Wahya, working in the small village of Lawen in central Java, is demonstrating approaches to education that help rural youngsters feel rooted in, not alienated from their community and its economics.
Wahya was born in Klaten, central Java, in December 1961. She is the third child of eight children of a family of successful traders. Her grandparents, who owned a tobacco factory, were unusually sensitive to the needs of their workers. Her grandmother told her to be close to the workers and regard them as her own extended family, and she showed in her day-to-day life that this was not empty rhetoric. This sensitivity encouraged Wahya to become involved in social service. By the time she was in high school, she became the chairperson of its public-service organization.She continued her education in a finance and banking polytechnic in Yogyakarta, graduating in 1986. While studying there in 1985, she started working at the Institute of Public Service of a Christian university in Duta Wacana, Yogyakarta. She worked there for three years until she married a dedicated public service activist, Rahardjo, and moved with him to Lawen.
Distressed by seeing so many schoolchildren learning little, having no fun, and becoming alienated from their surroundings, Wahya has developed an alternative approach to education that demonstrably does far better on all three accounts. She has applied it to preschool and, for older children up to eighteen, in an after-school program that typically begins at 3:00 p.m. After initial hostility from the government schoolteachers, her approaches are beginning to gain acceptance. Visible educational success, community support, and her tact explain and demonstrate the program's impact as well as suggest the broader potential of her ideas.Her approach is participative and democratic for both teachers and students. It weaves together basic reading, current events, language skills, and some science along with dance, music, and drama. All of these studies are then brought to life, in the students' daily chores and in the real achievements and problems of the community.The teachers, all volunteers, meet weekly to design the next week's curriculum. The students also make suggestions. Not only do they block out what they are going to cover, but they look for local experiences or problems that will help in the learning process. For example, when they chose to study plant disease, they went to a sick field and investigated. (They discovered that bad seeds were the cause, which in turn invited a discussion of how this happened and of the possible remedies available to the affected farmer.)The youngsters learn to help one another with their school assignments, in the group's artistic productions, and in getting their chores done. Projects such as rabbit raising are also done together, with profits going half in dividends to the participating students and half into savings accounts for them. Thus learning to collaborate is not only a valuable work skill traditionally greatly valued by Javanese society, but is very much part of Wahya's strategy of building a strong, warm sense of community-- one of the most powerful antidotes to the alienating pull of the formal schools and the urban-based media.By incorporating chores into the curriculum, Wahya has found an important key to winning the parents' support for her work, and to avoiding their opposition. By then adding new and successful income-generating programs for these parents' youngsters, she has further solidified parents' support for her program.In the course of doing so, she has developed a new funding mechanism that could eventually prove to be of wide-ranging value well beyond the immediate application for which she developed it. She has, in effect, found a successful way to connect middle-class urban savers with rural borrowers that allows the former very high yields and the latter medium-term loans that would be prohibitive at the rates charged by local money lenders.Some of her urban friends, whom she met as a student in Yogyakarta, lend enough for a village youth to buy a calf for 400,000 rupiah (roughly $140). The youth then raises the calf to maturity in six to twelve months, benefiting from it in the meantime, and then sells it for 600,000 rupiah. Half the profit goes to the lender, providing a return in nine months of over thirty percent. The student gets both his or her equal profit share and another successful learning experience likely to encourage interest in the local economy.Even after just a few years' work, Wahya's youngsters stand out as especially articulate and confident, and Lawen has begun winning one government competition after another.
