Monday, September 25, 2023

Commentary: Indonesia Should Find Its Own Educational Path

Martin Schell
February 26, 2015 | 11:32 am

It seems odd that people who call themselves nationalists are so eager to parrot the educational practices and policies of other countries.

The guiding principle in Indonesia is no longer the quest for a wise balance between nurturing traditional skills and developing modern ones, but rather embarrassment about “how we might look” in comparison to K-12 education in other parts of the world.

Thus, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results are interpreted only as a serious failure. This gives rise to a compulsion to “take action” and the hastily chosen solution is to enforce discipline: stricter rules, longer hours, shorter vacations. Unfortunately, many school principals don’t consider cheating on exams to be as significant a breach of discipline as a minute of lateness or a spot of dirt on one’s uniform.

The only way to understand the  problem clearly is to reflect on the nature of education, the purpose of childhood, and the function of schools. For at least a century, commentators have remarked that schools are basically training grounds for entering the work force.


Indeed, many children feel that school is a kind of job: one must follow a routine, obey superiors, produce results. But should these measurable or “deliverable” aspects completely fill a child’s experience of school?

Most public schools around the world today still show the influence of the Prussian education system, which was innovative in the late 18th century. Some of its characteristics include a standardized curriculum, compulsory attendance, teacher training and free education financed via taxation.

Ironically, the Prussians themselves reformed their system after being defeated by Napoleon. While their military reoriented from line formation to mission tactics, the philosopher Johann Fichte convinced educators that citizens should be taught to think independently in order to serve a unified nation.

Schools replaced “drilling” in grammar and arithmetic with a more flexible approach that emphasized broad knowledge and problem solving.

Their great general, Moltke the Elder, believed that his junior officers should “understand the purpose of [a military] operation, and then work for its realization even if it means working against the actual orders.”

This led some observers to quip that his successes in the late 19th century could be attributed to Prussia’s primary school teachers.

For many children, particularly in Indonesia, one of the most striking aspects of entering school is being surrounded by fellow students who are close to one’s age — there is far less age variation in the classroom than among the child’s relatives or friends in the kampung.

The excitement of this discovery of one’s age cohort is apparent to anyone who has walked past a kindergarten and heard the children’s voices. Although terms like “Gen X” or “Millennial” have become cliches similar to horoscope typology, there really is an elan unique to each mini-generation that its members can sense.

For Indonesian kids, school is not only an opportunity to learn facts and formulas, but also an opportunity to develop community spirit and engage in group projects.

The latter type of opportunity is often categorized as emotional intelligence, and one can even see kindergartens in test-oriented Singapore boast about it in banners advertising their facilities.

It should be no surprise that Indonesia led the world in positive answers to “I make friends easily at school” and “I feel happy at school” (Ready to Learn section in 2012 PISA report). Further, Indonesia tied with Thailand and Poland for the top “percentage of students who are in schools where there is a consensus on the importance of the social and emotional development of students.”

Instead of obsessing about exam scores with a narrow-minded goal to “catch up” to places like South Korea (lowest in the world in student happiness) or Singapore, Indonesia should build on its strengths. Cooperative activity and hand-eye coordination (batik, wood carving, wayang wong, gamelan, etc.) should be cherished rather than tossed aside as irrelevant to general education. The Japanese don’t consider origami “quaint,” so why should Indonesians discount the developmental value of their own traditions?

As revealed in books like “The Big Test” by Nicholas Lemann, the rise of standardized testing in the 20th century fulfilled an important purpose: to sift students in remote parts of a large country and find those who would thrive in a college environment.

In Indonesia, the Ujian Nasional began as a way to judge merit objectively, transcending the tendency of teachers to give high grades to students who dressed neatly, sat quietly, and came to school on time. Unfortunately, the national exam has become a white elephant: expensive to maintain and difficult to get rid of. In a word: useless.

In a rapidly changing world, the older generation cannot predict which skills the younger generation will need, and many youths intuitively know this. The best we can do is pass along the knowledge we have — both modern and traditional — to provide a broad base of intellectual and emotional skills that will produce informed citizens who can adapt successfully to whatever comes their way.

Martin Schell resides in his wife's hometown of Klaten, Central Java, where their daughters are currently enduring 9th- and 6th-grade exams in public schools. He works as a business consultant and is an adjunct faculty member in the Management Communications Department of New York University’s Stern School of Business. E-mail him at:

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