Freedom to Learn/Merdeka Belajar (Part 2/5: New Paradigm in Language Teaching and 21st Century Skills

Author: Made Hery Santosa

Merdeka Belajar is a new policy program issued by the Ministry of Education and Culture (MEC) of the Republic of Indonesia. The essential element of the policy must start from the teachers, before they teach in the classrooms. The teachers’ competence, in any levels, to translate the basic competencies mandated in the curricula is crucial in order learning to take place. In the teaching and learning practices today, classrooms are not the walls anymore; it is going beyond the class walls. Students can learn anytime, anywhere – synchronously and asynchronously (Santosa, 2017). Learning may be more comfortable as students can have discussions with the teachers outside the class via many relevant platforms of learning (Thurab-Nkhosi, 2018). At the same time, learning can also be overwhelming, confusing, and distant as thousands of resources are directly available within students’ grasps while they learn alone in their room (Saunders & Gale, 2012). These varied learning situations need teachers’ facilitation, parents’ involvement, and students’ meaningful learning experiences.

According to the Minister of Education and Culture, the Merdeka Belajar policy is a response to a research study from Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2019. The study shows that the results of the assessment for Indonesian students are in last sixth position for mathematics and literacy. Indonesia is in the 74th position out of 79 countries that participated in the research survey. To respond to this result, the Minister made breakthroughs in assessing the minimum skills, including literacy, numeracy, and character. Literacy does not only measure reading ability, but also the ability to analyze reading contents and understand the concepts behind it. Numeracy skills, does not only assess mathematics, but also an assessment of students’ ability to apply numerical concepts in real life, focusing on nurturing reasoning abilities of the students. In the Character survey, a search for the extent to which students apply the principles of Pancasila – Five Indonesian Ways of Life. These include (1) Belief in the one supreme God, (2) Just and civilized humanity, (3) The unity of Indonesia, (4) Democracy led by the wisdom of deliberations among representatives, and (5) Social justice for the whole of the people of Indonesia.

Merdeka Belajar is revolved around the concept of independent learning with enjoyable learning atmosphere, that is having less burden of tasks and attainment of scores and ranks as the sign of achievements. There are four main points of this policy, which are outlined as follows.

  1. Replacement of National Examination to Minimum Competency Assessment and Character Survey

The current learning situation is considered to be more concentrated to content mastery rather than reasoning competence. Further, the National Examination is considered a burden for the students, teachers, and parents as it is treated as the main indicator of success for individual students. To respond to the issues, year 2020 becomes the last National Exam and 2021 will be the beginning of the Minimum Competency Assessment and Character Survey. This assessment is not carried out based on subjects or mastery of curriculum materials, but rather mapping the two minimum competencies of students; literacy and numeracy. The emphasis on literacy and numerical reasoning skills is also based on the best practices of the PISA test. This assessment will be carried out in grade 4, grade 8 and grade 11 and the results are expected to provide important inputs for schools to improve the next learning process before students finish their education. The Character Survey is not a test, but a search for the extent to which the students have applied the principles of Pancasila as the way of life.

2. Schools’ Role in National Standard School Examination (USBN)

According to the Minister of Education and Culture, the current situation at USBN limits the application of the spirit of the National Education System Law, which provides flexibility for schools to determine graduation. For the new policy direction, in 2020 the USBN will be replaced with an exam (assessment) organized by the school. Exams, like portfolios, and other authentic types of assessments, are carried out to assess student competence. That way, teachers and schools are more independent in assessing student learning outcomes and therefore develop the capacity of teachers and schools to improve the quality of learning.

3. Simplification of Lesson Plan

This initiative is dedicated to teachers. Through administrative simplification, writing lesson plans can be done efficiently and effectively, which gives teachers time to prepare and improve competencies as well as evaluate the learning process itself. Previously, there were 13 components that were so dense and a very heavy burden for teachers, so that a much simpler format was made, just one page with 3 core components, namely learning objectives, learning activities and assessment or learning assessment. Because what is important about the RPP is not just writing it. Actually, the essence of the lesson plan itself is a reflection process from the teacher.