Formal education is designed by the central government in Jakarta. Jakarta's formula is then implemented in all twenty-seven provinces and 3,000 islands of Indonesia, regardless of their very diverse cultures, values, and local circumstances. Even though the plan encourages enriching the curricula with local color, doing so takes second place to nation building. Further, even within one local culture there are vast differences between rural and urban areas and among social classes. The current system seems chiefly to benefit children from educated families: Wahya finds many rural third and fourth graders are still illiterate.The present formal education system also tends to uproot children. They stumble over foreign vocabularies and learn about worlds often irrelevant to the problems they face and have to solve daily. The children find it hard to connect with such schooling, and if they do connect, they are drawn away from respecting their own world in favor of the glitter of city life. When some do go to the cities, they are not prepared to do much more than serve as domestic workers or unskilled laborers, and all too often fall even lower than these bottom rung toeholds. In the meantime, the villages lose many of their most venturesome potential leaders.The government is trying to fight these trends. One campaign after another argues that the country's future is in the villages. It sends graduates to develop rural areas by transferring knowledge and technology. Despite all this effort, the tide is still unquestionably against the villages.How can young people see a future in a community they have been taught to view as backward? They know it will be all but impossible for their children to get a good education there. Moreover, until villagers can get good, creativity-encouraging, involving education, the villagers can only in fact be backward, falling further behind.
When Wahya came to Lawen with her new husband in 1988, many children growing up in this isolated village shied away from her, a stranger. Eventually some of them accepted her invitation to come into her home and read some of her books. Initially she was impressed with how quickly they got through some of the volumes-- until she discovered that, unable to read or write, they were merely looking at the pictures.This experience set her to work conducting a survey of the village's educational condition. What she found was disturbing: third- and fourth-graders, unable to read or write, and terribly high dropout rates. Those girls that had stuck with school up to the sixth grade suddenly, for example, would drop out in favor of arranged marriages.Wahya, recognizing that the future of this village (and of villages in Indonesia more generally) would ultimately be determined in the hearts and minds of its young people, set out to create a very different experience for them over their first eighteen years. They needed to develop more as independent-thinking, creative, equal, collaborative citizens. They needed truly to become literate, skilled, and cultured. They needed to have fun. They needed to earn self respect, and to be respected. They needed to see the challenges and opportunities they could master in their native piece of the world, and they needed to experience real satisfaction in their daily life there.A radically different education, broadly defined, was essential. The current system was a failure, even counter- productive. But how could she change it? The distant Jakarta ministries were unlikely to hear her, let alone respond. And the government school compelled young elementary age children to attend-- one of the country's proud triumphs of the last decade. How could she do more than work with a few children personally?Her strategy has been to make her work the youngsters' and the community's work. It is not set aside, controlled from afar, and dancing to unfamiliar rhythms like the school. The teachers are all volunteers, both the adults and the youngsters, who carry most of the educator's role by helping one another. Their classroom is the community, and schoolwork and family chores mix together in daily comfort.The parents, even those who are illiterate, support it. They benefit directly, they see their children learning practical skills and earning money, and they sense this is an education that will not lead their children to look down on them and their lives.In the process, the parents (and the youngsters) also absorb important new insights into parenthood. Teaching through play motivates the children strongly. Periodically involving the parents helps them consciously recognize the importance of play and, more broadly, ensures the children a happy, pleasant childhood. As a result of the series of income-producing schemes their children run, the parents also come to accept that their children have a right to their own money-- a change with very far-ranging implications.In a world where everything is planned and controlled from above, Wahya's youngsters in large part set their own agenda. From preschool on, her program encourages them to express themselves and to be able to interact with strangers comfortably. In drawing, for example, even the youngest choose their own topic and, once they have finished a drawing, explain its story.Another necessary element of Wahya's model is demonstrating how such independent community-supported educational programs can finance themselves. Volunteer labor, that of adults and young people, is key. But more is needed as well. Here income generating work is one part of her answer. Starting with very young children raising guinea pigs and proceeding to organized groups of twelve older children contracting to take care of a herd of cattle, this sort of practical work helps out financially and provides good training. Her pioneering methods of financing such schemes with affordable loans from urban middle-class families could allow them to spread rapidly.With this sort of sustainable community support, Wahya has been able, in effect, to take direct control of most of the educational space not controlled legally by the government's formal schooling: preschool, what happens in the afternoon when the formal school ends, and after a youngster drops out of school. The success of and community support for her approach is now even beginning to nudge the government teachers to adopt some of her ways. She is, of course, helping them tactfully wherever possible.Her approach has spread encouragingly in and near Lawen over the last year. Extending it to the millions of youngsters across Indonesia who could benefit is Wahya's next challenge.