Najelaa Shihab: Founder of Cikal

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I’m Najeela Shihab. I’m an educator, I initiated many organizations in the education field. Some of them are directly dealing with children. I’ve founded schools and preschools, like Cikal. Some of them work with teachers, in Komunitas Guru Belajar (Learning Teacher Community) , and Kampus Guru Cikal (Cikal Teacher Campus) and the Indibudi movement. Some of them work with government, like Pusat Studi Pendidikan dan Kebijakan (Educational Research Center). I also initiated an organization that focuses on family education – Keluarga Kita (Our family)  – with volunteers named Relawan Keluarga Kita (Our Family Volunteers) or Rangkul, and I work with around 400 education communities and organizations through Semua Murid, Semua Guru (All Students, All Teachers) network.

How did you get into the education space? What makes you passionate?

I think since the very beginning, I’ve been surrounded by education issues. I was raised in a family of educators – my dad is an educator; so are my grandparents. The main thing that I kept hearing since I was very young was that, “If you’re going to choose a certain career path, then make sure it has a meaningful contribution to society.” I went through my entire schooling period in Indonesia and had a typical Indonesian kid’s schooling experience: primary to secondary to junior all through secondary and senior school, and then public university. 

Looking back, I always fit the criteria of a successful student…that is, if you’re only looking into grades, final examination results, etc. But I always thought there was something missing in the education sector. There isn’t a real connection between being successful in school and being successful in life, and I can tell that there are so many misconceptions happening, like how parents should be involved, the discipline method that’s used at school… not to mention there’s no real learning that’s actually motivated internally by the students. 

I think an understanding of psychology is the one factor that’s clearly missing in education in Indonesia. Here, education is not about relationships; you don’t see the students as an unique individual. Rather, you tend to teach the curriculum and the textbooks and not the kids in front of you based on their interests and the relevance of the material to their lives. So, I decided to pursue my studies in psychology based on that. Afterwards I started looking into an even bigger picture of what’s actually happening at the macro level: how the corruption rate is very high, the literacy rate is devastating, the environment, etc., which I always believe comes back to the education of our very young children. So instead of complaining about it and blaming the education system, I chose to dedicate myself and actually work in the field.

What makes your approach to education unique? What is your set of solutions to tackle the education problems in Indonesia?

I think the education sector has been filled with misconceptions and simplifications at all levels, and that makes it very difficult for all stakeholders to actually push reform. I say all stakeholders because another thing that I believe is that education is not only about schooling – it’s about the participation of all stakeholders which include parents, the government, teachers, the students themselves, media — every part of society. If you’re actually going to fix this broken system, then it will take everyone to push the right reform. 

There’s a very high mistrust between stakeholders toward each other. For instance, the government doesn’t really trust the teachers, in a way; they have certain misconceptions about teachers being lazy, that they don’t want to learn unless they get paid to do training or are bribed by certificates. On the other hand, there is also mistrust and misconceptions from parents to teachers, where some of the parents actually think that their responsibility is taken over by schools and they don’t need to be involved with schooling. There are tendencies for simplification as well at the government level, as policymakers tend to view certain approaches as panaceas to our problems: just create more national examinations, just make the items harder. All those things which clearly don’t push education for the better, but only fixes one small thing over the other — there’s no one long roadmap which fixes the system. 

I certainly realise that if you’re talking about education reform it will take at least fifty years. We can fortunately learn from other countries who have actually been able to push the right agenda in terms of their education policy and practice, but what I’ve been seeing is that because we don’t have a clear roadmap, and because the sector is filled with misconceptions and simplifications as well as lack of trust between stakeholders to actually work together– these are the major blockers to progress. And that’s the message I’ve been trying to push through all the organizations.

What’s your take on critical thinking in Indonesia? What more can we do to encourage more critical thinking?

I think from the very beginning, the curriculum in Indonesia actually considers critical thinking as part of a larger goal. If you’re looking into curriculum documents or even legislation, they all talk about the importance of being an active citizen, which requires critical thinking to actually be able to accomplish that. The problem starts at different levels: the capacity of the actors in the education field, the capacity of the teachers themselves, and the parents to actually be able to nurture critical thinking — do they actually have the competency and know the strategy and approach that will be successful to nurture that in children? 

At another level, it comes back to how teachers themselves have been treated by the government. If in the relationship between teachers and the authorities – the head of schools, the head of DINAS pendidikan, the education office at the regency or national level — they are not given the agency to make decisions and to be adaptive in the classroom. If they cannot actually apply critical thinking skills, then it will become very difficult to become the right role models who encourage and nurture those skills in the students.

