Malaysia: Empowering indigenous children through holistic nature-based learning

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the enrolment rate for Malaysia’s primary school students in 2022 was 97.76 percent, and 84.52 percent for secondary school students. However, for indigenous children, the enrolment rate was much lower as they still face significant obstacles in accessing education. In November 2021, the Ministry of Education reported that the Orang Asli indigenous students’ completion rate for Form 5 level (16-year-old students) was 42.29 percent.

To increase the access of education to the Orang Asli indigenous children, the Global Peace Foundation Malaysia established the Forest School at Kampung Binjai, in the heart of the Muadzam Shah forest, Pahang. Global Peace believes that education is a basic right for all children and they strive to make education accessible by bringing out-of-classroom learning to under-served communities like the Orang Asli children.

The teachers are themselves from the village trained to carry out lessons for the children. The children learn basic literacy and numeracy, social skills, and STEM activities, among others, as life skills. Additionally, at the Forest School at Kampung Binjai, they also learn about their own culture and to preserve the roots and heritage of the Jakun tribe.

Normaliati Ali (Lia), a teacher born and raised in the Jakun tribe, said: “Our data indicates that over 80 percent of indigenous children aged seven to12 in Pahang do not attend school. This is due to a combination of factors, including their remote location, poverty, lack of transportation, difficulties integrating with the school, discrimination and bullying, and low parental awareness.

“Recognizing the gravity of this issue, the Forest School aims to raise awareness about the importance of education for those who have dropped out and to prepare young indigenous children for primary school. The goal is to provide quality education and ensuring a smooth transition for these children.”

Normaliati Ali (Lia), a teacher born and raised in the Jakun tribe. Photo credit: Global Peace

Lia with her students. Photo credit: AnnJil Chong

Students constructing shoe racks using bamboo found in their surroundings. Photo credit: Global Peace

Signboard of the forest school designed by indigenous children. Photo credit: Global Peace

One type of education does not fit every student

“Children, please name one of the vegetables that you see in our garden,” Lia asked.

“Kangkung (water spinach), Teacher Lia!” exclaimed Harisan, an enthusiastic 11 years old student from the Jakun tribe.

“Could you please spell out the word?” Lia continued.

“Ka…ku…,” he stumbled and struggled with the spelling. “Kat…kum….”

“Open your ears and listen to the sound of the word.” Lia gently guided him, unlocking the enchanting world of literacy.

Over the years, Lia has experimented with a few teaching methods including Montessori, Reggio Emilia, and Waldorf but found they did not work with Jakun children. So, after a lot of research and testing, she came out with the Forest School’s syllabus which caters solely to the unique learning style of the Jakun children.

Lia said enforcing silence and good behavior in the classroom, as is always seen in mainstream schools is not suitable in her case. “Our priority here is to respect the students’ identities and instill in them a sense of pride in their indigenous heritage. It’s absolutely wonderful to witness them embracing their authentic selves in this environment.”

Observing that the children are always happy when they are out and about in nature, Lia and other teachers integrated outdoor classes with hands-on learning experiences to enhance their self-confidence. For instance, the children have learned how to build a bamboo shoe rack from scratch, using the bamboo found in their surroundings. They were also introduced to syntropic farming, a method that imitates the natural regeneration of forests and harmoniously integrates food production systems.

Lia said that the first step in the learning journey is to involve and cultivate a robust working relationship of trust with parents. Once the parents are convinced and are onboard, there is a higher likelihood the children will learn well.

“By nurturing this trust, we construct an atmosphere where parents feel assured in permitting their cherished ones to discover the marvels of Forest School.”

Lia added: “Academic achievement is not our primary goal at the Forest School. Instead, our aim is to prepare students to interact confidently with their peers from the city, regardless of any biases related to their background or heritage. We achieve this by focusing on developing their communication skills, establishing a solid foundation in literacy and numeracy, and exposing them to diverse forms of art, music, and dance through enriching field trips. And yet, we always remind them never to forget their roots.”

Regarding challenges facing her profession, Lia said: “The most challenging aspect is the disparity in literacy levels among the students, despite their similar age. Their literacy skills vary, with some having limited abilities while others are more proficient. This discrepancy is likely due to differences in parental involvement in teaching them at home. It is always a challenge to balance the needs of both groups, ensuring that one does not feel neglected while keeping the lessons engaging for everyone.”

Amai (Aunty) Yuni is one of the few parents in Kampung Binjai who firmly believes that education plays a crucial role in shaping a child’s future. Photo credit: Global Peace

Students with their artwork. Photo credit: Global Peace

Shamin (middle) tutors other students. Photo credit: Global Peace

In one of her proudest moments, Lia said Shamin, her student, graduated from the Forest School and went on to a mainstream secondary school. 

“I’m afraid that he struggled to adapt to the environment. However, on his first day at school, he witnessed the other students marching in formation. To my surprise, he sought permission from the teacher and joined in, following their steps and marching alongside his classmates. Deep down in my heart, I knew he was ready.

“We used to have a so-called Peace Circle where I would ask questions like “What do you want to be when you grow up?”. During one session, Shamin answered that he wanted to be a durian collector and own a motorcycle. After attending classes in a mainstream school, he changed his ambition to become a police officer. It is through exposure that children are able to broaden their horizons and venture beyond familiar territories.

“I sincerely hope that Shamin will emerge as a shining beacon of hope for the young souls in Kampung Binjai. May his presence ignite their spirits, enabling the children to realize their worth, and empowering them with the belief that they too can succeed in school.”

Based on her experience, Lia said teaching indigenous children is a long-term process where results may not be immediate. Teachers have to embrace this notion and approach each interaction as an opportunity to create something extraordinary. In the classroom, every single moment should be cherished and made as special as possible. Teachers must strive to create an environment that fosters curiosity, inspiration, and growth, where sparks may hopefully ignites the children’s motivation and fuels their desire to learn. 

“In our quest to educate and empower indigenous children, let us remember the transformative power of patience. Let us cherish every moment we spend with them, knowing that within those minutes lies the potential for a lifetime of learning and personal growth.”

Top photo credit: Global Peace. Jakun children

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