How Indonesia’s Schools Murder Children’s Curiosity

As you can probably tell from the title, I was born in Indonesia. My first few years of childhood was spent in a small suburb called Gading Serpong in the province of Banten. There weren’t many schools there, just a few minor educational institutes barely worth mentioning. But among them, was Sow Elementary (it’s a made-up name, to avoid defamation of character lawsuits), a prestigious elementary school with an outstanding reputation in Western Java.

Sow Elementary’s graduates — both from elementary and high-school — were, and still are considered to be highly intelligent. Its alumni are commonly found to earn passage to the University of Indonesia, Bandung’s Institute of Technology, and other remarkable Indonesian universities (those names may sound unimportant to foreigners, but to be accepted by them here, means you’re part of the cultural elite). It’s basically the M.I.T. of elementary schools in Indonesia. Knowing this, my parents decided to enroll me in its classes. Since they thought I had the potential to be smarter than the average children of my age.

Perhaps my parents thought so because when the other children read story books, I was reading encyclopedias. Not because I was smarter than them, it’s simply because I had different tastes in reading materials. I remember the days when I used to keep my mother awake at four in the morning, just because I wanted to keep on reading and being read to; to know how stars are formed, how gills function, and various other tidbits of information. I was a curious kid, but that ended when I stepped into Sow Elementary’s halls. 

On the first few days of class, I already felt uncomfortable. Rather than spending my time learning about the intricacies of the universe, I was thought one basic rule: that grades are everything.  Instead of studying for the sake of learning, I read books and answered tests so I could get high scores in my yearly report book. I lost all semblance of interest in science on account of Sow Elementary’s teaching methods.

Maybe my previous statement sounds overtly cynical, but it is the truth. My previous motivation to learn, to stay-up all-night reading, was to find explanations for how the world works, and how it originated. Sow Elementary didn’t give me the answers to these questions, they gave me the tools I needed to get good grades. An example is necessary to illustrate how destructive this truly is.

Among my childhood self’s most-hated subjects was physics. I thought that it was a useless subject to spend my time on. Why? Plainly for the reason that one of the things that I had to memorize was the various wave-lengths of light, — such as infrared and ultraviolet — their characteristics, why they’re invisible to the naked eye, and so on. Clearly I didn’t need to know this, they had no other use than just being there. Yet I memorized all of them, to avoid the lectures I would get for getting bad grades.

What did I learn about the different wave-lengths of light in the end? Absolutely nothing significant. I memorized everything I knew would show-up on tests, but I still didn’t know why they exist, or how humanity can use them. Not until I entered college did I understand that they can be used to infer the components and existence of far-away stars hidden by gas clouds (I don’t know about you, but that blew my mind). And I did not know that by enrolling in a physics class in high-school. I knew, because I read a book outside of any educational institution. 

This example showcases how Sow Elementary, and most likely many of Indonesia’s schools miss the point of education. They teach their students to achieve impressive academic results, not the uses or purposes of the things they learned of. Why would anyone want to study something they think is useless? The pressure to earn high scores could be one of the countless messed-up reasons.

Sow Elementary students were penalized harshly for performing poorly on tests. If you unfortunately had enough low-marked tests, you’ll have to stay after school for an extra hour or two. Get enough of them for a year, and you’ll be locked in a classroom for a whole year with the lowest-performing students of the school (I was one of them). It’s borderline discrimination that’s based on numbers.

But education isn’t about grades. It’s about stimulating the students’ sense of curiosity. To compel them to know about as much of the universe as they can. So that they may someday make an astonishing discovery, or even change the world. If schools continue to overvalue these arbitrary numbers, students will continue to see education only as a burden.

How many children actually enjoy going to school? There may be some, but when I was a kid, my friends liked school because there they get to meet their friends. Probably only one or two of them — the ones commonly referred to as “nerds” — legitimately had the urge to learn. And even this minority of students were sometimes forced by their parents to excel in lessons they didn’t even care about. Children don’t go to school to study, they sit through classes because they have no other choice.

Thankfully, I now enjoy sitting through the classes of my university. The lecturers there are excellent at demonstrating how reading our textbooks can give us the answers to our life-long questions. I think this is how elementary-, middle-, and high-schools should approach teaching.

Make students realize that what they’re cramming their heads with are useful, and ultimately beneficial to their individual lives. Let students see the benefits they can have from the endless theories, facts, and formulas locked inside academia, and I can guarantee you they’ll be fighting over front-row seats in class.  

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