More Religion, Less Science for Indonesian Students

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More Religion, Less Science for Indonesian Students

The Indonesian government has announced a major education reform that has generated heated criticism.

Indonesia has recently pilot tested a new curriculum in over 6,000 schools which instantly drew controversy after it removed science, English, social sciences, and information technology (IT) as separate subjects in favor of Bahasa Indonesia, nationalism and religious studies.

The reduction of subject load is meant to give students more time to attend other educational activities. At the primary level, subjects were reduced from eleven to six. Meanwhile, junior high school students are now only taking ten courses instead of twelve.

It’s quite puzzling why Indonesia would de-prioritize science and IT at a time when it is aiming to improve the skills of its young workforce to sustain its modernizing economy. There is probably wisdom in having fewer subjects – this could enhance the learning experience of students. But to drop science from the curriculum at the primary level seems unwise. 

Instead of receiving more science education, Indonesian students were given two additional hours of religious studies courses. Indonesia’s Education and Culture Minister Mohammad Nuh said that this is intended to fight terrorism.

“Terrorism is not triggered by long hours of lessons on religion,” he argued. “The growing acts of terrorism were basically due to incomplete religious education. Therefore, we need to add more hours for religious subjects.”

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono hoped that the “tolerance-centered curriculum” would eliminate violence in schools. In other words, the new curriculum was conceptualized to instill the right attitude among the youth of Indonesia. It partially explains why at the senior high school level, students are now required to join the national scouting organization as an extracurricular activity.

Indeed, education is the proper defense against extremism. But rather than increase religious classes Indonesia would be wise to endorse a more secular form of education. Besides, there are other models to promote morality besides teaching more religious lessons to the youth. 

There are other areas of education reform where Indonesia is on the right track. The new curriculum also includes new teaching methods and adopts the pedagogic framework of “integrated thematic concept,” through which a number of broad areas of knowledge are explored and integrated through a particular common theme.

Implementing this method of instruction in the classroom could tremendously boost the learning interactions between teachers and students. Unfortunately, the government hastily enforced these teaching innovations without giving adequate time for teacher training and textbook distribution. Naturally, it resulted in chaos and confusion in many schools across the country. 

It’s not surprising that opposition is mounting against the new curriculum. Perhaps to appease critics, the government vowed to hold a “Curriculum Census” next month to assess the impact of the reforms. It also assured the public that more funds will be allotted for training teachers in preparation for the nationwide implementation of the new curriculum in 2015.  

Indonesian teachers at the frontlines of the education sector should seize this opportunity to ask the government to seriously review the reforms; and in particular, demand that science should be restored as a priority subject. 

They should also remind policymakers to be more careful in introducing education reforms given that the nation’s future is at stake. A detrimental reform, however minor, can permanently damage the innocent minds of millions of children. The impact of dropping science in favor of religion will be difficult to reverse.