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Into the Abyss

Staff Blogger Christina Chapman

The 15th Century CE saw an age of unprecedented discovery. Spurred on by the need for profitable new trade routes, religious evangelism, political power, and an innate curiosity of what lay beyond, brave sailors embarked on perilous and painstaking voyages in search of newfound lands.

Great men like Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan cemented their place in history by leaving behind the relative safety of the old world and sailing into the abyss, and in doing so, discovering new and exotic lands and people. For many of our young men in Year 12, the coming weeks and months represent similarly uncharted territory. After 13 years of schooling, they are set to embark on their own journey into the unknown, leaving behind the relative safety of internal, school-based assessment. For many subjects, including the Humanities and English, Term 3 will be focused on preparing for the enigmatic external exam – an entity that has loomed on the horizon since the start of senior.

The unknown has always filled us with dread. And just like the explorers, unsure of the challenges they were going to face on their voyages, the unknown nature of the external exam can and will be daunting for many students. They may well feel overwhelmed by the lack of specificity around the scope and nature question/s, the mystery surrounding the marking guide or the strangeness of sitting exams under the eagle eye of external invigilators rather than the familiar faces of their teachers.

As it is, 2020 has been a year that has already dealt its fair share of uncertainty. We have witnessed bushfires devastate rural communities leaving our nation shrouded in smoke. We have seen superpowers on the brink of nuclear war. We have watched as peaceful protests demanding equality have erupted into violence, riots, and anarchy and we have looked on as a pandemic has forced us into lockdown. This last, once in a lifetime, event has disrupted our very way of life, and, as we brace for the devastating economic aftermath and we wake to news each morning of more cases down south, we face the frightening possibility that this is not all behind us.

No doubt, these are uncertain times. But what they have proven is our capacity to cope and revealed a resilience that many believed was lacking in this generation. This year has proven just how powerful a force collective effort can be and showcased our ability to face challenges head on – to innovate and to adapt.

Despite their trepidation, the boys are/will be well prepared for what lies ahead. In his TED talk, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, explains how to stay calm when faced with stressful situations that require clear thinking. We know that reflecting on learning is a critical part of the process. By conducting a post-mortem of a situation or task, we can consider what we did well, what went wrong, and endeavour to avoid such pitfalls in the future. But while reflection is powerful for future learning, it doesn’t give us an opportunity to change anything in the now. What is done is done. Instead of focusing on the past, Levitin suggests that the best way to perform well in stressful situations is to conduct, what he calls, a “pre-mortem”. He advocates that preparation is the best way to minimise stress because it reduces the uncertainty.

Lower cortisol/stress levels allow for clearer thinking – clarity that is pivotal to exam success. The truth is, there is nothing particularly ground-breaking about this idea. The notion that “proper preparation prevents poor performance” is a well-worn adage. Magellan and Columbus planned their voyages meticulously, well in advance of weighing anchor. They relied on the wisdom of scientists, sailors and astronomers who had gone before them and, along with their crew, spent countless hours studying the weather, existing charts and the stars to prepare for what may come. They didn’t simply hop a boat and set sail. To do so would have been madness, and in their context, certain death. We also need to remember that preparation does not guarantee a smooth voyage. Sadly, none of us can predict the future. Inevitably, there will be miscalculations, mutinies, rough seas, storms and the like. Success is far more likely if we, like the great voyagers who faced all manner of mishaps, plan carefully and prepare ourselves. With our support, the boys should find confidence in controlling those variables they can control.

So, what can our young men do, and how can we support them, to prepare for their expedition into the abyss?

1. Plan your voyage carefully.
External exam timetables have been released, so it is time to sit down with a diary/calendar and plot the events and activities for the next couple of months. Identify peak times of stress, eliminate distractions, cut back on part-time work, and write a study timetable. By conducting a “pre-mortem” you can circumvent some problems before they arise and ensure clear thinking when you need it most.
2. Seek clarification early and often.
Don’t wait until you are well off course to consult your map or ask for help.
3. Listen to your navigators.
Follow the advice of those in the know. The QCAA syllabi are written with clearly defined Assessment Objectives. Like the stars used by navigators in the Age of Discovery, these provide us with clear points of reference useful in negotiating the unknown. Your teachers have carefully designed your lessons/learning activities based on these objectives to give you the greatest chance at success. Trust them, follow their advice and complete all set tasks.
4. Be open to new ideas.
When you encounter the New World, you will come across some new ideas and different ways of doing things. Try not to close yourself off to advice/feedback. These are invaluable opportunities for growth and discovery.
5. Stay the course.
It is tempting to give up at this point. It has been a long journey and some of you are weary. Push through to the end for therein lies the glory.
6. Look around and enjoy the view!

In this the final semester at ATC, it is important to enjoy what is left. Enjoy lunchtime with friends, house and co-curricular activities, sport and time with your teachers. These are the memories that will last a lifetime.

While it is an uncertain time, it is also exciting. For our year 12 students, external exams will be just the start of a long voyage into the abyss. The reality is, life beyond school promises to be even more fraught with uncertainty but we pray that they feel empowered and energised by the glittering possibilities of what lies beyond. Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, assures us that, ‘It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.’

To continue the conversation, click here to email the author, Head of Humanities Senior School, Christina Chapman.