronym refers to Pembelajaran Aktif, Kreatif, Efektif dan Menyenangkan meaning active, creative, effective and enjoyable ways of learning. The program includes staff interacting with students, doing hands-on exercises outside the classroom, using their imagination to stimulate creativity and generally taking a more flexible approach to teaching.
Hardly an eyebrow elevator in the West, but revolutionary in Indonesia's basic education system.
The Australian and Indonesian advisors on the three year project that's now coming to an end were too culturally savvy (or too fearful of higher authorities) to offer any public criticism of past education practices.
They didn't need to. If it's deemed necessary by the Indonesian government to introduce 'effective' education programs now, what's been going on in the 62 years of schooling since Independence?
Sarimah had no inhibitions about slandering the old rote-learning, chalk-and-talk ways delivered in sterile settings by robotic staff. She's been a teacher at the Banjardowo 1 primary school in Jombang for more than 25 years. At first glance she'd fit the stereotype of the rigid conservative, a my-ways-are-best classroom tyrant. But never judge an educator by her drab khaki uniform.
"The standard teaching systems, where we used to stand at the front and talk and the kids stayed silent and just wrote what we said, were not producing results," she said.
"They were just learning today and forgetting tomorrow. I was frustrated but didn't know how to change. I was enthusiastic when the chance came for our school to be involved. (Sixty schools out of more than 1100 in the Jombang area have been participating.)
"Yes, it was difficult to change teaching practices. We'd been doing it the same way for so long and we all get fond of our personal habits. But they were boring and the kids would go to sleep.
"The new ways are much harder work and I think maybe 90 per cent of teachers don't like that at first. But look at the impact on the pupils! They are learning inside and outside the classroom. I'm so happy that I was selected. I'd love to go overseas and see how schools are run in other countries."
Sarimah said she had no concerns about taking advice from foreigners although she knew some of her colleagues were wary that other agendas might be hidden in the AUD $9.1 million (Rp 70 billion) Partnership in Basic Education program.
"We are neighbors – we cannot live alone and apart," she said. "We are still a developing nation so we should be happy to accept aid and ideas. A few are suspicious, but I think the help is genuine. There should be no limit to getting new knowledge.
"I feel so sorry for the Western victims of Indonesian terrorism. I want to say that to tourists and shake their hands – but I can't speak English."
Jumari, the head of another primary school with almost 350 pupils has embraced the new learning systems with relish. Australian project advisor Peter McLinton ranked Jumari's Curahmalang II school as one of the best he'd seen with the students busy and having fun while getting educated.
Schools usually respond to visits by important outsiders with rigid displays and formal events, but Jumari's school was more concerned with intellectual inquiry than protocol when the evaluators arrived.
"Education is the most important issue in our society," Jumari said. "Everybody has to go through the school system so it's critical that we get it right.
"The old teaching ways died because they couldn't adjust. It was a closed system. It wasn't transparent. There are some in the community who don't want to change – I used to be one of those.
"Only when I saw the results was I convinced. You can see the difference in the schools that have been participating in the program and those that haven't.
"I want to improve my students and myself. (He has just completed a post graduate degree course, ranking the third top student in Surabaya.)
"If I could talk directly to the President I'd say that the Government must honor its Constitutional duty to allocate 20 per cent of the national budget to education.
"This money must go to educating the people and not into the pockets of bureaucrats. We need resources. The idea of PAKEM has been there for a long time – but till now it's been dead! We are showing how it can work – now we want help."
(First published in The Jakarta Post 11 November 2007)