A few months ago, my father gave me some good advice about getting further into community work. He told me that now that I could speak a bit of Bahasa Indonesia and was comfortable in my community, that I could begin to experiment with micro-developmental interventions, in my classroom (the library) and out in order to challenge my own assumptions about education and understand others’ assumptions as well. He also gifted me “Poor Economics” by MIT economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo as somewhat of a guide to really screw with my thinking and mold me into one of those paranoid beings called critical thinkers. In “Poor Economics”, Banerjee and Duflo ‘revolutionize’ the study of development, by trying to dissect choices that the poor make based on data gathered from RCTs – random controlled trials – from 18 different countries. The good news for me was that Indonesia made it into Banerjee and Duflo’s data set and the even better news, was that they had a whole chapter dedicated to the quality of education. It’s had me thinking more critically about how critical thinking happens in schools – and out of schools – in East Java, based on my experience in classrooms that I enter.
In their chapter on education, Banerjee and Duflo dive into the meat of what the policy question/directive on education should be focused on: the quality of education — rather than mere statistics of school attendance (MDG Goal 1 – which, to be honest, is super culturally relativistic and does not yet defend the universal human right to an education if you’ve stepped foot in a failing school anywhere in the world). They look at how the elitism of the current education system, how current teaching develops students and how parents, students and teachers perceive the value of education as an anti-poverty tool. Their critiques are numerous. They show that because the overwhelming goal of teachers is to teach the top kids in preparation for national exams, many kids are, with a nod to George Bush, left behind. Current education systems are set up to pool energies, opportunities and funds for the kids who exhibit promise or come from a family with status, and hand the other kids heavy rhetoric that promotes sociological determinism (Ex: Teacher says, “Rural kids aren’t like city kids” à Rural kid hears the remark, internalizes it à Rural kid performs badly on test // logic which results in yours truly dying a little bit inside every time she hears a teacher/parent set low expectations for kids who are within earshot). They also comment that incentives to teach are misplaced because of insurmountable factors such as large class sizes, poor teacher training and corruption (time and otherwise). And, finally, that teaching methods rarely involve checking the students’ learning, or the appropriateness of the material that is given to students. One example that they provide is telling: students tested in rural India scored higher in math skills when they spent more time out of school and in their parents’ kiosks, counting change, than time in school.
Turning now to Indonesia, the Indonesian public school system is one of the worst performing education systems in the world, according to western standards. It’s fraught with grade corruption, teacher absenteeism (how much effort would you put into a job that paid you USD 30/month, a third of which is eaten by gas to get you to and from school), a cumbersome national curriculum, teacher-centered teaching methods and an overall goal that is broken – passing a poorly written national exam. All of these lay a foundation to artificially promote students, without caring for their actual learning – just to get them through to graduation. A recent Al Jazeera article reported:
“Indonesian educators and commentators have slammed the country’s school system for placing more emphasis on rote learning than creative thinking. A culture of teaching anchored in obedience as well as a rigid approach to religious studies and assigned reading have been described as major problems.”
That summarizes well the complaints that would be given in defense of the current elitist it’s-a-failure-but-it’s-all-we’ve-got-so-gotta-keep-believing-in-it model of an effective education system. It does not take into account the different worlds of thinking that poor and rich people live in as Banerjee and Duflo’s robust analysis attempts to.
As I thought about my students, I concluded that one accusation that is worth taking a second look at is the notion that Indonesian students are not given enough opportunities to develop their critical thinking skills.
I asked myself, “Are my students critical thinkers? Are they problem solvers?” And then, I turned those questions on myself: “Am I a critical thinker? Was that part of my education? Where did that learning happen and to what end?”
Before we go any further, here are a few definitions of critical thinking:
“…an investigation whose purpose is to explore a situation, phenomenon, question, or problem to arrive at a hypothesis or conclusion about it that integrates all available information and that can therefore be convincingly justified” (Kurfiss, 1988)
“…the careful and deliberate determination of whether to accept, reject, or suspend judgment about a claim” (Moore & Parker, 1986)
“…thinking that facilitates judgment because it relies on criteria, is self-correcting, and is sensitive to context” (Lipman, 1991)
The answer is that the picture that education surveys capture of my students’ lives is incomplete. Education does not just happen in in-school time. So, my kids are critical thinkers of a higher order than me and my privileged peers by virtue of being poor. They are constantly given problems where any mistake would mean real consequences for themselves and for their families. Simple math problems about finding the cheapest transportation option or selling their family’s corn aren’t theoretical and aren’t practiced in a safe environment where they are allowed to make mistakes. Their critical thinking skills are built through life experiences and are strong because they have to juggle constantly changing conditions and incomplete information. They can think through information faster than I can, can weigh outcomes and they are bold to act.
In contrast, my education gave me opportunities to practice problem solving in a vacuum and at a gentle pace. I was pushed to always think critically about where my information was coming from and to look for more knowledge in order to move forward soundly. The problems I was presented with were theoretical and none that I felt any pressure to solve. When it came to societal problems, I applied the same logic. In fact, as a Peace Corps volunteer, I am constantly forgiving myself for not acting because I hide behind the words “Do No Harm” and the belief that I don’t know enough about my cultural context yet, don’t understand the language, in short, that I need to gather more information.
A recent forum at Georgetown University brought together the Georgetown NAACP and the Howard NAACP to talk about the societal understanding of being a black university student at a predominantly white institution (PWI) and at a historically black college or university (HBCU). One Howard student’s remark struck me. He mentioned that attending an HBCU and the sometimes inconsistent conditions that happen on the Howard campus taught him to be a hustler and that the hustler education was the most important preparation for post-college life.
So where does this land us for social justice? Those the world recognizes as being best equipped to solve problems feel no pressure to act and, worse yet, are not willing to look beyond the false construct of education as delivering more critical thinkers because it is of benefit to them. They are given the room to think innovatively but without a hard bottom-line for delivering something of value. The education system that I came up through did not activate me to understand the responsibility that comes with privilege and the conditions I would be working under in social justice work. A lot of Peace Corps rhetoric spells out the need to be flexible and to have no expectations in an effort to calm down people of privilege at being faced with the same uncertainties as the poor. We are not given strict expectations to hustle, but are left to dip one foot in after the other despite the urgency of the problem of poverty.
The poor, on the other hand, are constantly thinking critically and creatively while being pushed through education systems that are ill-equipped to recognize their skills. They are exposed to methods of teaching that, as a colleague put it, teaches them to “just eat whatever information is given to them”. She’s right — and she’s right not to give our students a rest and continue to pursue sharpened critical thinking skills.
However, perhaps criticisms of Indonesian schools should be tempered with an understanding of kids’ lives so as to no longer perpetuate an unequal system. Schools in communities of privilege could be graded on how efficiently they teach the art of hustling and schools in underprivileged communities could be graded on how much of a safe and consistent environment they are able to provide to their students. All this, as a relief to the uncertainty that they are constantly experiencing to give them much more room to eat and eat healthy.