School Curriculum: Indonesian National vs. Cambridge International

As I enter my freshman year in university, I’m gradually exposed to more people and their various backgrounds. The more I chat with my new friends, the more I get to understand one major difference that I’ve overlooked all this time – a school’s curriculum.

As Indonesian students, most of us are confined to the Indonesian national curriculum, a standard set by the government authorities. I myself wasn’t a part of this curriculum, as the school which I attended implements the Cambridge International curriculum that sets an entirely different tone to the approach of learning.

Despite enrolling in a different program altogether, I still had to attend the National Examination that took place on Grades 6, 9, and 12. That said, the curriculum which I was part of is a hybrid of both ends. Our everyday lessons built up to Cambridge’s Final Examinations (IGCSE, AS&A Level), but when it’s time for National Examinations like other kids on the block, we had to rush and rewire our brains a few weeks before the exam kicks in.

Of course, being in a rush would mean we dedicated less time for the National Exam, and my school could only allocate a number of Saturdays for extra lessons specifically for the National Examination.

Although I had only a short experience dabbling with the National Curriculum through its subjects, I began to notice differences between it and that of Cambridge. For one thing, none of them are perfect, but I have to say that I prefer Cambridge’s – a biased opinion, to say the least. With that, allow me to break down several differences that I noticed along with my brain-rewiring Saturdays at school.


Formulas vs Analysis

Indonesian Physics Formula Sheet. SlideShare.

A lot of times in my extra Saturdays’ lessons, we were highly encouraged to remember formulas in order to solve problems. You know, just “simply remember” formulas and apply them to any Math/Physics questions you would find in tests.

To me, this is a striking difference between the two programs. While yes, formulas allow for a quick way out against a hurdle, I don’t think it’s a positive mindset to have for the long-run. To be fair, we only had days to prepare for the National Examination, so perhaps formulas can only be the way out.

However, let me put it this way: formulas don’t teach much. Formulas don’t encourage students to reason, to question, nor to re-evaluate whether those formulas themselves are right. Formulas encourage taking shortcuts, taking the safest route, and avoid having to dabble much with the reasoning behind them.

Coming from the Cambridge curriculum, it’s quite different, to say the least. I have to say, however, that we were allowed to see formula sheets during Cambridge exams since the regulations permit that. Yet, a lot of time the questions asked in the exam cannot be easily defeated even with the help of formulas! Many times the formulas simply act as a supplementary tool, so that you’ll waste no time in remembering and solely concentrate on how you would tackle the problems instead.

The Cambridge Curriculum, in my opinion, focuses on analysis, reasoning, and trying to grasp why certain things fall into place like the formulas tell us. For example, in Pure Mathematics, we were taught the foundations of Integrals: Limits, Derivatives, Functions, etc., we were given their proofs and how they came about.

However, when it comes to the National Examination, the teacher would simply say, “just use the integral’s formula!” I myself wasn’t happy about this and I did express this to a couple of my friends. This matter was the two sides of a coin. On one end, a strongly opinionated friend of mine would say, “don’t waste your time proving!”

Taking formulas for granted isn’t what I accord with. At least, if you want students to use formulas to save time, be sure to show them its proofs. In doing so, students are encouraged to seek more, to dive deeper, and to ask why.

Formulas are like tools in a toolbox. We should know when, where, and how to use them. Taking their abilities for granted undermines their value, while so much has been dedicated to its creation – the tools have a history of their own.

Then again, maybe their proofs are lengthy, or such that it requires a more advanced concept to comprehend. In that case, taking formulas for granted may be justifiable to a certain extent. Nonetheless, students should still at least know that there is a bigger picture behind F = ma, behind E = mc^2.

Equations. Wallpaper Cave.

Because isn’t that the point of education? That is, to encourage learning, to ignite the imagination, creativity, and development. Slapping a problem with formulas puts an abrupt end to the bigger tale, an unexplained ending in which one has to believe that they are intrinsically true.


Specialization vs Generalization

Both syllabuses have their own sets of drawbacks, some of which are independent of the program themselves. Particularly, systems like that assumes students to want to learn all mandatory subjects, whereas not all of them may contribute to their lives after school (work, university, college, etc.).

A lot of times students are pigeonholed and are expected to excel in all subjects offered by the curriculum. Although generalization of subjects allows for a greater exploration across multiple fields, students should arguably have greater freedom in choosing the subject they would like to learn.

In my case, we were given choices of Cambridge subject to choose from. Specifically, I chose Chemistry and Mathematics as the only A-Level Examinations that I have to take. You can take more examinations than that, like how some of my friends also took Biology, Physics, Business Studies, etc. On the other hand, the Indonesian curriculum packages Biology, Chemistry, and Physics into one ‘Science’ package. That’s the same case for other subjects under the ‘Social Studies’ package, consisting of their respective subjects.

To understand more about this, I had a chat with my former Grade 11 homeroom teacher, who’s also a Biology teacher for the most part. Let’s just call him John.



As mentioned, the Indonesian curriculum packages subjects into two main themes: Science and Social Science. Students will choose their desired package and go with it once they are in Senior High School (Grade 10). Like anything, generalization like such brings about pros and cons, and John raised several points.

Firstly, according to John, an advantage of generalization is that “subjects that are bundled together usually support each other in terms of the concept. Done right, I honestly think my logic was structured based on connecting these concepts in different subjects.”

Secondly, “students, in a way, are forced to find a shortcut, e.g. make a summary, sets of flashcards, whatever – so that they can understand/memorize fast.” This advantage is particularly helpful when John has to skim books/knowledge/journal articles now that he’s a school teacher and independent learner himself.

