Weaving the Merdeka Belajar Spirit into ELT classrooms
Willy A Renandya, 28 Jan 2024
The Merdeka Belajar Curriculum in Indonesia emphasizes flexibility and personalization, moving away from a rigid, fixed syllabus where learning contents are pre-determined by an external agent. The curriculum provides broad guidelines about what to teach and how to teach it, but it does not provide detailed accounts of the usual scope and sequence of lessons that need to be covered in one year.
The goal of the Merdeka Curriculum is to give schools and teachers more autonomy in selecting subject contents and learning paths based on students’ needs, interests and ability levels. This flexibility is intended to promote a more dynamic, student-centric approach to education, where students of different socio-cultural and linguistic backgrounds are given opportunities to be actively involved in critical, creative, collaborative and reflective thinking during lessons.
This goal is well-aligned with recent thinking in education and ELT known as inclusive education that allows students of diverse backgrounds to learn and grow together; it is a goal that is currently embraced by modern educators in the world today.
Another important goal of the Merdeka Curriculum is to instil positive values, ethics, and character development in students (e.g., friendship, respecting differences, tolerance, honesty etc) thus giving teachers opportunities to foster a more holistic approach to education. The thinking behind this is that education should not simply about acquiring knowledge and skills, but it should also help students become well-behaved and socio-culturally responsible individuals.
This goal is well-aligned with recent thinking in education and ELT that values academic as well as social-emotional skills. In the field of ELT, teachers today infuse elements of soft skills in their teaching by incorporating activities that promote collaboration, empathy, self-awareness and adaptability.
One key point to note is that Merdeka Curriculum is to be applied to all school subjects (maths, science, history etc), not just to English language learning. This being the case, the big question for English language teachers is about how they can apply the key principles behind the Merdeka Curriculum into English language lessons. I offer some guidelines below.
Guidelines for integrating the Merdeka Belajar Spirit into ELT
It is important to stress that the primary objective of English language teaching is to develop students into proficient English users, enabling them to speak fluently, express themselves confidently, and comprehend English texts. Because of this, the majority of activities in the English classroom should focus on language learning tasks that support the achievement of this goal.
Infusing the Merdeka Belajar principles into our instructional practices is essential to align our teaching methods with the curricular initiative of the Indonesian Ministry of Education. Furthermore, given that these principles reflect contemporary trends in global education, integrating them into our teaching practices serves to enhance students’ language learning experiences.
While activities inspired by the Merdeka Belajar principles can positively influence the dynamics of learning, it is important to remember that they should complement, not replace, conventional proficiency development practices in English language teaching. Striking a well-balanced approach is key, i.e., ensuring compliance with the Merdeka Curriculum and at the same time fostering effective language learning in the classroom.
Below are some key principles that can be used as a basis for integrating the Merdeka Belajar spirit into English language lessons.
Differentiated instruction is a teaching approach where teachers adjust their lessons to meet the needs of different students. The thinking behind this is that everyone in the class is a bit different – some learn faster, some like certain topics more, and some need extra help. So, instead of teaching the same way to everyone using the one-size-fits-all approach, teachers change things up a bit to help each student learn in a way that works best for them. It’s all about making sure every student can understand and do well in class, no matter how they learn.
To cater for the diverse needs and abilities of the students, teachers can offer students more choices in terms of the learning contents (e.g., reading or listening passages of different levels of difficulty), learning modes (e.g., individual or group work; deductive or inductive learning), and preferred learning outcomes (e.g., written or oral work; conventional or digital).
Project-based learning, for example, is an excellent way for students to work based on their interests and preferred learning modes. First, the teacher comes up with an interesting project for students to work on e.g., creating a storybook on friendship. Second, students work in groups to create their own stories. So each group is likely to create a unique story about friendship based on their unique experiences. Third, students can write and illustrate their story using words they learned in class sprinkled with relevant images from the internet. They can also use digital tools to create a multimedia storytelling project. Lastly, when the projects are completed, they can choose to present their story in class or upload it on the school website (or YouTube).
2. Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)
Teaching students about emotions and relationships in the classroom is really important. It helps them understand their feelings, get along with others, and be happy overall. This not only helps them do well in school but also prepares them for success in life outside of school.
Here are some examples of SEL activities for an EFL young learners’ English classroom:
- Feelings Pantomime: Students show emotions such as sadness, happiness, and frustration through pantomime. The class then tries to guess the emotions being acted out. Class discussions can follow where each students share their experience about these emotions.
- Gratitude journals: Students keep gratitude journals, describing things that they are thankful for in writing or through drawing. They then share their feeling of gratitude in class.
- Empathy Discussions: Students discuss situations or scenarios that help them understand others’ misfortunes (e.g., losing a favourite toy, feeling left out by friends, breaking something valuable etc.). Teachers then discuss how students can express their sympathy to others.
SEL activities above can help students enjoy English lessons a lot more and at the same time help them develop social emotional skills such as social awareness, self-management, responsible decision making and relationship skills.
3. 21st century skills
Basically, 21st-century skills are the things students should be good at to do well in today’s world. It’s not just about knowing or memorizing facts; it’s about thinking critically and creatively, communicating and collaborating with other people, and using technology the right way. These skills help students navigate a world that’s always changing and prepare them for success in school, work, and life.
So how can teachers infuse 21st century skills in the English language classrooms. Here are some ideas.
- Group storytelling. Students work in small groups to create a collaborative story. Each student contributes a sentence or paragraph, building on the previous person’s contribution. This continues until the group is satisfied with the contents and structure of the story. They then share their group story with another group in class.
- Critical thinking. The teacher gives students a digital advertisement of a well-known brand of shampoo. The advertisement features a movie celebrity who endorses the product. Students work in groups to watch the ad, analyze its language and visuals in order to understand the hidden assumptions or stereotypes in the ad.
- Creative thinking. The teacher gives students a set of seemingly unrelated words to create a short story or a poem. Instead of words, random pictures from the Internet can be used to create an imaginative collage.
- Digital literacy. With guidance from the teacher, students learn how to create multimodal presentations, digital stories, YouTube videos or language learning blogs.
The introduction of the Merdeka Belajar Curriculum has sparked significant discussions in the ELT community. Many are unsure about the best ways to use this new curriculum in their classrooms and more importantly perhaps, about how it fits well with the current ELT teaching methods that teachers have been using for years.
As I pointed out in the discussion above, the Merdeka Belajar Curriculum is designed to give teachers more flexibility and autonomy in personalizing their teaching based on their students’ diverse needs and abilities. The curriculum is not a set of pre-determined teaching syllabus that specifies everything that needs to be taught and how it should be taught. Rather, it offers a set of pedagogically useful principles that can be used to enrich students’ learning journey.
Finally, it is worth repeating that the primary responsibility of an English teacher is to impart important language skills (e.g., viewing and representing skills) using evidence-based language teaching methods (e.g., CLT, TBLT or Genre-based Pedagogy). Teaching students in this way is what makes students become confident users of English. Integrating the Merdeka Belajar principles (e.g., differentiated learning and social-emotional learning) can enhance the appeal and motivation of our language lessons. This approach supports, not replace, our language teaching efforts in that it allows each student to learn based on their unique abilities and personalities.
I hope the discussion and suggestions in this paper has provided helpful perspectives for teachers who want to embrace the principles of the Merdeka Belajar Curriculum into their English language teaching practices.