In the past few years, terms such as “21st century thinking” or “higher order thinking” have become trendy in the education sector, and a lot of effort has been made into campaigning the importance of these skills. If there’s one achievement we’ve accomplished, it’s that we’ve gotten more stakeholders to agree about the need to have more future-ready kids to embrace 21st century skills, such as critical thinking, creativity, the ability to collaborate, etc. That’s a very significant part of the journey, but it’s not enough; we need to push for actual delivery in the classroom, and it starts with the embrace and practice of these philosophies.

Can you comment on girls in education? What specific challenges do they face in the education sphere in Indonesia?

Since the beginning, I think access — in terms of girls’ participation in schooling — has been the main priority of our education strategy. Now, it’s not as much of an issue anymore; that’s another part of the policy and practice that has been successful.

However, when you talk about quality, then it’s a different story. Being at school does not actually mean learning for many Indonesian students — including girls. There are gender-specific issues with regards to learning materials; the content of textbooks don’t picture girls as they should be — they’re not gender-sensitive enough. In some of the books, girls are still pictured as people who stay at home and don’t play the different roles in society that they actually do in real life. There are certain gender-specific issues in terms of access, as some girls are out of school due to marrying at an earlier age, however I think that the quality issues should be our main priority right now… in the education sector, there aren’t any differences in the quality of teaching and learning that girls are receiving relative to boys. Actually, if you look at the the numbers, girls are at an advantage as they tend to do better at school, if you consider grades as a measure of success.

Another issue is with the teachers themselves. In terms of the numbers, we have around equal numbers of female and male teachers in the classroom, but in terms of leadership, we still haven’t seen as many female leaders at the school, district and national level in the education field. Most of them are at the teacher level and not at the principal level.

Speaking of female leaders in education, what is it like to be a female in the education industry on the leadership level? Do you face any specific challenges, especially because as you said, most of people in the higher levels are male?

Being in education is more female-friendly, in a way, because it’s more traditional as a sector. I haven’t been in any other sector, but I can imagine the challenges faced by female leaders in different sectors. In terms of stereotypes and how people see you, I don’t think that being a female leader in this sector is that challenging in the lower levels, when you’re dealing with teachers, students and parents in early childhood education. 

However, once you progress through the field, dealing with secondary schools, as well as government policies, then it becomes a totally different battlefield. It becomes more similar to other sectors, and although being a female leader come with certain challenges, it also comes with certain strengths; the ability to negotiate, to be more empathetic to different stakeholders, to actually build connections and engage different people to talk about certain policies, and to ask them to look from different perspectives. All the challenges — being questioned, being the minority in the meeting room — can be overcome if you show that you have the competence to bring the best results to the table.

In your opinion, what role does the general public play in education?

One of the misconceptions that I’ve mentioned earlier is that people still see education as solely the government’s responsibility; as we can see from the experience of other countries that have been very successful, our ability to involve more public participation will be one of the key drivers for educational reform. When I say public, I’m also referring to players such as corporations; how much of their corporate social responsibility is actually put into education, and whether it’s right kind of intervention. I work with several corporations, and even after looking at the ecosystem thoroughly, some of them choose to focus on access, building more schools and libraries instead of focusing on the quality and capacity of the actors. It’s more difficult to engage corporations to provide teacher training; they prefer to distribute books or build schools in certain areas instead of enhancing the capacity of existing schools and teachers. So that’s one agenda to increase participation from the private sector, both in terms of the number of corporations and other players who contribute to educational reform, as well as the quality of intervention and the programs they’re supporting.

There are other parts of the public: different players such as the media need to provide a better narration of what’s happening in the education sector. For example, most media will talk about national examinations, without any mention of the innovation that’s happening in the classroom. We need to start asking better questions to get a better picture of where we are and what we should do. 

The public also refers to the general populace who are not in the classroom everyday. One of the things we’ve been trying to do is to involve them at all levels; from crowdfunding, to involving them as expert volunteers who come back to their old schools and share their professional experiences to inspire students. The main idea behind Semua Murid, Semua Guru is that every single one of us is a part of the overall education system — you don’t have to be a teacher or student in the classroom to claim the responsibility of pushing for the betterment of education.

Could you elaborate on the role that Semua Murid, Semua Guru is playing in creating impact in education?

What the Semua Murid, Semua Guru network aims to do is to join all these forces who have previously been working separately on their own initiatives and in their own local contexts, to build together the capacities of organizations, founders, and leaders, so that they can achieve better and more impact. Leaders who have any interest in education can join the Semua Murid, Semua Guru network — we have an incubator program where we provide mentorship to initiators who have ideas about implementing an education program. We also help founders and initiators of organizations to scale their programs to different areas of Indonesia, as we know that one of our biggest problems in Indonesia is scaling; we’re talking about 83 million children, 56 million of which are in schools across 514 different cities. So even if someone has been really successful in building an initiative in a certain city, one of the major leaps that needs to be taken is the ability to replicate and adapt it to different cities — that’s where working together would be really crucial in this sector.

