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The Isolated Learners


Grassroots actions symbolize irritation of the systemic failure to ensure every individual could exercise and acquire their rights. If their presence is merely celebrated by the people in power, we should not retain our high hopes of change.

What should a fourth-grade student be able to do? They must know how to write a structured paragraph and understand basic grammatical rules. They should be able to comprehend synonyms, antonyms, and homophones. The task of delivering knowledge is delegated to educational institutions, which unfortunately fail to ensure quality education for all. In some cases, quality education is available but not accessible, which usually happens due to geographical barriers. That was the case with the children on a remote island in North Gorontalo, Eastern Indonesia. In late 2014, Aikha, who back then was already a woman advocating for equal access to education, paid a visit to the island. Despite having been told previously about educational issues on the Island, she was still astonished by the reality. How couldn’t she? the pupils that she met could not even read and write at the prescribed level and many could not even recognize the letters. Whose fault, is it?

The Island

Fifty households reside on that island. Children of the island’s community attended either one of the only two elementary schools – and the only K-12 schools that ever existed. If a kid had a desire to pursue secondary education, they must cross to another island – a journey that consumed at least one hour. The problem that Aikha noticed, however, did not concern the absence of secondary schools. She was shocked by the quality of elementary school education that failed the Island’s children to have the capability to read and write.

Both schools had extremely confined spaces and limited teaching staff. As a result, two school grades were taught in the same classroom. 1st and 2nd grades, 3rd and 4th grades, 5th and 6th grades. In 2019, nearly 70 percent of elementary schools in the North Gorontalo Regency were badly destroyed or in poor conditions. To make things worse, the parents could not find out how their children performed at school because there was not even a report card to communicate their academic progression. The combined problems hampered pupils to learning effectively and it influenced their outlook on how education should be delivered along with its worth.

Perhaps the educational format somewhat contributed to the high dropout rates on the Island. Although many of the pupils quit and eventually helped their parents work on the farm, we could at least imagine: what if the quality of education was at least adequate? Would they still quit and work on the farm? Or would they enjoy learning and pursue their rights to quality education? Aikha did not stop at imagining; she acted upon her passion for ensuring quality education.

The Intervention

Aikha initiated open recruitment for volunteers in 2015. She eventually named it “Nusawarna” which consists of two words – Nusa which means island and warna which has a literal meaning of color. She hoped for the initiative to make the island brighter, livelier, and its children – happier. During the movement’s first years, there were around thirty active volunteers who went to the island on rotation. Each batch consisted of around ten to fifteen volunteers who would come to the island and reside there for about a week.

It was proven hard to entice the kids to learn because the default that they were familiar with was that “education is messy, directionless, and generating little to no contribution to their knowledge”. The volunteers tried to make learning fun by formatting education into a series of games. They would also give the kids packaged milk so as they would come to the class which was usually held by the beach. Until one day, the kids came despite not knowing whether they would receive gifts; they just wanted to learn.

The volunteers were also concerned about the reading habit of the children. With a land loaned by a community member, they created an informal library where the kids could pick any book available and read whenever and however, they wish. The initiative gave the children a sprinkle of educational freedom. Their learning comprehension improved, and they became more and more interested in knowledge. But it was not sustainable as the books were stolen and the building ended up becoming a goat shed. The only positive aftermath was the arrival of an interested individual who bought the shed, hence improving Nusawarna’s cash flow. The funds were used to cover Nusawarna’s operational expenses.

It used to be a routine voluntary activity. But as with other voluntary activities, time is the enemy. As the volunteers’ personal lives progressed, they entered another chapter in their lives and so the new fourth-graders experienced what the fourth-graders back in 2014 had to endure. There is, however, one kid that remained under Nusawarna’s care. Her name is “Nurain” and now she is almost finishing her K-12 education in a boarding school. Without Nusawarna, Nurain might run into a different fate.

The Fault in Public Schools or the State?

The 2019 data shows that 89.11% of elementary school teachers in North Gorontalo Regency possess at least vocational or bachelor’s degree qualifications. But there is one element that this figure alone overlooks: teaching quality and capability. Assuming that every educated individual could teach is a fatal mistake in development interventions. Teaching is a “specialized, professional activity”. When the non-eligible individuals are allowed to undertake such a critical duty, what the State earns is merely an upward trend on the number of teachers who hold bachelor’s degrees. The students, well, are forgotten. It is precisely the absence of teaching quality and capability that floods the developing countries with educational movements like Nusawarna. But after knowing the evidence, a necessary activity is to trace the root cause. Public schools on the island fail to deliver quality education. Whose responsibility is it to ensure that the schools hold the capability to undertake such a duty? The rise of educational movements like Nusawarna should be looked at as a signal of a problem; a signal that something is wrong with the system. Educational movements are never going to substitute formal education. So, instead of merely praising such movements, policymakers should use this occurrence as an ingredient to rethink and evaluate their ways of addressing educational problems. Why is there a lack of budget support for impoverished, abandoned islands? Where did the budget go?

Indonesia President Joko Widodo adopted the money follow program approach, where the budget is allocated according to the priority programs. It’s seven years later yet the strategy fails to tackle fundamental development issues. This is a leadership issue; local governments that essentially have a direct link to the problematic development matters should be the ones addressing these inequities – yet they fail to determine priorities.

Local governments should determine priorities based on evidence. How many local governments in Indonesia now adopt evidence-based policy? Or even if they use the ‘jargon’, are they actually implementing it? It is about implementing a policy that is not merely based on common sense, ideologies, and intuitions. Public policy should be based on informed, verifiable, objective evidence. Why don’t the local governments invest on research and development – producing provincial-level datasets that document in-depth sectoral development matters? The national dataset could provide a general understanding of reality, but a more detailed dataset, while time-consuming, will make a difference to how society could acquire their fundamental human rights. Once the data is acquired, the next action is to design a localized approach to tackle the challenges. Problems like teaching quality, educational attainment, literacy skills, cannot always be tackled by the template strategies. Development challenges are unlike solving maths; it’s not exact, and that’s why it takes more than logic to address them. Because accuracy is in development intervention is not determined by mere formulas but also by the what, who, where, why, and when behind the development matters.

This article is featured in JUSTIN Development Review (JDR) Vol. 02 Issue 01 — March 2022


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