Thirdly, “students have the power of connecting the dots by having the bigger picture of a particular field. By bundling subjects together, it gives power to realizing the bigger picture.” This is apparently the opposite of what I had thought of. By packaging, say Science subjects together, National Curriculum students can thus comprehend the connections between them, whereas Cambridge’s specialization may abrupt/cut these dots if the students don’t enroll themselves in inter-related subjects.

Lastly, John explained that “life is not all about one particular subject, or ‘passion’ all the time. Flexibility, a degree of versatility, is therefore a huge advantage for us (National Curriculum students). We’re more resilient in facing different subjects under the sun.”

A library is many things. Letters of Note.

However, John also added that despite its pros, the Indonesian National Curriculum has a very heavy workload on the students. The fact that they are tasked with numerous subjects, students tend to seek external tutors – indeed a common practice among Indonesian students. On the other hand, tutors for Cambridge examinations would essentially bolster the fundamentals and the thinking method, instead of solving every single problem the students face.



Now that we’ve established the pros and cons of packaging/generalizing subjects together, what could then be the pros and cons of Cambridge’s early specialization?

In my opinion, early specialization encourages students to think earlier regarding where they would like to direct their future careers. Once they have found which field they would like to learn deeper, they can thus settle down and excel in that particular field. That said, the workload is certainly less compared to the National Curriculum.

For John, Cambridge’s early specialization is a good thing on its own, such that students “have more time to explore the subjects they like and passionate about.” However, in the case of Indonesian students, their parents may have a greater influence on making such heavy decisions.

Perhaps this is a deeply-rooted problem in the Indonesian traditional style of parenting, where their children’s preferences may be limited according to their parents’ likings. If so, Cambridge’s early specialization may just do more harm than good, as students might end up learning subjects they dislike or have no passion for.

Thus, if anything, John thinks that the Cambridge Curriculum depends a lot on both the parents’ and the student’s mindset. If done right, students can enjoy the aforementioned benefits while avoiding confusion and ambiguity in mastering multiple subjects all at once.


Weaknesses of Both Curricula

In the end, both ends of the spectrum have their own weak points. Both generalization and specialization cause troubles of their own, depending on the students as well.

According to John, there’s a bigger problem in Indonesian students’ mindset towards learning nonetheless. He explained that Indonesian students are “geared towards score” and will thus use “every means possible to get a better score.” Memorization is indeed plausible in either case, whereby National Curriculum students can memorize formulas and Cambridge Curriculum students can memorize answers from past-year examinations.

In addition, memorization is somewhat allowed in both systems because it is rooted in the way the exam questions are made. In the case of the National Curriculum, organizers would just change minor details of the question. While in Cambridge exams, organizers would at least try to change the whole concept of the question.

For John, these weaknesses are understandable, since both systems are trying to avoid cheating. Nevertheless, John thinks that Cambridge’s system is more robust than the National system. One thing to note is that it is more tricky to change National Examination questions since they are prepared by all national teachers conferencing in each of their territories. Changing the questions may raise disputes during the question-making session, hence organizers tend to simply stick to generic questions.


Desired Changes

To wrap up the chat, I asked John regarding changes he would like to see in the National Curriculum, despite being a Cambridge-exam teacher himself.

The first change he would like to see is the gradual coverage of lower-level concepts to higher-level concepts. Currently, Indonesian subjects tend to dive deep right away, without a gradual build-up from the ground-up. Instead of doing so, the National Curriculum can perhaps start with lower-level concepts in the early years, repeat the same concept in later years, and lastly go through the more complex reasoning behind them.

A more concrete example is that Cambridge students learn about Atoms in Junior High. Later in Senior High, the concepts of Atoms will be repeated and more complicated concepts surrounding Atoms will also be discussed – like their mechanics. The Indonesian Curriculum, on the other end, may just dive immediately to Atoms and all their laws, energy, and whatnot the moment they touch upon Atoms.

A History of The Atom: Theories and Models. CompoundChem.

Secondly, the Indonesian Curriculum should emphasize more upon student-centered learning. There are many times when students are forced to follow the book, or follow the teacher’s way, or else they are “wrong.” John wants the teachers to be able to embrace the students and “lead by example” including when they make mistakes and students become the “teachers.”

Finally, John gave a more practical change he would like to see: simplification of framework/’scheme of work’ learning objectives. The Indonesian Curriculum tends to be redundant, ambiguous, or in local terms ngalor ngidul unlike Cambridge’s style straight forward to the point. For instance, the Indonesian style of questions may say, “describe and state the relation and purpose using different representations,” instead of the more Cambridge style of “find the mode, median, and range.”

In conclusion, students, independent of their systems, should always seek more, understand the bigger picture behind fields of study, and most importantly to think critically in any situation. Most education systems are confined to guidelines, norms of the expected, stereotypes – and students should be free from this! Learning shouldn’t be patented on textbooks, teacher’s way, or the orthodox methods. Learning should instead be a life-long process directed by one’s own will.

Nicky Verd puts this point more elegantly, “You are yet to catch up with the real world if you’ve never studied any concepts outside the school syllabus or read any books beside the texts books school forced you to read. Most people are just programmed not educated.”


Featured Image by Wallpaper Access.

Wilson Wongso

Wilson Wongso

Indonesian Computer Science Student, Private Tutor, and Content Writer. At times I read, game, or watch. My boss calls me Jack of All Trades; I could not agree more.

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