Photo from USAID on Flickr

Photo from USAID on Flickr

This blog post from Ronatal Siahaan, a volunteer tutor at Yayasan Cipta Mandiri, an NGO which provides classes to disadvantaged children and youth in Bogor, West Java.


The education system in Indonesia has always been contentious. I am currently a student at university and a tutor at an educational foundation, having previously completed my primary and secondary education on Sumatra and Java. I will be reflecting on my educational experience in this blog.

In my opinion, the crucial challenges facing Indonesia’s education system are: teaching style, divergent types of schools, endemic corruption, and the predominance of rote learning compared to creativity. Buah jatuh takkan jauh dari pohonnya, or “fruit does not fall far from the tree”, is a proverb that’s common in both Indonesia and Australia. It is inevitable that many students will have problems for the rest of their lives as a result of the flawed education system in Indonesia.

Teaching Style 

One of the problems is teaching style. I can remember many repetitive activities in the classroom. For example, teachers frequently ask a student to copy the contents of a book onto the whiteboard, and then ask the other students to copy it again into their books.

Many teachers are not motivated to do well. They don’t care if students don’t fully understand a topic, because it’s a requirement from the school to finish the whole curriculum on time, so this is more important than spending extra time on reviewing anything. Students lose motivation, too: they say that their teachers never check the homework that is set, so they feel that their work is for nothing.

I think students do not feel supported at school. I heard about a student who completed the majority of her homework, but found the last exercise too difficult. When she asked for help, the teacher forced her to run around the building as punishment. She was humiliated, and this experience will certainly stay with her.

Types of Schools

There are three levels of schools: SD (Elementary School); SMP (Junior High School); and SMA (Senior High School). There is also SMK (Skills High School), which is a vocational option at the same level as SMA. For all these levels, there are two types of schools: Negeri (Public) and Swasta (Private). In Australia, private school is usually more expensive and therefore more exclusive, while public school is generally available to anybody. In Indonesia, it’s much more complicated.

The example of SMA Negeri demonstrates the complexity of the situation. These schools are ranked from 1 to 10 based on their quality, but even this is not straightforward. Right now, in Bogor, ranks 1, 3, and 6 are the most desirable. Entry to these public schools can be very competitive, because they sometimes have a better academic reputation than private schools, for which the entry exams are not really meaningful. This means rich families often prefer to put their children in public schools. Furthermore, for rich students who do not pass the more competitive entry exams for public schools, their parents can beli bangku, or “buy chairs” so they can attend the school they want. I sympathise with less fortunate students.


Like in many other elements of Indonesian society, there is corruption within the education system. It often starts with small things. For example, I had a teacher who encouraged us to buy textbooks directly from him, rather than from the bookstore. The students knew he made a profit from this practice, but they accepted it as a normal situation.

When someone feels that corruption is acceptable behaviour, their actions can escalate into big issues easily. A large scale example: it’s not uncommon for teachers to give cheat sheets before final exams in high school. Obviously, this allows students to achieve very high scores which do not reflect their learning. The purpose of this is threefold: students can graduate successfully; teachers can safely keep their jobs; and schools can maintain their reputations. Everybody is involved in this game.

Perhaps if some key figures did not condone such widespread corruption, the next generation would learn from their example, and maybe this could break the cycle.

Creativity versus Rote Learning

There is not enough creativity in the curriculum, especially compared to a country like Australia. In kindergarten, the way of learning includes art. But after this, Indonesian students are never given creative subjects, and they just focus on mathematics, learning language, and memorising information.

When I was in high school, there was an art subject, but it was mostly theory. These days, students do some practical crafts, but it’s not enough for creative thinking. That’s why many students tend to be passive when they’re attending a seminar, forum, or discussion. I also think that’s why the students struggle to think creatively when they are involved in jobs that require creativity.

The most common thing that the teachers do is rote learning, which is not a good way to increase the academic skills of the students. For example, students are simply asked to memorise the contents of books, which is just a test of recall and the ability to recite. Students are never encouraged to show initiative and are never engaged in critical thinking.


English class at Yayasan Cipta Mandiri

English class at Yayasan Cipta Mandiri

I work at Yayasan Cipta Mandiri (YCM) as a part-time tutor. YCM is a rumah pembinaan, a house in which disadvantaged students are able to build their self-confidence, general knowledge, and practical skills. The systems in this foundation are totally different to a traditional, academic school. At YCM, the students are encouraged to think critically, develop their ambitions, and find fulfilling opportunities.

YCM and similar non-government organisations fill a gap in Indonesia’s schooling system by providing creative and critical thinking that students aren’t exposed to elsewhere. For example, YCM supports students who are failed by the system, because they have dropped out due to social problems or cannot afford to continue studying, but still have a willingness to improve.

As with anything, there are both good and bad sides to this topic. From my twelve years in Indonesian schools, I can remember five inspirational teachers. I choose to follow those examples. Unfortunately, some students may not have good experiences at school. This affects their chance of gaining skills that are useful for their lives. But it also depends on the willingness of every individual to pursue something better. If buah jatuh takkan jauh dari pohonnya, I’m committed to setting a good example for my students.