From top-down implementation to bottom-up innovation: Using PDIA to improve basic education in Indonesia

By Mark Heyward and Taylor Brown

The Innovation for Indonesia’s School Children (INOVASI) programme has worked to put PDIA at the heart of its approach to improving educational outcomes in Indonesia. INOVASI uses PDIA to work with local partners to identify problems in basic education and to co-design, try out and scale up locally relevant solutions. In this blog, Mark Heyward, INOVASI’s Program Director, and Taylor Brown, Palladium’s Director of Governance, explore INOVASI’s PDIA journey so far.

Indonesia has made significant progress in basic education in the past two decades. Government spending has doubled and enrolment in primary education has reached almost 100%. Over the same time period, international donors have worked with the Indonesian Government to modernize the country’s basic education system and to improve school management and teaching. Since the 1970s, more than USD 5 billion has been granted or loaned to Indonesia for education development.

But while improved government and donor spending has boosted educational access, it has yet to produce better learning outcomes. Tests comparing student literacy and numeracy show that Indonesian students underperform compared to their regional and global peers. As Lant Pritchett memorably put it in the title of his 2013 book: ‘Schooling Ain’t Learning.

A significant reason for this is that most efforts to improve education in Indonesia have taken a top-down, one size fits all approach. They have been largely designed to address externally identified problems and have been developed by experts drawing on international ‘best practice’. Once designed, these approaches have then been cascaded down to the province, the district and selected schools where it is expected they will be further disseminated and replicated.

This top-down, pre-design approach has not delivered. As a result, government policies on active learning and teacher management (which have been at the heart of successive national curriculum frameworks since the 1980s) have not been widely implemented and Indonesia’s performance on international benchmarking tests remains disappointing.

Interpreting PDIA in INOVASI

INOVASI aims to address these challenges and to offer an alternative bottom-up, locally-led approach to improving educational quality and outcomes. INOVASI aims to investigate what works (and what doesn’t) to improve literacy and numeracy at the classroom, school and district levels. It pilots approaches to improve teaching and learning in the classroom and aims to provide evidence and ideas to reshape basic educational policies, planning and budgeting. INOVASI is currently working in 17 districts across four provinces. The program is a partnership between the Australian Department for Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and the Indonesian Ministry of Education and Culture (MOEC). INOVASI was launched in 2016 and is being implemented by Palladium.

INOVASI has sought to put PDIA at the heart of its approach to piloting, learning and innovation. PDIA is a natural fit for a programme like INOVASI that aims to work with local partners to define problems and to identify and try out ‘best fit’ solutions that are consistent with local understandings, values, capacities and resources.

Over 25 INOVASI implementers from Palladium, partner government and non-government agencies, have now completed the online PDIA course. They worked together in small groups to address real-world problems related to INOVASI’s aims: How to improve learning outcomes in Indonesian primary classrooms? How to systematically improve learning outcomes in Indonesian districts and schools? How to build an evidence base on what works to improve learning outcomes – to inform policy and practice?

INOVASI’s approach to and application of PDIA has evolved significantly over the past two years. It has shifted from a focus on solving problems at the teacher and classroom level to a more systemic and politically smart focus on identifying and working on problems at the district and the national levels. As INOVASI and its government partners have gained confidence in the approach, they have moved from a more complex, rigid and linear applications of PDIA process to a more streamlined and confident approach to using PDIA concepts and tools to identify problems and explore what works to address them.



Figure 1: Over the course of the past two years, INOVASI’s PDIA framework has been through multiple iterations as the team gained experience and insight. The interpretation of PDIA became progressively more sophisticated, shifting from a linear to a circular model, reminiscent of the classic action research models by Kemmis and McTaggart.

Figure 2: An example of the fishbone diagram, one of the PDIA approach tools, in action on INOVASI.

From teachers and schools…

INOVASI’s first round of pilots in 2017 focused on the individual teacher in the classroom. INOVASI worked with an initial cohort of teachers in six districts on a pilot called Guru BAIK,[1] a classroom action research approach, which applied PDIA at the micro level to explore problems and solutions in the classroom. Through a series of workshops and in-school mentoring activities, teachers discovered what particular learning challenges the children in their own classroom faced. They then developed, tested, reviewed and iterated different solutions to address them. Through showcase activities, participating teachers then documented and shared their findings and experiences with other teachers in their own school, and from other schools across their districts. At the close of the pilot, 100% of Guru BAIK teachers had developed action plans, with 96% implementing them as planned in the classroom.

These interventions made a real difference in the classrooms in which they were piloted. But INOVASI’s ambition is to influence Indonesian government education policies, regulations, plans and budgets. Working on classroom level innovation –while fruitful and locally transformative—will never be enough to contribute to these higher-level changes.

INOVASI put teachers at the centre of the workshops and focused discussions on the learning process, rather than results. In doing this, the main role of our facilitators was to ask the right questions and help teachers think and reflect on their own practices. Teachers were better able to think of how to improve, rather than being given an end solution by someone else’ – INOVASI’s Teaching and Learning Officer.

