May 22, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

A write-off

Published: Feb 01, 2017

 Lyn Parker

The level of environmental awareness in Indonesia is low. Given the dire environmental destruction occurring in Indonesia, one would expect that new school curricula and textbooks would prioritise Environmental Education (EE). They generally don’t. 

True EE is not teaching ‘about’ the environment – for example, the water cycle or the periodic table of elements. True EE is teaching ‘for’ the environment, so that students can learn how to conserve natural resources and live sustainably. EE should show students the interdependency of society, environment and economy. It should have the value of respect – for others, for future generations, for the environment, for the resources of our planet, for difference and diversity – at its heart. 

Effective EE should comprise three elements: acknowledging that our current practices are destroying biodiversity and natural ecosystems; implanting in students a passion for saving the environment; and equipping students with knowledge and skills for environmental sustainability. Looking at the new curricula and textbooks, they disappoint on all three.

‘Textbook culture’ 

Indonesia has had two new curricula since the fall of Suharto. Both reflect the democratic, decentralised socio-political environment. There has been a significant shift away from a centralised, authoritarian education system, with a top-down flow of knowledge, to a new emphasis on student-centred learning. However, there are still national examinations at the end of grades 9 and 12, and the state still determines the content of curricula, exams and textbooks.

Despite the changes in curricula, in reality much pedagogy is still of the ‘chalk-and-talk’ variety. Rote learning of facts remains the dominant model. A typical lesson consists of a teacher reading a lesson from a textbook, or asking students to take turns reading the lesson out aloud, then asking students simple comprehension questions, often of the complete-the-phrase variety. For example: 

‘Question: The sun sets in the? 

Answer: West!’ 

Rote learning is tested in exams, which are usually multiple choice. In this context, textbooks are still paramount in all schools, such that the classroom culture can be described as a ‘textbook culture’. 

Since the state still determines their content, textbooks play a dominant role in socialising government ideology. A good example is that textbooks typically promote the increased exploitation of Indonesia’s oil and gas resources uncritically, as that exploitation will help to make Indonesia more prosperous. Good EE would encourage students to consider why this might not be such a good idea.  For example, exploitation of oil and gas reserves diminishes finite natural resources and increases Indonesia’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Front cover of Grade 11 Geography - Credit: Yrama Widya

The Ministry of Education and Culture expects teachers to shift to a more student-needs-based model of teaching, but has not provided adequate training for teachers. It needs to dramatically improve teachers’ in-service training, so that they can move away from the rote learning paradigm and develop the confidence to encourage students to ask questions. Many teachers fear that if they deviate from the textbook, students will ask them questions that they will not be able to answer. They find it difficult to acknowledge to students that they do not know an answer, and would not think to suggest that students go and find out for themselves. They fear they would lose face and hence their authority. Teachers also need training in how to use the internet so that they can find reliable information and enable their students to do the same. 

Most teachers in Indonesia are civil servants and many became teachers in order to join the civil service. In previous decades this was the most attractive white-collar occupation for young people, not least because civil servants were the only occupation group that received a secure pension. Many still believe that as government employees they should obey state authority and not encourage their students to be critical, to question their own authority, or the authority of the textbook. For this reason, it is not unusual to see teachers accept errors in textbooks and not override them. Given their civil servant status, it is perhaps not surprising if teachers are risk-averse. 

Not on the same page

Although the 2013 curriculum wants students to be ‘a part of the solution’ to environmental problems, the curriculum and the textbooks for senior high school are almost bereft of environmental education. The compulsory subjects – Religious and Character Education, Pancasila and Citizenship Education, Indonesian, Maths, Indonesian History and English, as well as arts and craft, entrepreneurship, health and sport – fail to address environmental sustainability. This is a serious shortfall. Indonesia needs this current generation of students to be environmentally aware, responsible in their behaviour and active in putting pressure on the government to enforce environmental laws. 

In the second year of senior high school, students have to choose one of three ‘streams’: the science stream, the social science stream or the languages and culture stream. The science subjects, Chemistry, Physics and Biology, disappoint when it comes to EE. They teach facts about the environment but generally fail to use golden opportunities to present the relationship of these facts to economic and social processes. 

For instance, the first chapter of the grade 11 Chemistry textbook is about hydrocarbons and oil. The bulk of the chapter teaches selected facts about forms of hydrocarbon, carbon compounds, and chemical reactions and equations. Towards the end of the chapter, there are sections that relate hydrocarbons and their chemistry to life more generally, mainly in transport and industry. A small section on the burning of fossil fuels mentions that coal produces sulphur dioxide (SO2) and dust, petroleum produces SO2 and liquid that does not mix with water, and burning natural gas produces a bit of SO2. There is no mention of climate change or the greenhouse effect.

