Yohanes Surya: There's no such thing as a stupid child  

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  • Prof. Yohanes Surya , founder of the Surya University. Tempo/Aditia Noviansyah

    Prof. Yohanes Surya , founder of the Surya University. Tempo/Aditia Noviansyah

    When the education sector was devastated by the national exam scandal and dispirited by the new school curriculum, Yohanes Surya went on with his mission: to produce high-caliber Indonesian students. Thanks to his mentoring, Indonesia won 54 gold medals, 33 silver and 42 bronze in a number of science and physical international competitions in the past two decades. Two weeks ago, the Indonesian Physics Olympics team, who are now mentored by the very smart students Surya once guided, have shattered yet another record, by achieving 'The Absolute Winner' at the 2013 Asian Physics Olympiad in Bogor, West Java.

    Today, after proving his views right, Surya is striving for even a higher dream: to make Indonesia become the number one in the world by 2045. Starting this year, Surya has decided to establish his own university, focusing on research. "Indonesia needs to build its research capacity so it can master the future," he said, adding that "I decided to wage my own guerrilla war because many people think I am pushing one."

    Last Tuesday, Surya met with Tempo reporters Qaris Tajudin and Agoeng Wijaya at the Surya Research Education Center in Serpong, Banten, a school was filled with the sounds of Papuan students playing football. Others could be seen sitting at corners, computers on their laps.

    "Look at them, Jakartans cannot believe these kids can take part in the science Olympics," he said proudly. Excerpts:

    Two weeks ago, your students came back bringing home their 14th Asian Physics Olympiad championship. What's the secret of your success?

    We like to say, nothing is impossible. I am convinced no child is stupid. The key is a good teacher and the proper method.

    Does that mean all the students can become champions?

    Yes. We have proven that in the past 10 years. In fact, the kid who was considered the stupidest in Papua was able to perform well at the world level.

    Why are you focusing on Papuan children?

    It began in 2002, when I challenged the Education Office chief in Papua to allow me to train and educate them. I spent a year working with them, during which the Papua team came out eighth of 31 participating teams at the National Science Olympics. But then this collaboration, I don't know why, came to a stop.

    Did they really become champions?

    One year later, they took part in the national exams. Their average grade in mathematics was 9. Then, at an Asia science competition in 2011, 12 kids won four gold medals, five got silver and three of them got the bronze. During that same year, three kids got bronze medals in a national competition to build robots. One of them was Albertina Beanal, who never managed to pass from one class to another back in Papua. In October, she won first place in a competition to make a junior high school level Robot Imagine Technical Research, held by the Research and Technology Ministry in 2012. Papua kids are amazing, aren't they?

    So, why did they fail so badly when they were back in their homes?

    Like the previous conclusion, the main problem of education in Indonesia is the lack of good teachers and the improper method of teaching. So, if Indonesia wants to progress, these two problems must be resolved. In the rural areas, there are no good teachers. Some teachers there actually teach that 15 divided by 5, is to scratch the two fives, coming up with 1.

    Is that why you decided to set up your own school of higher learning?

    Yes. I plan to produce 30,000 quality teachers from the regions.

    Has this program to teach rural teachers begun?

    Today we have trained about 700 candidate teachers, half of them coming from Papua. The rest come East Belitung, Kupang and Palembang. But starting next year, we will begin teaching at least 3,000 high school students who want to be teachers from a number of areas.

    You said one way to improve the education system in Indonesia was to use better teaching methods. What do you mean?

    The current method of teaching science, for example, gives me a headache, and many students end up hating this subject. The teacher writes on the blackboard and the students just copy what is written, without understanding it.

    So, what is the proper method?

    In my view, to learn mathematics, each student must be taught to count haphazardly. The student must be trained to count by trying to solve thousands of problems. The human brain, after all consists of nerve cells, in which the more it is trained, the more fluid and smooth the connection between one nerve center and another.

    Have you ever offered your method to the Education Ministry? So that it may be included in the new curriculum?

    Actually, this method was once included in the plan of the new curriculum, but I don't know why, it was discarded during the discussion. One professor did not like the concept.

    So, what do you think of the new curriculum?

    Actually, there are some parts I don't agree with, and that is the plan to integrate natural sciences with Indonesian language. When I saw the syllabus and the textbooks that go with it, it seems the sciences material was cut by 70 percent. As such, how can science in Indonesia advance? Basic mathematics and the sciences must be taught right from the beginning. If the student later wants to become a sociologist or a historian, it would be no problem.

    Surya opens his laptop and shows a recording of an elementary school in Tolikara which had been taught by him for a month. The students all raised their hands to vie for the chance to answer the mathematic questions which was recently written by Surya on the blackboard. They looked confident and happy.


    So, in your view, what are the important subjects that should be taught at elementary schools?

    The natural sciences, mathematics, language and music. Why music? Because this is one way of motivating the students. Then, we can add other subjects.

    What is your real objective in insisting on teaching your method?

    The important thing is that Indonesia becomes great by 2030. This is my vision. By 2045, Indonesia must be number one in the world. Why not? China in 1985 was nothing. Today, 28 years later, it has become number one economically. Why can't we be the same and succeed as they have? We can, so long as the problem of education is resolved.

    Can we really become number one in the world just by producing good teachers?

    That's one way. That's why, besides training teachers in the rural areas, I have also established a university which focuses on research. This year, we are taking in the first batch. I think that in order to be number one in the world, Indonesia must strengthen its research activities.

    You seem quite convinced with your vision of Indonesia in 2030.

    This is not an aspiration thing. We have some 100 million or more youths. Our economy is in good shape, so are our natural resources. All this is our main asset. Lastly, history has proven that when China and Indonesia dominate the world, Majapahit will appear in all his glory. Today is the 21st century, China and India are number one and two, respectively. Indonesia's turn will soon take place. This is not imagination, it is fate.

    The problem is, how can we have a good government?

    Well, that is a problem. But I am convinced that if we can create many amazing kids, in the thousands, one of them should be able to be a future leader, someone who is clean and moral. A scientist or a scholar certainly can be ethical. This is what we should be emphasizing to our future educators.


    Surya no longer wants to involve himself on matters of school curricula. In his view, the main task to be implemented by this country is move to produce good teachers and introduce the proper method of teaching. "There is no such thing as a stupid child," he said, passionately. The problem with our education, he claimed, is the wrong teaching method carried out by less than capable teachers.

    The complete interview is also available in this week's edition of Tempo English.