4. Expanded Zoning System

Ministry of Education and Culture continues to use the zoning system in the Admission of New Students to make it more flexible to accommodate inequalities in access and quality in various regions (excluding remote areas administered by the government). The composition include students’ admission from zoning system is at least 50 percent, the affirmation pathway is at least 15 percent, and the maximum transfer path is 5 percent. Students with outstanding achievement can fill the remaining 30 percent depending on regional conditions. Local governments are given technical authority to determine these zoning areas.

In addition to the Merdeka Belajar program, another initiative called Guru Penggerak is also held. In this initiative, the minister invites teachers to change the way of teaching in the classroom. Following its main job, teachers are encouraged to focus on shaping the future of the nation without being burdened too much on administrative tasks and exam results. More autonomous learning, out-of-class observations, and nurturing students on reasoning, soft skills and innovation are prominent. Five emphasized messages given to the teachers to have small changes in their classes are as follows:

  1. invite students to discuss,
  2. give students the opportunity to teach in class,
  3. trigger a social service project that involves the whole class,
  4. discover talents in students, and
  5. offer help to teachers who are experiencing difficulties.

Teachers are expected to be the drivers for educational change in their region by (1) mobilizing learning communities for peer teachers in schools and in their regions, (2) becoming a companion for other fellow teachers regarding the development of learning in schools, (3) encouraging increased student leadership in schools, (4) opening spaces for positive discussions and spaces for collaboration between teachers and stakeholders inside and outside the school to improve the quality of learning, and (5) becoming a learning leader that encourages the well-being of the education ecosystem in schools.

To help you understand Merdeka Belajar, please watch the following video.

Merdeka Belajar ala Nadiem Makarim:

For Guru Penggerak, the following videos provide you two good best practices. Please watch them and take note on important information on how the program is going and how some schools have best learning practices regarding on the program. The next video below presents a story of one teacher in a small village in Central Java.

Guru Penggerak di Desa Salakan, Wonosobo, Jawa Tengah:

To provide a clearer picture of the program, best practices from selected schools, including Bali Mandara, a school in North Bali, are shown in the following video.

Tanya Jawab Guru Penggerak:

To sum up, Merdeka Belajar is a new policy program of the Ministry of Education and Culture of the Republic of Indonesia with the essence of freedom to learn. It is a new breakthrough in response to the existing education system and the need to shift into a more independent learning process that provides teachers, students, and schools more spaces to propose innovations and have participation in a wider context. There are four major programs proposed by the Ministry, which are presented as follows.

  1. Replacement of the National Examination (UN) to Minimum Competency Assessment and Character Survey.
  2. Schools’ Role in National Standard School Examination (USBN).
  3. Simplification of the Lesson Plan.
  4. Expansion of the Zoning System (excluding remote areas).

Another initiative called Guru Penggerak was launched to respond to the need to have better capacity building and professional developments of the Indonesia teachers.

Additional Material

To enrich your understanding on the topic, please read the following materials.

  1. Freedom to Learn Need More than Teachers:
  2. Freedom to Learn:


Santosa, M. H. (2017). Learning approaches of Indonesian EFL Gen Z students in a flipped learning context. Journal on English as a Foreign Language, 7(2), 183–208.

Saunders, F. C., & Gale, A. W. (2012). Digital or didactic: Using learning technology to confront the challenge of large cohort teaching. British Journal of Educational Technology, 43(6), 847–858.

Thurab-Nkhosi, D. (2018). Implementing a Blended/Online Learning Policy on a Face-to-Face Campus: Perspectives of Administrators and Implications for Change. Journal of Learning for Development, 5(2), 133–147.

Note: This section is Part 2 of 5 of New Paradigm in Language Teaching and 21st Century Skills writing series. 

Click to read Part 1, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.

Please cite this source accordingly using an appropriate reference system and manager.

©mhsantosa (2021)

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