Front cover of Grade 11 Chemistry textbook - Publisher: Yrama Widya

This is a missed opportunity to show how science can contribute to society, the economy and the environment, and to show how carbon-based energy sources need to be phased out and replaced with renewable energy sources. A couple of pages later there is a section on mining oil and gas in Indonesia, but this contains only a list of places and companies. In a box misleadingly headed ‘Thinking critically’, students are asked to look for sources of oil and natural gas in Indonesia. Where textbooks attempt to devise activities for students that foster ‘active learning’ or ‘critical thinking’, they often fall down in the implementation phase, as though the textbook writers themselves do not know how to operationalise these concepts.

Geography, a subject in the Social Sciences stream, is exceptional. It encourages a much more systemic approach. Geography textbooks show the inter-relatedness of different phenomena such as overpopulation and resource use, industry and environment. These are essential elements of EE. However, it neglects some of the really tough questions, and their ramifications. Textbooks mention the increasing amounts of carbon dioxide and other GHG, and that they are heating the planet, but fail to identify the causes of the increased levels of GHG, or to suggest ways to solve this problem.  

Science and scripture

The science textbooks frame the environment within a religious and creationist worldview: God created the world in such a way that it is perfect for us human beings. The main religious message is one of divine creation, and students are encouraged to wonder at the power of God and express their gratitude and appreciation. All subjects teach such religious messages.

Sometimes the religious messages are combined with instrumentalist, capitalist and patriotic messages. In the above Chemistry textbook, a page headed ‘Religious, Educational, Political, Social and Economic Value’ explains that countries rich in oil reserves have great influence in the world; that humankind is dependent on oil and gas; and this ‘shows how perfectly God created this world’. It then describes how Indonesia is well endowed with these two resources and will become a prosperous country, if it can exploit its natural resources. 

Fortunately, the textbook warns that these resources are finite, and that we must be prudent in our exploitation lest we damage nature and resources become scarce. Students are invited to imagine how confused life on earth will be when energy demand outstrips supply. This is a tentative step towards proper EE but the textbooks do not suggest using renewable energy or decreasing energy use. 

The final paragraph returns to the religious and economic messages: these natural fuel sources are a blessing from God; we must thank Him, by obeying His orders and prohibitions, and utilising His gifts of oil and gas for the increased prosperity of all humankind; the ‘management and exploitation of oil and natural gas is a mandate of God for all humankind’; ‘We citizens of Indonesia should use our creativity and expertise to make the best of them, in industry as well as in daily life, to increase productivity and grease the “economic wheels” to enhance progress.’

Another theme is that humans should use their intelligence to put natural resources to work in the service of humankind. In a ‘Reflection on Viruses’ the Biology textbook says that the existence of viruses in the ecosystem is evidence that God created balance in nature. While some viruses cause disease, viruses can also be used to develop vaccines. Humankind has been honoured with a mind and rationality so we can put viruses to use. ‘Apart from that, viruses teach humankind to be grateful by always following a way of life that is healthy, clean and of honourable morals’. Viruses thus have a God-given moral function – from which one could easily judge those who suffer from various diseases as immoral and as being punished by God. Similarly, natural disasters are a form of moral teaching: they are God’s way of reminding us to be pious and to ‘manage’ the environment more wisely. 

Religious and moral teachings are shoehorned into all subjects and all textbooks, as required by the curriculum. While some readers might have problems with mixing creationism and chemistry, and science and scripture more broadly, a religious framing of environmental messages might be effective, given the cultural context. In Indonesia, worldviews are generally religious, individuals are required to identify with a religion, and public space is increasingly religious. 

Some environmentalists already use religious arguments to mobilise ‘green’ activities. All religions teach the need for moral behaviour, the value of caring for others, and values of truth, respect and responsibility. Such teachings can be applied to other people in the world and to future generations. Such a framing has the potential to encourage the development of environmental ethics and practice. However, there are also problems with a religious approach, and there is evidence that Indonesian students who study science at university and overseas find it difficult to reconcile science and religion.

Ways forward

In all, Indonesian textbooks are disappointing in their representation of the environment. The new curriculum emphasises that students should be learning how to be responsible citizens, and to be capable, caring and ethical. However, the textbooks do not equip students to act responsibly towards the environment. Given the urgency of the environmental problems, and the low level of awareness in the country, there is a crying need for good environmental education. 

Lyn Parker ( is an anthropologist and researcher of Indonesia. She teaches at The University of Western Australia. The research reported on in this article was funded by an Australian Research Council Discovery Grant.

Inside Indonesia 127: Jan-Mar 2017{jcomments on}

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