TOK Inside Out

images-19I’m told the Theory of Knowledge course was not originally intended to be delivered by a separate TOK department in an IB school. It was intended to be delivered by everyone. (And still is).

Of course, no TOK department is separate – it consists of teachers most of whose time is spent delivering other Diploma courses. There are no specialist TOK teachers, because TOK is not a specialism. It doesn’t exist without (or outside) the Areas of Knowledge. It has a framework, but no content of its own. The course guide emphasizes that no TOK course can be comprehensive or should try to be, and teachers are encouraged to be selective and build their own distinctive courses.

When I started teaching TOK, the approach to the course in that particular school was rather compartmentalized, though probably pretty standard. Each TOK teacher was expected to spend several weeks dwelling on each Way of Knowing and then each Area of Knowledge in turn. While there is nothing wrong with a science teacher leading discussion on the arts, or a literature teacher sharing a perspective on science, constructing a whole course like that is pretty challenging. Every TOK teacher is going to be more confident working with some Areas of Knowledge than others.

You become a TOK teacher and you get some insight into what elementary teaching must be like – suddenly you’re the fount of all knowledge?

No, of course not – you’re a gateway and a connector. You need other voices to join in – you need dialogue, discussion and interplay. You need to bounce ideas off somebody and get some thrown at you. Most teachers enjoy the opportunity to take a step back from what they’re doing, and introduce some different questions. 

TOK is the arena for interdisciplinary collaboration in the Diploma –

it’s how we can get the core into the classroom, and turn the diagram inside out…

I know that sounds like IB hype, but it does actually mean something – ie that you physically need to get into other classrooms!

Over the course of a few years and under a succession of different leaders, that TOK department (at the New International School of Thailand) evolved into something very different. It decompartmentalized the course, mixed everything up and got a lot more people involved. There were energizing collaborations, some of them quite high profile and eye-catching – – a  sustained background of movement between classrooms and a proliferation of conversations. We were trying not just to deliver a course, but to create a playground, a venue for all kinds of creative and critical discussion and collaboration within the faculty.

[Please note: when I refer to ‘collaboration’ I do not mean ‘meetings’…]

Theory of Knowledge can be extremely challenging for some students, while others really need that challenge. As teachers maybe we do too. I think the way to approach it above all is with a sense of improvisation and experimentation. For students TOK can be an oasis of unpredictability in the Diploma, a different perspective giving us some much needed detachment once in a while.

It’s just a matter of turning TOK inside out.

Illustration – Gunther von Hagen


Author: Paul Dunbar

I have worked in international schools for the past 15 years, teaching English Literature and Theory of Knowledge in Amsterdam, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City. I'm also a musician, and a bit of a writer. Since 2001 I have come to question literally everything, the default position for an uncrippled epistemologist.

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