In October 2017, the INOVASI team reviewed the Guru BAIK pilots along with other analysis and experience during its bi-annual Strategy Testing exercise. This review led INOVASI to a rethink its pilot design and its use of PDIA. Key changes were: (1) a greater emphasis on thinking and working politically, (2) increased focus on the use of evidence to address challenges to improving literacy and numeracy, and (3) a greater focus on policy level engagement. These changes were reinforced by the insights of key INOVASI team members and government counterparts who took the online PDIA course in early 2018.

…to systems and policies

INOVASI’s approach to pilots is now more systemic in focus. The programme has shifted from a focus on individual teachers conducting classroom action research, to schools, clusters and districts as the locus of change. In this context, the lessons of PDIA are critical, including the need to expand the change space for teachers to change their practice; increasing the authority, acceptance and ability for them to try something different to improve literacy and numeracy learning outcomes.


Figure 3: An INOVASI Education Specialist, Cici Wanita, leads local government stakeholders through a process of problem identification and prioritization in West Sumba, East Nusa Tenggara province.

Figure 4: Government stakeholders in Malinau, North Kalimantan, use the fishbone diagram tool as part of the PDIA process.

This broader application of PDIA requires engagement with government officials and other stakeholders at the national and sub-national level as well as with frontline workers (teachers, principals and school supervisors). It also means working on policy as well as technical problems. It asks: Where are opportunities to influence policy at national and sub-national levels? Where are gaps between policy and practice? And how can INOVASI’s pilots address these?

This approach has also meant that INOVASI is beginning to work in a more politically informed way. The team is not just working to build a compelling evidence-base for what works. It is also cultivating formal and informal relationships, leveraging coalitions of interest in change, and ‘working with the grain’.

The PDIA literature and training warns us that imported solutions and borrowed policy can leach capacity from organisations (contributing to ‘capability traps’). The INOVASI team found, however, that teachers and schools still often need significant technical advice and support to design effective solutions to the problems they have worked hard to identify. Our first pilots were perhaps over-reliant on the technical capacity of village teachers to solve their own problems and to improve learning outcomes. In more recent pilots, as explained in INOVASI’s Guiding Program Strategy, INOVASI has sought to marry a problem-driven, locally-led approach with access to pedagogical tools, tactics and practices from Indonesia and elsewhere in the world. We help work to share these different approaches with teachers, schools and local officials and work with them to tailor them to the specific, local problems they face.

INOVASI has also rethought its approach to generating, testing and building evidence about what works for improving literacy and numeracy. To ensure that INOVASI’s locally-driven innovations do not stand in isolation and can benefit other parts of Indonesia and inform broader policy debates, INOVASI has partnered with another ambitious education development programme, Research for Improving Systems of Education (RISE). Through this collaboration, INOVASI will focus on using the PDIA approach to generate answers to the question of what works to improve learning outcomes, while RISE will conduct higher-level randomised control trials (RCTs) on selected INOVASI initiatives to provide a more scientifically robust evidence base for national and international audiences. This allows INOVASI to select schools and partners for pilots in a more strategic way, for example working in clusters of schools to pilot short courses as the basis for continuing professional development in communities of practice, rather than randomly selecting teachers or schools. This collaboration has benefited from the engagement of Lant Pritchett, who is an advisor to both INOVASI and RISE.

Learning by doing

INOVASI has taken an iterative and adaptive approach to program management. Over the past two years, the INOVASI team has been able to learn from the experience of its initial pilots, its initial interpretations of PDIA and its participation in the online PDIA course to align the programme’s strategy and approaches to local needs and opportunities. As a result, INOVASI’s approach to piloting, learning and policy engagement is now more politically and technically grounded and effective.

One outcome of this shift is that efforts to change teaching practice are now taking the form of short courses delivered in school cluster-based teacher working groups. These courses will be accredited by government, enabling teachers to earn credits for career advancement. They will incorporate evidence-based understandings about literacy, numeracy and in-service training. True to PDIA principles, these politically- and technically-informed short-course designs are being adapted to local context, both in terms of delivery (e.g. to fit with local routines for teacher working group meetings and district funding patterns) and content (e.g. to incorporate learnings from the previous pilot activity and adjust for local realities, such as mother tongue dominance, teacher capacity, and relevant cultural traditions). They are also able to incorporate ‘positive deviance’; examples of successful practice identified through a comprehensive ‘stock-take’ study in East Java. Using short feedback loops, and experiential learning approaches, local facilitators will further adjust the content and delivery in consultation with the technical team, as they routinely reflect on implementation and ‘learn by doing’ during implementation of the short courses.

Meanwhile, policy specialists are working with partners in local and national government to define problems and develop systemic solutions to improving learning outcomes. Together they are building on the classroom reforms prioritized in early pilots to create a learning-centred policy framework and lasting systems for continuing professional development.

The INOVASI journey continues. Meanwhile, the work so far has shown how an adaptive approach to program design, when coupled with a strong learning ethos and partnerships with local as well as national actors, can reap rich rewards.

[1]Guru BAIK’ translates literally as ‘Good Teacher’. The term ‘BAIK’ is used here as an acronym for Belajar Aspiratif Inklusif Kontekstual, meaning ‘Aspirational, Inclusive and Contextual Learning’.


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