CANBERRA — Progressing the education agenda in Indonesia is a national objective managed by the ministry of education and culture. But data on student knowledge and skills in basic literacy and numeracy show that Indonesian students underperform compared to their regional and global peers.
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Supporting children in remote areas of the country, and those speaking a language at home different to that of the national curriculum, requires new ideas and approaches to build capacity. Australian Aid’s Innovation for Indonesia’s School Children program, managed by Palladium, is seeing Australian and Indonesian governments partnering to trial new approaches that could improve student outcomes in literacy and numeracy.
A total of 15 pilot projects are underway across 12 districts to find locally driven solutions to education challenges. Two such projects highlight the challenges facing the national education system and teacher training — and are delivering solutions to be fed back to the government.
INOVASI case studies
Two projects in particular are demonstrating the value of stepping back to focus on the basics of education.
In North Kalimantan, an initiative is supporting the districts of Bulungan and Malinau to strengthen literacy-based learning in the early years of education.
While early surveys in the region found that the majority of children enjoy reading, the books available were limited and often textbooks — not ideal to engage children and their imagination.
Local Innovation for Indonesia's School Children Program, or INOVASI, facilitators in this region have been learning new methods and tools for exploring literacy-learning problems at the classroom and school level. Insufficient access to reading material and the inability of teachers to adapt learning plans to suit the needs of their students is a root cause of literacy and learning problems in the area.
The Gerakan menggunakan Bahasa Indonesia yang baik dan benar project, also known as GEMBIRA, taking place in the West Nusa Tenggara district of Bima, is supporting teachers to better plan and manage the transition from a student’s mother tongue to Bahasa Indonesian — the primary language used for classroom instruction and assessment nationally.
In this region, classroom and playground observations, as well as interviews with teaching staff and parents, found a significant gap between teaching practice, materials, and student’s first languages. Nine out of 10 teachers in schools being used in this pilot project were found to be using local languages in their oral instructional language, while supporting materials and assessment tools were in Bahasa Indonesian, as this was the nationally supplied classroom material.
A range of strategies were trialled by teachers in-classroom to bridge the gap, and enable a gradual shift to classroom education in the national language. These included contextualized approaches that used real-life learning materials found in the local context to help students make connections with new ideas and skills being taught, as well as encouraging students to develop target language skills by exploring their own personal and cultural experiences.
According to teachers, these strategies have made students more enthusiastic and confident in learning. And teachers are more confident in selecting the appropriate language for various classroom lessons.
Understanding the education barriers
Getting the basics right is important for long-term success in education and learning, which both projects aim to achieve.
For the North Kalimantan project, there are five core skills that students should master in order to learn, read, and comprehend, said INOVASI’s Education Technical Manager Lynne Hill.
“These include phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Indonesian teachers tend to focus on sight recognition and syllabification skills at the expense of the development of the others,” she said.
“Reading practice is also often limited to whole class reading of textbooks. Teachers need to see the value of reading for enjoyment and allow time for students to explore and engage with a variety of texts. Not all students can read at the same level in any one classroom, so teachers are learning how to identify and cater for such differences.”
And GEMBIRA too will focus on getting the educational basics right. Early parts of the pilot have a focus on reading skills, as all students need to become competent readers — whatever language they are learning.
“These basic skills will assist teachers to then provide learning experiences which are targeted more at student learning needs and will facilitate the introduction of skills and strategies for language transition to be introduced in the later sessions of the pilot program,” Hill said.
In both projects, a key barrier identified was the skill set of teachers — including their understanding of how children learn. In the North Kalimantan context, Hill explained to Devex that most teachers are high school graduates with no technical or formal training.
“They lack the necessary skills which equip them to teach effectively, and to the benefit of their students,” she said. “These skills might include general pedagogy knowledge in literacy and numeracy, knowledge around how to implement formative assessment strategies, lesson planning, how to effectively use learning media and tools in the classroom, and moving from a teacher centered to student centered teaching approach.”
The aim for Hill with the North Kalimantan project is to help teachers move away from lecture style teaching to “active” student learning in the classroom.
“This pilot activity will seek to improve the pedagogical skills of teachers, including their understanding of how to teach reading in early grades, and how to identify differences in student pace and learning — and how to tackle this effectively.”
For the GEMBIRA project, encouraging teachers to work outside the constraints of assigned lessons plans is important, with Hill explaining that teaching in Indonesia is “often teacher centered.”
