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The Unexamined Life is Not Worth Living

Rachelle Savoie is a teacher currently on leave from the Calgary Science School. She has taken a position teaching junior high humanities at the Canadian International School in Abu Dabi, United Arab Emirates.

The Unexamined Life is Not Worth Living

After working at CSS for almost 4 years, I had begun to take the act of questioning for granted. It is ingrained in our culture to question. It is what we base our charter on …inquiry.

However, historically, and in many educational institutions, questioning is not the predominant component of learning. In some cases it is not even encouraged. Upon arriving in the United Arab Emirates and meeting my students, I suddenly realized that many of them had been taught in schools where rote learning and memorization was the norm and questioning was a skill they had not developed.

This summer I had come across a resource called, 6 Hats of Thinking (see link below). Since September I have incorporated the 6 Hats of Thinking in various novel study activities, social studies assignments and current events discussions. This helped the students become comfortable with questioning and laid the ground work for a project I wanted to do for the grade 8 Renaissance unit.

Teaching the Renaissance is one of my favorite units in all the grades. The areas you can explore are endless and there are countless connections students can make to today. I was given an idea of a project a few years ago that I never got around to exploring, and because this year is all about trying new things, I thought it would be the perfect place to do it. This project has many of the elements that I believe all worthwhile learning needs to incorporate.

What I know about teaching and learning is it needs to be relevant, engaging and meaningful. During PD days at CSS we often grapple with how to accomplish this. One way we often talk about authentic learning is allow students to ‘become something’ through their work – that is become a mathematician, become an artist, become a historian. This allows students to realize that the work they are doing is something that people do in the real world. The student becomes part of the learning and becomes something through the learning, as opposed to the learning just happening to them. The project, “Becoming a Humanist,” is something I believe meets these criteria.

Humanism is one of the key ideas that grew from the Renaissance worldview; Questioning, Curiosity, Risk-taking, Learning (For those of you who work in an inquiry based school- sound familiar?). To introduce the project we watched a documentary about Socrates. Many conversations were sparked from it, one in which was around Socrates most famous quote, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” We started discussing why people believe the things that they do. We talked about how people hold many opinions, but wonder can people justify and explain their opinions? From there, students started asking questions about things they had always wondered. What transpired was an enthusiastic level of engagement that I strive to see every day in the classroom. All the work we put in at the beginning of the year on what makes a good question and what are different ways of thinking were starting to materialize.

One of the challenges, but also the liberating part of the discussions, was the fact I had no answers for them. What? A teacher who doesn’t know everything? Shocking, I know. The first part of the project, the part that I think is the most important part and the part I am focusing on in this blog post, was coming up with a question. I encouraged students to come up with a question that people are still searching for an answer to today, a question that many people hold different opinions about. When I started to give some suggestions, the students said, “Miss, if you tell us the question, then we are not being true humanists!” This is entirely correct, so I let them loose.

The next day they needed to have to have their question ready to share. All I can say is, wow! They came up with such insightful questions that I hadn’t even thought of. Questions like: Is it possible to become anything you want? Can dictators be good people? Is equality possible? What is fear? Can the world exist without war? Why do we have to lose something in order to realize how precious it was? Are you in control of what happens in your life? How do you know what you are doing is good? If many people believe something is true, is it?

We are starting the part of the project where they need to find an answer their question. This is requiring them to interview people (family members, teachers, experts) and do their own research. The questions they are examining are difficult and it is going to be a challenging journey to reach an answer that uses logic and reason. However, it is the process of questioning where the real learning is happening. I don’t expect them to be able to fully answer questions that people have been asking for hundreds of years. I am more interested in the process. They are living the life of a humanist; asking questions, having meaningful conversations and examining their own life. “Success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is often more important than the outcome.” –Arthur Ashe

1 comment:

Garry McKinnon said...


It is so good to hear from you and to benefit from your experiences associated with teaching overseas in a different context. You highlight the importance of making learning relevant, authentic and connected to the real-life experiences of the students. I appreciate your observations in regard to the art of questioning and questioning as a fundamental skill and disposition for students. I am reminded of the description of the teacher's role as one of developing the interrogative mind. You also reinforce the importance of confidence building in each of your students. Students need a certain level of confidence in order to take the risk associated with asking a question. We will be looking forward to hearing from you more in the New Year. Garry McKinnon

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