Be educated, be happy

Totok Amin Soefijanto

Learning is no entertainment.” Was Bruno Mars, an example of a talented person without formal skills, the one who coined this phrase? Nope. Aristotle did.

If you want to be happy, then don’t engage in learning-related activities. This goes against the recent global trend in schooling. Many education systems in a variety of nations are leaving behind the concept of “no pain, no gain.” Many advanced countries now implement the concept of happy schools.

In March, the World Bank and Australia’s Foreign Affairs and Trade ministries conducted a conference on “equitable and excellent basic education systems” in Jakarta. The objective, as stated by Harry Patrinos from the World Bank, was to share the best practices from all over the world with policy-makers in ASEAN and the region.

It was interesting to learn that, among other things, some advanced education systems have left behind the concept of a merit system and must-have competitiveness. They apply a new approach that places more emphasis on happiness and collaboration. Take Singapore, known for its rat-race approach to achieving good grades, and which indeed ranks top on the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests in math, science and reading.

PISA is conducted every three years by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). According to Andreas Schleicher, the OECD education chief, around half a million students took the 2015 PISA test.

Prof. S. Gopinathan, the academic director of Human Capital and Education for Asian Development (HEAD) in Singapore, has revealed some secrets to this success, such as isolating education from politics to maintain policy continuity, building on the urge to work hard, and creating a capable bureaucracy with a high-caliber leadership. In short, one must keep thinking and working hard to perform well in any test.

Madis Lepajoe of Estonia — another high-performer country in PISA — added that education was highly valued in his society, so it was easier to allocate national resources for education. Focus on your goal. If you want to succeed, as Rod Allen of Canada put it eloquently, transform the education system “with” the teachers.

Stakeholders like teachers play an important role in the process, because reforming a system is similar to changing the culture. Yet, these three countries — Singapore, Estonia and Canada — stress the value of hard work and perseverance among their students. So, should we try working harder than them?

Not necessarily. The new trend reveals the opposite. Andrew Schelicher of the OECD praised Indonesia, saying poverty does not determine one’s destiny, as shown by how several low-income students’ average science scores were higher than their peers in the OECD countries.

Another significant achievement for Indonesia is reducing grade repetition by half in that period. Repetition is considered by many economists as “expensive and impractical” for national budgets.

The low and middle achievers like Indonesia in PISA are still struggling with many problems, mostly low teacher competency, budget allocation and bureaucracy ineffectiveness in education. Well then, are there any other alternatives to this competitive approach in assessment?

Gwang-Jo Kim, the Asia Pacific director of UNESCO, suggested that PISA scores do not represent learning. He introduced the “happy schools” concept as an alternative. The demanding atmosphere in schools has made our children unhappy due to too much pressure, high expectations, and an overemphasis on academics, tests, and competition.

He believes that all children deserve to be happy and enjoy their life in school, through a genuine love of learning, friendship and a sense of belonging to their community.

Coincidentally, last February, the Varkey Foundation published its comprehensive global study on the attitudes and wellbeing of 15- to 21-year-olds in 20 countries (See: Indonesian youths among happiest in the world: Survey, The Jakarta Post, Feb. 10, 2017).

For nearly half of the young people, school is one of their top sources of anxiety. The highest proportions of young people feeling pressured in school are in South Korea (70 percent) and Canada (63 percent) — both in the Top 10 OECD PISA rankings for math and reading.

Singapore has chosen an alternative way to maintain its excellent achievement. Lim Tai Cheng, a professor of Singapore Management University Academy said Singapore was implementing a new approach in education, from bottom to top. No school rankings, and the government even bans schools from publishing top scores. It is replacing the meritocratic system with a “stratified system” that encourages individual attention instead of a selfish mentality and eroded trust and cooperation.

The “happy schools” concept in Singapore promotes friendship and relationships with classmates, emphasizes values and character, allows the students to grow their affection for learning. The government also advises teachers to work all-out in accommodating students’ strengths and weaknesses, to distribute resources more evenly to lower academic achiever schools, and spread strong leaders across schools.

One may be concerned that Indonesia will take the “happy path” even before it achieves best scores in PISA and other valid assessments. Alas, that would become just an excuse for not working hard in the classrooms. Why bother with any test that makes children miserable? Well, this is a matter of perception.

The Happy Schools book by UNESCO cites interesting rationale: Socrates said that happiness was “obtainable and teachable” through human effort; in particular through being “virtuous” In short, a good man and woman can be both happy and educated; not either or.

So, the lessons for the time being are: make our children learn in a happy place where they can find their love of learning and desire to be better educated citizens. Do work hard for PISA, national exams and other assessments. However, don’t worry, be happy. The writer is a vice rector of Paramadina University and research director of Paramadina Public Policy Institute, Jakarta.

*The writer is Vice-Rector of Paramadina University in Jakarta and Research Director of Paramadina Public Policy Institute.

This article was published by The Jakarta Post on May 27, 2017