Another inflamatory headline: A nation of dunces?


Many people took offence at the title of my earlier post about Indonesia’s appalling performance in maths and science in the internationally standardised PISA test.

Those who also read the article rightly pointed out that the headline, which called Indonesian students “stupid”, did not match the contents of the post, which was about the failure of Indonesia’s educational system to prepare children for the needs of a modern economy. I apologise for any offence caused, but am glad that the headline piqued some people into reading about this indicator of Indonesia’s educational melt-down, widely ignored by mainstream media.

Now, over at Inside Indonesia, I’ve written a longer piece with an equally inflammatory title, which gives some of the reasons for that failure. A nation of dunces describes the use of teaching jobs as sources of patronage in decentralised Indonesia, and takes a look at the government’s (so far failing) efforts to increase quality in teaching.

Silahkan membaca.

4 Comments on "Another inflamatory headline: A nation of dunces?"

  1. Elizabeth.

    Your use of the question mark in the title was an indication of what might be, not necessarily what is. That some think it is inflammatory is an indication of their mild illiteracy.

    I have written consistently about how dumb the bureaucrats are, but without actually blaming them. Reformasi is in the hands of a generation which under the old ‘New Order’ of Suharto abolished creative thinking. Parents, teachers and bureaucrats alike need re-educating in order to have the mindset to enable the generations still in the schooling system.

    Teachers teach to the test, parents push their children to do well in the test, and bureaucrats set tests which have little value and then claim that the system is successful because 99% pass.

    I was going to write about the PISA results, but having done so in the past (, I’ll support you now.

  2. Jakartass, people were offended by the title of the previous post. Not this one.

  3. Dear All,

    I came across this article from more than one source. It’s obviously making an impact. Why? Well, my reaction and perhaps the reason for the impact is that the article is probably the most succinct and well written piece of analysis I have read on the causes of Indonesia’s current educational failures – from a public policy perspective. Secondly, it is honest.

    I did a quick internet check on Elizabeth Pisana. Seems she has a long-term relationship with Indonesia. Her profession is not education, it is public health. After reading the education article which is ‘stirring the possum’ I watched a TED talk she did on AIDS, sex and drug use – just to get a sense of who she is. My sense of it is that she has a strong attachment to Indonesia and a very strong background in public policy in the social sector, which enabled her to put together what I think is a brilliant article on Indonesia’s education system. She is also accustomed to ‘telling it like it is’ – or at least as she sees it – as one must in order to be effective with AIDS policy. So, yes, there’s a shock factor in the way she writes – and the spin she puts on her story. But, maybe that is not a bad thing? It has certainly got her some attention.

    Her argument, note, is not that Indonesian people are inherently deficient in some way (lazy or stupid, for example) but that the public policy around education, both historically and in the present, has created a system which does not support good schooling, good education, good teaching or good learning. Does she have a right to make these kind of assertions? She is not an educator, and I worry about education policy being determined by economists and non-educators. But she does have a public policy background, she knows Indonesia, has obviously done her research, and has a very sharp mind that is well-practiced at analyzing behavior (in this case the behavior of teachers, students, government officials and education administrators – rather than hookers and drug users) from this perspective. People behave in ways that make sense to them, and unless policy in Indonesian government and education systems is improved, they will continue to behave in the same ways. Indonesian education will continue to fail its children.

    Some like to question the validity of the PISA tests and the influence of culture; in my view, culture is the key determining factor in national achievement in these international tests. East Asian cultures, for example, value hard work, high pressure, and competition: and they are at the top of the PISA league table. These cultures support a belief in the efficacy of effort: the individual can succeed, regardless of background, on the basis of individual effort. Most other cultures, including Indonesia, Australia, the UK and the US, are somewhat ambivalent about these things. Yes, we claim to value hard work and believe in the efficacy of individual effort. But at the same time, we value leisure, and time spent on other pursuits far more: family, travel, sport, the arts (and, in the case of Indonesia, religion and nationalism). And we still tend to believe (along with most Indonesians) that success in education is largely determined by what you start with, who you are, and not the effort you put into it. (This last point is probably more true of Brits and Indonesians than of Americans and Australians, but I’m open to debate.)

    Notwithstanding these cultural factors, PISA tests student competence in the kind of educational outcomes that all education systems, in all cultural settings, are striving for. It doesn’t claim to cover everything. It doesn’t test Indonesian kids for their patriotism or piety for example. But it does test for their skills in mathematical computation and problem solving. Surely Indonesia wants and expect our kids to achieve in these areas?

    Finally, Ms Pisana’s article does focus on negatives. Her description of Indonesian schools, of the absence and tardiness of teachers, may be somewhat skewed. There was a study of teacher absenteeism a few years back which showed improvement (though absenteeism was still assessed as a serious issue). But I’m also not convinced that her picture is all that far off the mark. In my role as an education consultant, I have visited many Indonesian schools over the last ten-twenty years. Most of these were hand-picked, were beneficiaries of development assistance, and were expecting and prepared for the visit. Even given that wildly skewed sampling technique, to be frank, very few of the classrooms in which I have set foot have inspired me with confidence. (There have been some!)

    The bottom line might be: where do I want my own kids educated? They have Indonesian citizenship alongside their Australian. Would I want them in a Korean school? Probably not (too much pressure). An Australian state school? Maybe, but I’d want to pick the suburb and the school. How about a Scandinavian state school? Yes, I think I’d be happy with that. What about your average Indonesian state school? Sorry – if I can afford to have them educated elsewhere I will.

    Apologies if my comments seem overly negative or offensive in any way. But I do think this issue deserves a robust discussion!

    Salam pendidikan,


  4. I arrived here after reading your previous article.

    I’d like to point out that creating an article with strong language or offensive headline will guarantee someone two benefits: (1) publicity, and (2) wave of comments.

    IMHO, such articles are considered flaming back in the days of mailing lists and bulletin boards. Personally, I’d avoid flaming as much as possible.

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