“All students in the class are taught the same lesson, with the assumption that everyone is at the appropriate developmental-level of learning to achieve the lesson outcomes,” she explained. “In fact, in any given classroom, there can be as many different levels of development as there are students, and one ‘size’ does not fit all.”
Where a second language is being used in the classroom, the lesson plans provided in Bahasa Indonesia can prove problematic and a barrier to learning.
“During the upcoming scale-up of the [GEMBIRA] pilot, to address this challenge, teachers will engage in student-centered learning activities. This aims to improve their understanding about how to deal with students who are at different levels of learning in the classroom and how to better manage the classroom for student-centered learning,” said Hill.
Putting students at the center
A student-centered approach to education is an important part of INOVASI and its encouragement of teachers and other key educational stakeholders to adopt a problem-driven iterative adaptation, or PDIA approach in identifying the education challenges and developing and trialing solutions.
“Through the use of the iterative and problem-driven PDIA approach, many teachers in our partner districts have undergone a mindset shift, moving to understand that a student-centered teaching and learning approach can better lead to improved student learning outcomes in the classroom,” Mas Andika Dewantara, INOVASI district facilitator in East Sumba, Indonesia, explained to Devex. “By identifying the root causes of teaching and learning issues and seeing how they can use new tools and ideas to improve their teaching methods, they have begun to overcome some of the ‘mindset’ shift barriers from before.”
An important outcome of putting students in the middle and tailoring programs for individual needs — whether this be reading, teaching in a suitable language or other — is to build confidence, and see progress in their educational achievements.
Hill added that for reading in particular, the provision of levelled readers is very helpful to beginner readers.
“Teachers can select books which suit the developmental level of their students and provide a teaching focus for reading skills,” she said. “Providing books students can read with just the right level of challenge provides motivation and builds confidence. Indonesia is seeing more organizations developing these reading materials and training teachers in their use.”
Where technology fits in
In remote areas where INOVASI projects are commonly working, access to technology is a barrier. But where possible, it is being utilized to support the projects’ implementation.
For the North Kalimantan project, Hill explained that both printed and electronic books are being trialed to better help children access material suitable to their level.
“Access to eBooks is not always available in more remote locations, but it does provide a cheap and more accessible supply of reading materials,” she said. “Teachers can also make use of internet programs, which allow them to design and print simple books, providing cheap, hard copy material for use in the classroom. INOVASI is supporting a number of partnerships which are designing, writing, and publishing quality children’s books and levelled reading materials. But physical books are still important.”
For GEMBIRA, internet connectivity means there is a higher need to rely on cost effective and locally available resources for media development to support teachers in their lesson planning.
“However, we will be trialling different approaches to support students with a mother tongue through the new grants and partnerships program, finding out what works and in what context,” Dewantara said. “In Sumba, two mother tongue grants will be supported. One of them, through a local organization called Sulinama, will use the open source bloom software for mother tongue book development.”
Lessons for a national education strategy
As INOVASI is a collaboration between the Australian and Indonesian governments, the projects can potentially play an important role in adjusting Indonesia’s national education plan by feeding back lessons and results of each pilot program.
Dewantara explained that all INOVASI projects are building a credible body of evidence to show that policy and practice changes can work to improve student learning outcomes in Indonesia.
“We expect this work to produce credible evidence on successful approaches early in 2019, after the pilots complete the first cycle of short-course implementation and endline-baseline data is available for analysis,” he said. “Initial steps are being taken for a comprehensive case study to be conducted and reports prepared on each of the pilots to capture this evidence for an audience of policymakers and development practitioners.”
The pilots have been designed with existing Indonesian education policy in mind, enabling the evidence collated to be both useful and compelling to national policymakers.
“Currently, pilot results and findings are fed back regularly to national government through the Ministry of Education and Culture, engaging them in ongoing dialogue and discussion around what is proving to work, and what is not,” Dewantara said.
From the North Kalimantan project, Hill was hopeful that the Indonesian government could learn that by improving student reading and writing skills in the early grades, children are ready for more complex topics earlier in the curriculum.
The next steps in both projects are to continue to develop the learnings to improve educational outcomes by scaling, improving teacher training, and bringing more community partners into the projects to build the initiatives’ long-term sustainability — and ensure children living in remote areas of the country are not left behind.