Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Commentary on English Program at DW

I suppose now is as good a time as ever to discuss the approach to language learning at Dwiwarna, which I think is reflected throughout Indonesia.

DW is a three-year high school. When students arrive at DW, they are given an IQ test. I'm not kidding. Teachers here assure me of the soundness of placing great weight on the IQ scores because "the IQ tests are administered by a third party." I see! A third party, of course! - they must be decisive! Based on the IQ test, students are slotted into various classes: A, B, C, D, and E. They have one semester to cement their place in one of the general grade 10 classes or earn a spot in the SBI class (prepare for IGCSE tests, classes of all subjects taught in English) or the SKS/AXL program (finish the three-year education in two years). SBI and SKS/AXL are the all-star classes of the school. They have attentive, intelligent, interested students with very strong English skills.

After their second semester, the non-SBI/SKS/AXL students are placed into two categories for their eleventh grade year: IPS, the Social class, and IPA, the Science class. Basically, they take the top performing half of the class and put them in IPA1 and IPA2, and the bottom performing half into IPS1 and IPS2. The idea is that a program in the hard sciences gives their strongest students a better shot at entrance to international universities and strong schools in Indonesia. The message to the students, intentional or not, is: IPS, you are stupid. IPA, you are smarter, but not that smart. SBI, SKS/AXL, you are the smartest, the hope and pride of the school.

Each class is given its own classroom that students stay in for the entire day. So the students remain in the same exact room, and any student sharing one class shares all classes. Teachers rotate from classroom to classroom. I think the idea was that if you let students move from class to class they'll never get there on time. A bell announces to students and teachers when classes are to be changed. A single bell is rung to signal the end of one class and the subsequent start of the next. An employee of the school working the main front desk holds a PA microphone to a boom box playing a recording of a bell to signal the changes. Students start at 7:15 (except on Mondays, when they start at 7:05) and hold class in 40-minute blocs, generally two blocs per class. So the students will have 80 minutes of math, then 80 minutes of chemistry, then a 20-minute "brunch" break. Another 80 minutes of class X, then 40 minutes of the first half of class Y, followed by one hour for prayer and lunch, then 40 minutes of the second half of class Y, and a final 80-minute bloc of class Z to finish the day.

I have grown to hold some objections to this system and I will run through a couple here. First off, the bell system is laughable. Whoever is running it rings the bell at the funniest times. You can generally expect that the bell will be rung late - unless the bell signals a break, in which case, you can actually expect that it will be rung early. I'm not kidding. Each Monday, according to the schedule, a class runs from 9:05 to 9:45. This is the typical 40-minute bloc. From 9:45-10:05 the 20-minute brunch is scheduled, followed by the next class from 10:05-10:45. The bell usually rings between 5-10 minutes EARLY for the first half of the brunch break, and then 5-10 minutes late for the end of the brunch and the beginning of the next class. The second bell being late I can kind of understand. But the first bell being early? Are you kidding me? The break that should run 9:45-10:05 ends up running from 9:37-10:11, or something like that, and the break takes 15 minutes or more from class time. I find this hilarious, but if your goal is serious classes that get things done, this practice probably isn't helping.

Second, it seems like keeping students in the same room for the whole school day is a terrible practice. The supposed benefit of this practice - that classes would actually start on time, because you wouldn't have to wait for tardy students - is made nonexistent by habitually late teachers. Because the bell only rings once, there is already ambiguity about the start time. This gives teachers convenient leeway to take a few extra minutes sitting in the office before heading off to class. You still have to take attendance, obviously, and students still skip classes.

The cons - that students get bored and lose focus when stuck in the same environment for 7+ hours a day, and that now you cannot give students individualized programs to place them in classes that appropriately challenge and stimulate them - play themselves out daily. It seems obvious to me that a student who is strong in biology could be weak in history, and vice versa. And with the more intensely cumulative disciplines, like mathematics and especially language learning, taking the appropriate level is essential. If you are too far ahead of yourself, you stunt your growth; likewise if you already know everything and class bores you to death. This business with a student being strong in one discipline and weak in another is especially true with languages. Some of my students have very strong English skills, but because they scored low on the IQ test and subsequently underperformed their way into IPS class, they don't get taught English at an appropriate level. The reverse happens even more frequently - students who come in from Papua or other places where they barely speak Indonesian, who arrive at DW needing to learn two whole new languages, for whom English is utterly new. These students need to start at the beginning! But they get shuffled along with the rest of their IPS, IPA, or other classmates to the same exact English classroom, under the assumption that because their scores on an IQ test are similar and their performance in their first couple of semesters were similar, they belong in the same language classroom. Huh? Maybe I'm crazy, but it seems to me that language skill correlates to repetition and exposure more than it does to intelligence or academic performance. I never knew an American who could speak Thai because his IQ was so high and he did really well in school.

If they would change things to where students could choose or be placed into classes on an individual basis, they would theoretically be able to make progress in every subject and make use of their three years at DW. The school could offer a class with the most basic English so that students from Papua or with little exposure to the language could gain a little footing and have half a chance to learn anything. It would also then be able to offer a very advanced English class so that students who arrive with strong English skills leave even stronger, instead of growing stale or staying stagnant through their time.

But what a headache this would cause for the registrar and the head of curriculum! Better just keep things simple and stuff them haphazardly into one group that takes every single class together.

And what about tardiness? Wouldn't the students just never show up to classes? Use a two-bell system and get somebody to actually ring it on time. Use a timer, or better yet, just watch the clock. Ring the bell once to signal the end of one class, and again five minutes later to signal the beginning of the next class. Anyone who isn't in their seat gets marked tardy.

Then again, it's a lot easier to just do what we did last year.

No comments:

Post a Comment