Lendo has created alternative, community-supported education innovative in both its approach to the learning process as well as the governance of the schools. Through the Nature Schools in which children are actively engaged in scientific inquiry to learn about their environments, Lendo is demonstrating that high quality education can be made available without expensive infrastructures, and that these alternative practices can influence Indonesian education on a broad scale.
The New Idea
Lendo's innovations in education have been driven by several important insights. Firstly, that the current education system in Indonesia destroys children’s inquisitive nature and dampens their enthusiasm to explore their world. In the approach which he has developed in Sekolah Alam, The Nature School, from preschool age on students are taught to view the world as an active learning experience in which they interact with natural phenomena: observing, questioning, recording, hypothesizing and testing their hypotheses. This methodology is applied to all the subjects which they learn with a range of activities to encourage not only creativity, but also confidence building and leadership, as well as entrepreneurship. While the learning methods of the Nature Schools are applicable for all children they have been proven to be especially relevant to children with special needs. The students include children who have been labeled hyperactive, attention deficient and autistic.
Secondly, Lendo’s schools are owned and governed by the community of parents and teachers with economic investment and attention focused upon the quality of teachers and their benefits. Parents are also encouraged to be actively involved in their children’s education and often volunteer at the schools. Democratic governance councils are established from the level of the classroom, the school, to the foundation. Indonesians tend to believe in the paradigm that excellent education equals expensive education, that parents must pay high fees for quality and that quality is determined by building facilities, laboratories, and high test score results. In the Nature Schools infrastructure costs are kept relatively low by the use of attractive but simple, natural and recycled materials.
In Indonesia the education system has seen little change from the era of the New Order regime to the current period of “reformation”. Learning is still primarily based upon rote learning methods and extensive preparation for multiple choice tests on which only one answer is correct. Students are not encouraged to question and uniformity rather than creativity are rewarded. Students who are active are often punished. During the 1990’s schools began to appear in urban centers offering the national curriculum “plus”. These schools boast first class facilities, teachers and opportunities, but the price is comparable to private schools abroad and thus only accessible by the elite, supporting the paradigm in people’s minds that high quality education equals expensive education.
In the current education system, parents often experience a sense of alienation from their children’s education. They are only invited to the school twice or three times a year to pick up a report card and encounters with their children’s teachers are often brief. Teachers are seriously underpaid and often can’t focus on their classroom teaching because they have to work teaching after school lessons or hold other jobs as a means to supplement their incomes. In the state sponsored public schools, elementary school teachers’ salaries average about Rp.250-300.000 / month, while in many private schools, teachers may receive triple that amount, it is still not sufficient to attract top graduates. The classes are large, often with one teacher per 40-45 students.
The result of all the limitations in education is that students become passive learners with little initiative to read or do research to explore the world around them. Their focus is not on what interests them, but on achieving high test scores and passing all the hurdles culminating in the extremely competitive university entrance exams.
The innovation in the teaching methodology is how to capitalize upon the natural, active curiosity of young children. Everyday in their lessons the children interact with nature and practice observation and data gathering, research, hypothesis-forming, and experimentation. Play and learning activities blend together, so that the children develop their curiosity and creative thinking skills. Besides encouraging creativity, students also learn leadership skills and build confidence through outbound training which is practiced weekly as part of their curriculum from preschool age on. Business entrepreneurship is stimulated and encouraged through weekly market activities in which the students sell products they have made or grown to each other, parents and the community near their school.
An important focus of Lendo’s Sekolah Alam concept is that the quality of education is determined by the quality of the teachers. The teachers are chosen from applicants who are graduates of leading universities (with a high percentage from science faculties) and demonstrate both commitment to the innovative methodology, emotional maturity and a love of children. A special training program has been developed to assure that the teachers fully understand and feel a sense of ownership with the teaching methodolgy. The ratio of teachers to students is maintained at 2:20 (maximum), and the teachers’ salaries are substantially above the norm (Rp. 1.5-2 million per month). Lendo has initiated a teachers’ fund (bea-guru) in which the teachers and the parents manage the school's funds so that approximately 70% of the educational costs is channeled to teachers’ salaries. Now, these costs are completely covered by the parents, in a cross subsidy system. Basically the school fees for each student (which range from Rp.50,000-Rp500,000 per month) are determined by their parents’ income. About 38% of the students’ educational fees are subsidized by the families of students that are able to pay more, while 5% of the students are on full scholarship. Currently Lendo is experimenting with a concept he has developed for a form of savings bond which he offers to wealthy Jakartans who are interested in investing in education. The idea is to increase the amount of capital available to poorer communities for their set up and teachers' funds.
