Emerging from the cave

By Claire Feain | 23 Sep 14

In Year 9, I did a subject called Asian Studies. We had to do a research assignment on a famous figurehead in Asia – I chose the Dalai Lama. This quickly spiraled into becoming heavily interested in and involved with the “Free Tibet” movement. I sold t-shirts and badges at school, held a fundraiser at a local café and raised over $1000 for the Australian Tibetan Council. Once equipped with knowledge about an issue I felt I could do something to change or help the situation. I was definitely an optimistic and idealistic student.

I was recently talking to a colleague who was said she was the opposite when she was at school. She felt overwhelmed by global issues and felt like they were too big to attack or even think about – “What could I do to help”? This really surprised me, as my colleague is someone who is constantly making positive changes in our workplace to enrich the lives of students and teachers. If she thought that then, her actions don’t show that now.

We work at a school where the kids are often disengaged with the world around them. After teaching Year 10 philosophy students Plato’s Cave, many students decided that they would not want to be the freed prisoner in the allegory, as they wouldn’t know what would happen to them. At least in the cave, they said, they would be safe.

Thomas Jefferson believed that in a democratic society, teachers should encourage high school students to work towards social change. Horce Mann argued, “if we do not prepare children to become good citizens … then our republic must go down to destruction”.[1] With this in mind, I feel it’s important to expose students to the big issues that are happening; the ones that their families might be talking about and the ones the media is reporting on. Students live in the world, so they may as well think about what is happening in it. I want my students to have an understanding about some of these issues and make their own conclusions about them. I want them to take action if they feel it’s important to do so. At the very least, I them to have a voice.

One of my major concerns was that by discussing any “big issues” it would scare my students or make them feel like the world was too messed up and they couldn’t do anything about it, just like my colleague once thought. I had to really think about what I was teaching, what message I wanted the students to take and how to keep them feeling empowered. Taking on what Paulo Freire wrote in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, I wanted my students to be co-creators of knowledge instead of simply being an empty vessel.[2]

I’m really lucky to teach a Year 8 Enrichment English class. These students are hungry for learning, passionate about the written word and are willing and able to do their own research on a topic. It was a real surprise the first time I taught these students – after years of teaching work refusers and students with severe literacy difficulties, a group of students who want to work independently and learn enthusiastically is exciting.

Within the Australian Curriculum, one of the key General Capabilities is for students is to “develop intercultural understanding as they learn to value their own cultures, languages, religion and beliefs, and those of others. They come to understand how personal, group and national identities are shaped, and the variable and changing nature of culture”. With this in mind and the constant barrage of news about boat people, I thought our class would study asylum seekers and what it means to be an Australian.

Using Community of Inquiry, we examined the issues of asylum seekers and how the Australian government is treating people in detention. Something I emphasised to my students repeatedly was that they had the power to make change, however big or small, in both their lives and the wider community. Some students were very upset with Australian policy on asylum seekers – one student cried in class while we were watching the film Mary meets Mohammad. Another student thought detention centres were a necessity but believes our government should create other measures, ones that ensure people don’t take a dangerous boat journey to Australia and do not have to spend up to three years in detention.

“Students learn how to be active citizens by being active citizens”

I believe the Community of Inquiry method, a student-led, inquiry based approach to learning, was integral to students being so involved in understanding the issue of asylum seekers. According to Matthew Lipman, the founder of Philosophy for Children and an advocate for Community of Inquiry, “the aim is to give rise to dialogue, self-correction and inquiry, in order to eliminate the forces which cause violence, ignorance and injustice.”[3] Having students sit in a circle with focus questions, knowing they all had to contribute at some point and myself as simply a facilitator allowed students to be more reflective and reasoned with their responses on asylum seekers.

After completing a research presentation on asylum seekers in groups, I was proud of their results. They had tackled head on one of the biggest issues in the media today. My students can now tell others the difference between a refugee and an asylum seeker, and more importantly give people an informed opinion on what they think. My students joined the conversation and are now equipped to act and make a difference if they choose.

I taught my students a controversial topic, which has divided Australians and has been an election decider at least once. As educational theorists Alan Singer and Michael Pezone have pointed out, knowledge is not neutral – it either supports the status quo or a potential new direction for society; people learn primarily from what they experience and students learn how to be active citizens by being active citizens. From teaching my students a topical issue, they have emerged out the cave with their eyes open and they can determine what happens next. 

Claire is an experienced Philosophy and English teacher at Strathmore Secondary College. She volunteers weekly, tutoring students at Atherton Gardens Public Housing in Fitzroy, and has recently produced an education resource for Road to Refuge. 


[1]Mann, H. The New York Times, 1953

[2]Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Seabury

[3]Lipman, M. (2003). Thinking in Education (second edition). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p 105