Who are some role models that you might have, such as people you admire, your co-workers, or your colleagues that you admire in the education space?

I think the key people of everything that I do are the volunteers that are involved in the initiatives — I learn from them every single day, because they’re the ones who doing the real work in the field, across different contexts. All of the volunteers at Rangkul — Relawan Keluarga Kita — who actually go from one school to the next, doing their classes in each kelurahan (urban community), or going to different arisans (social gathering), have really interesting stories. They don’t get paid, for one thing, and actually donate more than just their money and their time; they donate their whole heart because they believe in the mission of educating not only their own children, but also all the children in the community. Some of them put so much into this initiative, despite all the obstacles and challenges of actually conducting a session or inviting other parents to join their sessions.

I also learn a lot from penggerak (volunteers) Komunitas Guru Belajar, the teacher network that Kampus Guru Cikal founded. There are thousands of them all over Indonesia, and we now have penggerak, the volunteers, in 148 cities all over Indonesia. Most of them come not from a privileged background — not from a good school with enough facilities, but those with very limited conditions — but instead of blaming the system, blaming the government, and expecting the other people to change the conditions, they are a very empowered part of the teaching force who collaborate with other teachers, share best practices, and prove what’s possible in very limited conditions. That has been a constant source of inspiration for me, and they keep the flame alive — if thousands of people actually believe in this cause and are doing the real work, my part in the initiative is actually very small compared to what they’ve been doing. 

Can you tell me a story about a time where you felt super inspired?

I have lots and lots of stories, actually! When you’re meeting different people all the time, going from one place to another, and seeing how teaching and learning in a classroom and in the family happens, you can always find something inspiring. Let me think…

Three months ago, I travelled to Sumba. I brought my family with me to visit this one school, which was around three and a half hours from the Sumba airport, and had no telecommunications signal at all, and was couple of meters from a very sharp cliff. When visiting my school, one of my kids said, “Mom, I don’t think you can find anyone who here who is ready to be a penggerak for Komunitas Guru Belajar; it’s a very small school, and the infrastructure is in a really bad condition.” But I told her, “You know what? Regardless of the circumstances, I think there are always one or two innovators within that ecosystem who are ready to make the leap and drive change in that context.” So when I stepped in, I saw that they had ten classes which were very limited in terms of infrastructure — they didn’t have tiles in the classroom, and they didn’t even have blackboards; the teachers had to do multiplication and division tables on the school desks. But upon looking closer at those ten classrooms, I observed that there are two classrooms which were exceptionally different to the others. You could see how the teachers are doing the best they could with very limited infrastructure: they used scrap paper to help students to make different two and three dimensional shapes, they used chalk on the desks and the chairs to draw something with the children because they didn’t have enough clean paper to use. Coming out of that school and talking to those two teachers was exceptional — I was really fired up! I remember I telling my kids, “See? Regardless of where you are, you can always meet innovators who just need to meet another outsider, like me or someone else in the network, to empower them and make them believe that they can be the ones driving change instead of waiting for someone else from the outside to do it. “

Last question: do you have any advice for anyone who wants to jump into the education space, in order to make a change and empower other people?

My advice is that you need to start as early as possible. If you’re looking into the field, based on what I’ve been seeing for the past 20 years, we are actually at an emergency state: the education sector in Indonesia really needs more people to be involved and dedicate their lives to push reform in this sector. So even if you have a slight interest, what I’m suggesting is to start a small initiative within your context, whether it’s in your school, your university, your village, or anything — find one problem and try to work from that. You don’t have to wait until you graduate to do it. You don’t have to wait and say “I need to wait another ten years to be able to have more understanding, I need to have a degree.”

When I was 22, I founded and became a head of a school, and I was really nervous at that stage because I didn’t think anyone would believe and enroll their kids in a school that was founded by a 22 year old female. What I’ve found even after doing this for twenty years, I’m still learning along the way. If you keep your ideas to yourself and don’t actually start doing the work, then you’ll never get experience of what really works and what doesn’t. Even for someone who’s been in the field for years, it’s still a learning process, and I can say that some of my initiatives have been successful, but some need tweaking all throughout the process. So the earlier you do real work, the more that you’ll be able to achieve. Even as a 15 or a 12 year old student in school,  you can still do something to impact the betterment of education. 


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