The governance of the schools is based on encouraging participation. The children take part in decisions about their program of studies and classroom regulations. Parents regularly volunteer at the school and gain first hand understanding of the methods used, as well as the administrative and material needs of the school. A class council of parents and teachers for each class oversee administrative and educational planning at the class level, while a school council of parents and teachers deal with school level policy decisions. The “teachers’ fund” is part of this governance system, allowing key administrative decisions to be made by the teachers and parents which can assure the teachers’ welfare. The foundation focuses upon fund raising and assisting with the spread of the ideas.
The Sekolah Alam schools are built to be in harmony with the natural environment in which they are located. They are consciously constructed to minimize the costs of school infrastructures. The attractive, knock-down buildings are made of natural materials and there is always extra land for gardening, fishponds and outdoor activities. The classrooms don't use desks and chairs, but traditional style floor mats are used. The students exploration of nature and experimentation are supported by research in the library. They have an excellent collection of books donated to the school by The British Council with additional donations from the school community. Unlike school libraries in most schools in Indonesia which are poorly stocked and rarely used, the Sekolah Alam library is packed with books and alive with daily activity. To provide resources for information, Lendo has also developed an innovative computer program for very young children. Lendo and his school won an IBM sponsored competition to design computer based learning materials for young children in which 30 schools in Indonesia took part.
The first Nature School (Sekolah Alam) was established in the Ciganjur area of South Jakarta in 1997 and has continued to grow until today when this school has about 220 students from preschool through the 6th grade. The school has received wide public attention with numerous magazine articles and television specials aired over 20 times. This has led to visits from educators and parents from all over Indonesia. Lendo has been involved in the set ups of nine Nature Schools in Java and Sumatera. He believes that the schools should be autonomous, free to experiment and owned by the parents and teachers in each location, but there are certain principles such as the basic methodology of learning from the environment and participatory school governance which they all follow. Before opening a new Nature School, members of the new community are expected to visit and observe at an established Nature School, the new teachers participate in the teacher training program and apprentice for 1-3 months at the Nature School in Ciganjur. Lendo’s plans include the establishment of a Nature School in every province of Indonesia to serve as a locally available reference of innovative education. These schools would cooperate with the best university in each province and could in this way provide a kind of lab school for students, young graduates, and public school teachers to learn about alternatives in education and thus help to train future teachers.
Lendo was born and grew up in Jakarta. His own memories of elementary school are not happy ones as he was regularly punished for asking too many questions and not being able to sit still, most likely he says what would be labeled today as a “hyper-active child”. He was nonetheless a successful student, encouraged at home to read widely and to excel in chess, martial arts and sports. He studied petroleum engineering at ITB and did a masters degree there in energy resource management. Throughout university he was active in the Nature Lovers hiking clubs and other student organizations including his involvement in the movement of student activism critical of the New Order Regime. When the Minister of the Interior tried to visit the campus in 1989, Lendo was one of the students who led a demonstration to block his access to campus to express the students' empathy for local people who had been evicted from their lands for development projects. Together with about 11 other students, he was imprisoned for almost a year. This experience had a powerful influence on Lendo. As he says, he had lots of time for reflection and decided he wanted to do something productive with a direct impact for the community. Always critical of the education he had experienced, he began to read intensively about concepts in education. When he was released from prison, he began to experiment with his ideas for innovative learning/teaching methodologies. With four friends from ITB, he set up a small school starting with a playgroup and kindergarten. This was a chance to test out his ideas. The school was written up in Tempo Magazine as an interesting experiment in education, however, as a result of this article, Lendo received a lot of criticism especially from experts who said he was not a professional educator. Eventually one of the original funders took over the school, and Lendo spent a period of time contributing his ideas and energy to various NGOs. When he decided to move with his family back to Jakarta, he searched for a suitable plot of land on which to establish the first Nature School. Critical of the way NGOs tend to be dependent upon donors, developing sustainability of the Nature Schools has been important to Lendo. In order to support his own family, Lendo set up a logistics company which has become a successful business.