Personal and shared knowledge as an opportunity: Why we need these terms back when we teach thematically

Alexey PopovAssessment, Curriculum

When we teach thematically, we need to return the explicit distinction between personal and shared knowledge. This will allow us to teach themes and areas of knowledge simultaneously. At the same time, students will be clear about what can and cannot be used in an essay.

This blog post belongs to a series entitled “Traps and loopholes in the new TOK syllabus”. You can access the full list of blog posts in the series here

In the previous blog post (see here) I suggested that the distinction between personal and shared knowledge was removed from the new Guide because it does not sit well with the Optional themes. It is easy to explain that the Core theme “Knowledge and the knower” is (kind of) about personal knowledge and Areas of knowledge are about shared knowledge. But with Optional themes, it’s a mixture of the two. Not easy to separate.

Download the entire chapter for free – Bias in Personal Knowledge, from “TOK: A Student’s Guide.”

I also said that there may be a trap here. The thing is, we know that TOK essay titles will be focused on areas of knowledge. Therefore, in the TOK essay the focus should be on shared knowledge, and students should not be overusing examples and arguments related to personal knowledge. So, terminology has been removed, but the distinction between personal knowledge and shared knowledge is still implicitly there. Moreover, it affects assessment, so it’s actually more important than ever!

When you teach thematically, you teach areas of knowledge through themes rather than separately from them. This allows you to make the course holistic – the way it’s supposed to be. But then students must know that some arguments are acceptable for the essay and some are not. How do we ensure that?

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There is a solution that is simple and elegant – restore the distinction between personal and shared knowledge! Make it clear to the students that now we are discussing examples of personal knowledge, and now we are switching over to shared knowledge. Viola. 

This is exactly what we have done in our textbook. We have returned the distinction back to the course. This allows us to teach themes and areas of knowledge simultaneously. At the same time, students clearly understand what belongs to shared knowledge and hence acceptable in the essay. 

There is no penalty in the IB for using these terms. They removed them from the Guide simply because these terms didn’t sit well with the optional themes. However, the Themantic approach structures the course differently, and the terms “personal knowledge” and “shared knowledge” do a very good job in terms of clarity. They allow students to clearly understand what can be used and what cannot be used in the TOK essay.

Teachers often notice that we have “personal knowledge” and “shared knowledge” in the titles of our chapters. I hope this blog post clarifies why and dispels your doubts. 

Read further: Personal and shared knowledge as a trap: Why has the difference been removed?

Download FREE eBook Chapter 3 for TOK – Bias in Personal Knowledge.