One afternoon at the end of 2014, several volunteer teachers sat in a circle under the palm trees of a host family in a village in East Nusa Tenggara (NTT). Jerry cans were lying around in one corner of the yard while in another, a wood-burning stove was still warm after it was used to process nira (neera) – the palm nectar that had been tapped from lontar palms that morning.
Farli, a young teacher with the Indonesia Mengajar movement, was telling us about the bustle in Mukekuku village in East Rote, Rote Ndao regency, where he was assigned. He also shared the village’s hopes for and challenges of education. The other young teachers occasionally chimed in with stories from their assigned villages.
Eight young teachers had been assigned that year to eight different schools across Rote Ndao, and I was attending the program’s mid-year reflection session. On that particular day, we were scheduled to visit Inpres Oeulu elementary school where Farli taught in his assigned village.
The villagers were uncommonly busy. In the early mornings, they were busy tapping nira from the lontar palm tree, which was immediately processed into sugar or sopi, a traditional local drink. The bustling activity ended every day at around 9 a.m.
Therein lay the problem; at least from our perspective as residents of Jakarta. The local children were often late to class or skipped school altogether because they were helping their parents tap and process nira. Student attendance during nira season was low, although the teachers had tried to convince parents to send their children to school.
It was not that the parents did not want their children to go to school; they simply could not afford to skip the nira harvest, which typically lasts three months. The income they made from tapping nira during those three months sustained their families for the entire year.
Seasonal conditions like this in Mukekuku are common in many of the areas where Indonesia Mengajar volunteers are assigned. In the villages of Fakfak regency, West Papua, children occasionally skip school because they must help their families harvest nutmeg. During fishing season at some islands, entire families go out to sea to catch fish, thus lowering student attendance.
For people who live in Jakarta and other urban areas, quality education is pursued by ensuring student attendance during a school year that matches their daily lives: their children attend school from morning to afternoon, except on national and school holidays.
Strict attendance during the school year may only be appropriate for urban children or those of farming families in Java. Rice farmers in Java generally work throughout the year, especially in areas with good irrigation, sometimes planting other crops during the dry season. They leave early in the morning and go home late in the afternoon, and do not need to accommodate the westerly monsoon winds or seasonal harvests like Rote or Fakfak do in eastern Indonesia.
The complexity of diverse local practices raises concerns, not only in terms of schooling but also in educational philosophy. If modern education believes that each child possesses unique intelligence and it is the teacher who must therefore adapt their approach to each child, then shouldn’t we also adjust our approach to their learning, including when they attend school, to their way of life and their environment?
Surely, we can find a learning approach that accommodates to nira and pepper harvesting seasons, just as educators have found multiple approaches to accommodate the diverse intelligence of children.
At least in the past decade and in the nine years since Indonesia Mengajar was founded, various policies have been developed confirm the singular policy approach, including the National Exam (UN), the 2013 Curriculum and the school zoning system. The new Education and Culture Minister, Nadiem Makarim, is looking to do away with the National Exam amid other planned changes. Yet our findings confirm that the one-size-fits-all policy rarely works and instead prompts adaptations that deviate from its objectives.
The one-size-fits-all policy is generally implemented nationwide, relying on regulatory enforcement instead of consensual stakeholder engagement, and follows a rigid schedule. The most significant characteristic of such policies is that they are often technical in that they overload their key beneficiaries, the students.
Take the National Exam, which basically pressures students to achieve certain learning outcomes instead of urging other education actors like teachers, education offices and the education ministry to work harder in improving student learning outcomes. The “consequences” of this system seems to fall squarely on the students’ shoulders and not on other education actors that actually have the resources and capacities. When the National Exam scores drop, it is the students who bear the consequences; there is no “penalty” for officials in the education offices or the ministry.
Likewise, the school zoning system aims to achieve educational equality, but it places the heaviest burden on students rather than other education actors. It is the students who must make the adjustments so the state can realize its education equality goals, whereas it is the state that should be the one to carry the heaviest load by distributing qualified teachers to all schools.
Good teachers adapt with the needs of their students; the state should ideally familiarize itself with student needs. A one-size-fits-all education policy has never been able to answer the challenges of our students’ diverse socioeconomic conditions. With all its resources and capacities, the state should be able to accommodate the diversity of its students, including formulating multiple policies for each child, family and the environment in which they live and work.