Theory of Knowledge is a unique feature of the IB Diploma, and was always conceived as the element which makes it different from any other. So of course it poses unique challenges to the teachers tasked with delivering it, as well as unique opportunities.
The most obvious challenge for TOK teachers lies in the interdisciplinary nature of the course. We have to address the full range of academic fields – the arts, natural and human sciences, mathematics, history, ethics, and now, ‘indigenous knowledge systems’ and ‘religious knowledge systems’. And all of this in only one TOK class per week?
The first thing to say is that you must get away from a philosophy of ‘coverage’ – the idea that you have to ‘cover’ everything – in favour of ‘uncoverage’, ie stimulation, provocation, introspection; challenging the students to develop a ‘knower’s perspective’. No TOK course can be comprehensive. Instead, you have to root your teaching in the students’ perspectives and try to move them to a more actively questioning stance in all disciplines. In a word, you have to get the students thinking. But to do this, you need to provoke new insights and questions in every discipline. How do you, as an individual teacher, address all these fields, most of which lie outside your main competence and all of which possess differing and distinctive (if overlapping) ways of conceiving, acquiring, testing and communicating ‘knowledge’.
Here at the International School of Ho Chi Minh City, we are approaching this problem structurally. We have four TOK teachers, whose primary specialisms are mathematics, literature, history, and science. Rather than asking these four to suddenly become brilliant ‘uncoverers’ in every field under the sun, we enable them to play to their strengths and fully exploit their expertise by rotating the students through all four teachers.
Actually it’s not strictly speaking a rotation. We can do better than that by making a ‘jigsaw’. So, each TOK class is split into three groups, which go off to the other three TOK teachers for a three-lesson sequence in which the teachers deliver their most thought-provoking ideas in mathematics, arts, science and humanities. We call these ‘Remix’ classes, because the students are remixed each time to create a new grouping.
After three lessons, they return to their own TOK teacher for a further two lessons, in which they have to explore their own thinking and teach each other. Now the teacher becomes a mentor, sitting back and listening, guiding and critiquing while the students present to each other and run discussions on knowledge questions which they have extracted from the Remix classes. We call this a ‘Regroup’ class, and the onus is now firmly on the students to deliver content. If they fail to do so, their mentor will refuse to step in to rescue the class. A mentor guides but does not drive the collective effort, and the students have to take responsibility in these classes.
Each Remix-Regroup phase, then, lasts five weeks, and with four teachers in the department, the process is repeated four times. Each time, the teacher drives the Remix phase, and the students drive the Regroup phase. Students are expected to do so with more sophistication each time around; while teachers have the opportunity to refine and sharpen their materials by repeating their Remix sequence four times within one year (a rare opportunity to experiment and develop their approach). Before each Remix cycle, we meet as a year group to introduce new interdisciplinary topics such as, for example, ethics, or faith, and to lay down principles as to how the students should approach the course.
The advantages of this Remix-Regroup structure are clear. Teachers play to their strengths, and develop two distinct roles, as teachers and as mentors. Students likewise play distinct roles as learners and as communicators/peer-teachers. Teachers share students and students share teachers, intensifying the social dimension of learning and allowing a culture of thinking to emerge in the year-group as a whole.
In this way the intellectual capital of the department is maximized and the students continually exposed to new minds and perspectives. In this way TOK can begin to establish itself as the dynamic heart of the program. Once this is underway, the next challenge is then: how to circulate this oxygenated blood (to continue the metaphor); how to pump the epistemology into every Diploma classroom; how to turn the diagram inside out.
And that’s our name for this next challenge: TOKIO – TOK Inside Out.
ISHCMC students discuss Plato’s Allegory of the Cave