Exploring literacy problems and learning solutions in North Kalimantan

By Priscillia Clara Suatan, MERL Officer of North Kalimantan

In North Kalimantan and in all partner districts and provinces, INOVASI uses a distinctive approach to develop pilot activities and find out what does and doesn’t work to improve student learning outcomes. In simple terms, this approach is called Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA). It sees INOVASI working and learning directly with local partners to explore and identify local problems and co-design locally relevant solutions. In Malinau, North Kalimantan, a synthesis workshop, which is the second step in the PDIA approach, recently took place.

In Malinau, INOVASI is working to design an early grade literacy pilot, with the main objective being to improve the capacity of early grade teachers. Pilot learnings and experiences will inform future development of a model for continuous professional teacher development. As part of pilot design and problem identification, key stakeholders have been taken through a process of identifying core problems, and then exploring the root cause of these challenges. This is important before moving to pilot solution and testing.

The recent pilot synthesis workshop in Malinau aimed to further explore learning and teaching challenges identified earlier this year. The workshop yielded two key conclusions. First, teachers are aware of the problems they face when teaching literacy in the early grades. These problems are often attributed to lack of teaching skill and instructional media, ineffective classroom management, and inappropriate assessment techniques. Secondly, many teachers hold the belief that if a Teacher Working Group is functioning well, then all classroom problems can be solved. This may not necessarily be the case.

The workshop was attended by 57 participants consisting of principals, school supervisors and teachers from cluster one in West Malinau and cluster two in North Malinau. Mrs. Heppi, a teacher at primary school SDN 002 West Malinau, was an active participant in the synthesis workshop. She has been teaching for 13 years, the past four of those teaching early grades – especially grade one. To her frustration, almost all of her first grade students cannot read.

Mrs Heppi’s current class consists of 21 students. In terms of student progress, she found that after one semester, all her students were able to spell letters and most students were able to read words and sentences. Of the 21 students, only four could not do this yet. However, 95% of her students have not been able to understand or comprehend what they are reading and writing. Only two students have reached this level of reading comprehension.

In a general sense, good reading and comprehension skills are key for children to learn and grow. The benefits of reading extend into other subjects and upper grades, including learning mathematics, natural sciences, social sciences, language and religion. Good quality literacy skills mean that the child is able to read, understand the content and meaning of the written text, and is able to interpret and develop the content with his or her own language.

In general, children should be able to read no later than third grade. If not, then the risk is that students fall behind their peers, affecting the rest of their primary level education and learning development. This phenomenon is also termed the ‘Matthew Effect’, where there will be a widening gap between slow starters and fast starters in reading at the basic education level. In essence, the acquisition of literacy in the early grades is crucial for future success.

Mrs. Heppi admitted that the small number of children who can understand what they are reading cannot further progress, as teachers often have low teaching skills and have not completely mastered the teaching materials; these students cannot be nurtured further.

Root cause and solution

The synthesis stage of the PDIA process is designed to find the root cause of learning problems. In the case of INOVASI in Malinau, this refers to problems in early grade literacy. Once the root of the problem is found, then the principal, school supervisor and teacher must co-design a solution together.

The first step of synthesis is mapping the findings of learning problems. The findings arise from the results of observations and interviews conducted during the previous exploration stage. These findings are captured by INOVASI local facilitators, who are a combination of supervisors, principals and teachers from the local area.

For easier mapping, teachers are grouped by class. First grade teachers sit together and are invited to look back at the problems that the local facilitators had found. After determining which of these are the core problem roots, the mapping process then reveals common literacy challenges faced by early grade teachers.

Next, participants prioritise the problems based on two key factors.  Firstly, does the chosen problem have a significant impact on learning? Secondly, can the problem be solved by the teacher?

To facilitate prioritisation of problems, participants are assisted by two tools, namely the problem tree and ‘five whys’. These two tools help teachers to self-reflect on classroom practice and challenges. They are invited to look back at the weaknesses in their class, as well as any challenges and barriers to improvement they face as teachers.

Teachers often have difficulty expressing the true problem. It takes courage to acknowledge one’s flaws or challenges in front of other teachers. However, over time and with facilitation support from INOVASI District Facilitators, one by one teachers can begin to recognise the core problem hindering learning outcomes in the classroom.

For the Malinau Synthesis workshop, after all teachers had finished finding and mapping the problems they face in the classroom, there was a general sense of relief, as well as a list of issues to focus on and address moving forward.

“I am very, very happy. At the very least, it can help teachers understand how to teach well,” Mrs. Heppi commented on the synthesis process.

One of these challenges included teacher inability to plan learning implementation. Observations found that teachers did not make their own lesson plans for teaching in the classroom. During the reflections, teachers admitted that they do not understand how to actually make a lesson plan. Mrs. Heppi and other teachers also admitted to facing difficulties when translating basic competencies and learning goals into strategies and learning steps. Even if they have a lesson plan, they have just downloaded it from the internet – rather than truly understanding how to implement the lesson plan in the classroom.

“Teachers rely too much heavily on the internet. Teachers need to be trained to make lesson plan, not downloading it from the internet,” said Mrs. Heppi.

Other identified issues included teachers being unable to handle rapidly changing curriculum and no adequate opportunity and forum to learn how to make a lesson plan. They saw the Teachers Working Group as the right place for teachers to solve this problem, but the Teachers Working Group has not gone as well as hoped. It requires more support.

Teachers Working Group activities are still considered normative, with teachers coming together only to create test questions. The additional purpose of a Teacher Working Group, that of acting as a forum for teachers’ skills development, had not progressed. Group activities such as understanding the curriculum, training in designing learning methods, making lesson plans and finding ways to deal with students with learning disabilities are still rare.

“The root of our problem is in the Teachers Working Group,” said Mrs. Heppi.

Mrs. Heppi is optimistic that if the Teachers Working Group goes well, the learning problems in the early classes can be overcome. By regularly meeting and practicing together, teachers can learn from each other. She requested that the findings from the synthesis workshop be raised at and discussed during the Teachers Working Group. Teachers should be encouraged to jointly solve the problem.

“After finding the root of the problem, the solution should be continued in the Teachers Working Group and do not stop after the completion of the activities,” said Mrs. Heppi.

Head of Basic Education Desk of Malinau Education Office, FX. Brata Puji Susila appreciated the results of the synthesis workshop. Mr. Brata saw this synthesis process as a useful approach for Malinau teachers.

“Activities like this synthesis, should often be done in the Teachers Working Group. If the synthesis process is done consistently, well planned and well documented, then it will benefit students and teachers. This is one form of teacher professional development,” he asserted.

Mr. Brata encouraged teachers to regularly reflect, review the quality of the teacher’s learning and find the root of the learning problem. Furthermore, teachers can find locally relevant solutions to improve student learning outcomes and education quality. Mr. Brata said that the teachers know best when it comes to their student learning, so they must play a key stakeholder role in identifying and solving the problem.

“The best solution from the root of the problem is the solution that comes from ourselves, because it is the solution that suits our needs,” he said.

This synthesis workshop process in Malinau is a reminder for principals, school supervisors and teachers to keep learning. By continuing to learn, problems can be solved – the best demonstration of local innovation.



Exploring literacy problems and learning solutions in North Kalimantan