Tackling the problem of basic education in remote areas of Indonesia

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Guest blog written by Annisaa Rachmawati, Agusti Padmanisa, Yossy Rachmatillah, and Senza Arsendy.

This is a team of four development practitioners working for an education program in Indonesia, INOVASI, that aims to find out ‘what works’ (and conversely what does not work) to improve student learning outcomes in literacy and numeracy in basic education. They are a multidisciplinary team of officers working in communications, program implementation, monitoring and evaluation, and operations unit. They successfully completed the 15-week Practice of PDIA online course that ended in May 2019. This is their story.

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The term PDIA is something that our team is familiar with, in fact it’s a buzzword we hear everyday at work. Our project uses PDIA as its underlying approach, yet there seems to be different interpretations and debates around how it should be translated into program implementation. Having observed this notion for a while, we decided to enroll in PDIA Online Course to learn rigorously about the approach. We were convinced that this course will equip us with practical knowledge to actually do what we preach in our project.

There are four principles which encompasses PDIA. First, we need to ensure that our intervention is “problem driven” instead of solutions driven. Second, we need to engage relevant stakeholders and create environment which allows for “authorization of positive deviance”. Third, we need to foster experiential learning through “iteration and adaptation”. Last, we “scale through diffusion” successful interventions for reform to be sustainable.

The problem we are trying to tackle is “early grade students in remote areas in Indonesia have difficulties learning to read”, a persisting issue our country has been struggling for decades despite the many efforts collectively put by the government, donor programs, and education practitioners. Policies and best practices (either locally nominated or externally imported) seem to be successful in a short period of time, deceiving us into thinking that we might have solved this problem for good. Not long after specific project or intervention is completed, the same problem reoccurred – leading us right back into capability traps. (Isomorphic mimicry alert!)

By using the 5 Whys, our fishbone diagram has revealed that causes of the problem varied. We discovered many sub-causal dimensions of the problem we never thought of before because we got used to jumping into solutions without first taking time to deconstruct the problem, a habit we inherited from our experiences of finding and fitting solutions with previous development projects. After internalizing all of our sub-causes, we realized that there’s no single magic bullet to address the literacy problem on early grade students in Indonesia!

Analysing our change space with “triple A” factors allowed us to sequence our engagements and identify actions we needed to pursue for each sub-cause. We found multiple entry points of bite-size actionable steps to grow our change space, for instance by sensitizing teachers and local communities, building relevant government agencies’ capabilities, and engaging key authorizers throughout the whole process. Stakeholder analysis also serves as a useful tool for us to determine our primary authorizer and other agencies we require to engage to work together in this problem-solving exercise.

One of the strong elements of the course is how it emphasizes on iterations to yield experiential learning and emergence. On the contrary to the orthodox approach which extracts learning at the end of intervention, we are now a firm believer that tight feedback loop is vital to take place in every “check-in” and reflection stage.

We will definitely use what we have learned in this course to better adopt PDIA in our project. Seeking to understand what works to improve students’ learning outcomes in particular contexts, our project design is underpinned by the belief that many reform initiatives aiming to improve student learning outcomes in Indonesia are built around externally identified problems with pre-determined “one size fits all” solutions. Inspired by the course, discussion around developing tight feedback loop mechanism, for our education pilots, has emerged in across units in our project. Using the PDIA approach, we will work with local stakeholders to co-design solutions and move forward from the “one size fits all” capacity building to contextually relevant intervention.

After 15 weeks of juggling between our day jobs and intense group discussions after office hours (and weekends too!), we now feel empowered to solve complex education issues in remote areas in Indonesia. We understand that this is a work in progress. We need to do more actions, engage more agencies, reflect, learn, and iterate again. At the same time, we also understand that we can’t have other people solve our problem, we need to do the work ourselves. As the saying goes, contextually workable wheel needs to be reinvented by those who will use it.

Experiencing each step of the course has allowed us to gain tacit knowledge on how to put PDIA into practice. This approach might be the breakthrough that transforms the course of how development projects carry out their work to make some real change.

To learn more, visit our website or download the PDIAtoolkit (available in English and Spanish).

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