Head's Blog

The unexamined life

Today is the first day that all of our Class of 2021 students will be sitting together in an exam for their IB Diploma, as Mathematics (in one of the two options offered at both higher and standard levels) is the one subject that all IB DP students take with an exam component (the other being Theory of Knowledge).

Statue of Socrates in front of the Academy of Athens (modern) from WikipediaAs I chat to the students ahead of the exam reassuring them that all will be well, taking the pulse of the cohort and with my antennae rotating looking for anyone who may need extra support, the famous quote by Socrates came to my mind: “The unexamined life is not worth living” (ὁ ... ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς ἀνθρώπῳ in the original ancient Greek in Plato's Apology of Socrates (38a5–6)).

Clearly Socrates was not referring to this type of exam, but in the context of the havoc wreaked by the pandemic, a significant amount of controversy has taken place with regards to exams in both secondary and tertiary educational institutions. With regards to the International Baccalaureate Organisation, it offers a dual-route for May 2021 candidates (more information here). Their rationale is clear: if exams can be conducted safely in one region, they should proceed. If they cannot, then the alternative route is offered, which is also available to candidates in exceptional circumstances even in those schools that - like UWCD - are conducting the exams.

One could spend hours following the acrimonious (and not always totally fact-based) debates on the internet about the dual routes. One camp argues that no exams should take place at all (so that there is a level playing field for all candidates), another argues that for many students the exams offer an opportunity to show what they are really capable of and point out that the internal assessments used on the alternative path were influenced by the conditions at the time and may not reflect fully the candidates’ real capabilities. Throw in a bit of game theory, with candidates assuming that one path or the other will give them a better chance of achieving the best possible results, plus the pressure of those who have conditional university admissions offers and, voilá, the cocktail is served!

I believe that the truth, as is often the case, is in the middle, the media via. Even in pre-pandemic times, some students do better than others in the exams, whereas others do better in the internally assessed work and coursework. Therein lies the real problem: there is further room for improvement in our assessment practices, including the possibility of having different pathways for different students in order to cater for true diversity. With regards to this, I am very excited about the work that the UWC schools have been doing over the last year to redefine the UWC educational model. We hope that we will be piloting new initiatives with the support of the IB in a couple of years.

Going back to the real meaning of Socrates’ dictum, the end of a school year (and, in the case of our Class of 2021, of a whole chapter in their lives), is time for the deep examination that the philosopher referred to. The combination of the pandemic that framed the whole school year and the war in Armenia inevitably have shaped a most unusual year. It is understandable that we are all tired and needing a break, as the heightened pressure of this school year has had an impact on all of us. There has been much suffering in our community, and much to celebrate; I keep thinking of Dickens’s “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” famous opening lines.

To review one’s experiences and draw lessons from them, while also celebrating the successes and accepting the failures is a critical step in order to grow fully. In my experience, some students will be able to evaluate their experience with hindsight and the maturity to put things in perspective very quickly, while others will need longer. Given the diversity of our student body, this is only natural. The same applies to all of the adults in our community, many of us need to go back to that special place that allows us to contemplate. I can hear the Mediterranean Sea calling me already…