Does TOK as a subject have its own content?

Alexey PopovAreas of Knowledge, Curriculum, Knowledge Questions, Teaching Ideas

It is a popular claim that TOK as a subject has no content of its own. But is it really so?

I heard many times how someone claimed that TOK as a subject has no content of its own. TOK, they said, uses the content knowledge students already have from all their other subjects, and the purpose of TOK is to reflect on that knowledge. I understand where they are coming from, but I disagree.

I think that perhaps the biggest problem with teaching IB TOK is that in many classrooms around the world TOK lessons take the form of an “interesting discussion” revolving around an “interesting video” or an “interesting article”. The teacher finds something that seems thought-provoking, like a TED talk or an article in a pop science magazine, comes up with a set of knowledge questions and shows up in class, expecting students to participate in discussions in response to these knowledge questions, and to learn about knowledge through this discussion. I think lessons organised in this way do our students a disservice.

ThemEd’s TOK textbook for the new syllabus

This is why, in a nutshell:

  • If students do not know knowledge concepts (such as truth, evidence, bias, paradigm shift), you cannot expect them to come up with these concepts by themselves
  • If students do not know how to construct abstract arguments, you cannot expect them to start spontaneously
  • In any lesson based purely on discussion some students will inevitably be overwhelmed and intimidated by others, and this will affect how they feel about themselves, the subject, you and even knowledge in general.

Getting students to talk by exchanging opinions about a video or an article is not difficult. It is difficult to organise this discussion in a way that actually helps them understand second-order knowledge problems, and that actually develops their TOK skills.

I think the worst thing that can happen is if students start engaging in first-order discussions about the thing that they just read or watched, and if they can’t tell the difference between a first-order discussion and a second-order discussion. Then such students will have many weeks of captivating conversations in their TOK classroom, but they will finish the course not clearly understanding what TOK actually is. They will not feel like they learned Theory of knowledge.

I think this is exactly what frequently happens when teachers operate on the assumption that TOK has no content of its own.

TOK does have its own content. It comes in the following forms:

  • Knowledge concepts (genetic ones such as bias, subjectivity, perspective, but also more specific ones such as consistency of axiomatic systems in mathematics or aesthetic judgment in the arts)
  • Key knowledge problems and existing perspectives (such as discovered versus invented in mathematics, approximation of truth versus problem-solving in natural sciences, reasons versus purposes in human sciences, and so on)

If students are equipped with these concepts and conceptual understandings, they will be ready to have a genuinely TOK discussion, as opposed to simply voicing their opinions in response to “something interesting”. These concepts become the tools with which students do the thinking.

Give them the tools first, then expect them to build something. An architect will never learn to construct buildings by walking around the city and discussing interesting buildings with other student architects. Walking around, observing and discussing is a useful method, but it is not effective if your young architects do not know what to look at and how to look at it.

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