Children growing up in Indonesia’s remote islands face many challenges to their learning. According to a 2022 study by the Innovation for Indonesia’s School Children (INOVASI) program, teachers in rural and remote area have lower levels of education and teacher certification compared to their counterparts in urban areas. There is also a limited access to online devices and technologies and limited parental support or involvement, particularly for children with disabilities.

For more than 30 years, Juliana has taught in schools across remote areas of North Kalimantan. She began her teaching career at Long Uli in 1991, a public primary school in Malinau District before being transferred to Bulungan District. When Juliana first started teaching in 1994 at SD Negeri 008 in Binai village, East Tanjung Palas sub-district, there was no proper road connecting Tanjung Selor, the capital of Bulungan, and Binai. Thick rainforest separated the two areas and Juliana had to take a ketinting (motorised wooden boat) for 12 hours across the river from Tanjung Selor to reach Binai village.

Juliana’s Grade 3 students cheered as Juliana picked up a story book and walked to the reading corner at the back of the classroom, a sign that the reading lesson was about to begin. 25 students sat attentively on a floor mat, all eyes fixed on the picture book as it opened to the first page. Juliana paused after reading a section to ask questions, “The students are free to respond or comment on anything,” she said. “In addition to building their confidence, this method also helps to develop their creativity.”

Students enthusiastically raised their hands in the air, eager to describe how they saw a picture of a child accompanying his father on a fishing trip. Some students told long stories of more than five sentences while others shared two or three sentences. Juliana appreciated that each of her students was different, and they could develop learning skills more effectively with the right approach. After all, building a solid learning foundation takes time.

Building Strong Learning Foundations

In 2017, the Bulungan Education Office developed an early grade literacy program with the support of INOVASI (an education partnership program between Australia and Indonesia). The literacy program aims to improve the reading skills of students in the early grades with the goal of supporting students to achieve basic literacy skills by the third grade.

Juliana is always eager to learn new teaching strategies and along with other teachers she received training and mentoring through the Teachers’ Working Groups (KKG) on conducting diagnostic assessments, implementing differentiated learning, using children’s books as learning resources, and developing literacy lessons.

As a result of the program, Juliana now regularly reads to her students, and develops learning materials that are appropriate to their abilities. She divides students into groups based on their learning abilities and pays greater attention to their individual development.

In response to the learning loss caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, The Ministry of Education, Culture, Research, and Technology (MoECRT) trialled the Emancipated Curriculum in selected schools in 2021. Key characteristics of the new curriculum include a focus on literacy and numeracy, differentiated instruction, and flexibility for teachers to design lessons that match the pace of student progress. As Juliana had learned these approaches in the pilot program, she was then confident to implement the Emancipated Curriculum, which was just recently announced as the new national curriculum.

At SD Negeri 008 Binai, diagnostic assessments on 84 students in Grades 1-3 found promising results. In July 2022, of the 84 early-grade students (grades 1 – 3), just 38% of students passed the basic literacy component, meaning they were unable to recognise letters, syllables, and words. Six months later in January 2023, 75% of students passed the same assessment. The increase in reading ability can be attributed to the successful implementation of new curriculum.

At the beginning of 2023 a grade 3 student with initial ‘R’ had difficulty recognising letters and syllables. For three months, Juliana sat down with R for intensive reading sessions and used reading books and a play-based approach to increase R interest and enthusiasm. And it worked – today he can read fluently! Juliana said R is a shining example of the benefits of implementing differentiated learning, and tailoring teaching to the needs of students.

Investing in literacy will help to ensure that all children can access a quality education and succeed later in life, including students growing up in remote areas of North Kalimantan (*)