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Response: Teaching Knowledge Questions

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A week ago, I published a post headlined: Attention, IB Theory Of Knowledge Teachers! How Do You Teach “Knowledge Questions” (Formerly “Knowledge Issues”)?

As I said in the post, I think helping students understand knowledge questions is one of the most challenging tasks I have in class.

I’ve invited a number of people to respond to that question, and will be posting their responses over the next couple of weeks.

The first response I published was from TOK textbook author Eileen Dombrowski.

Today’s piece is from Brad Ovenell-Carter. Brad is the director of educational technology and TOK department head at Mulgrave School, an independent, coed K12 IB World School in Vancouver, Canada. Like Mark Twain, he thinks the ancients stole all out good ideas. And he wants them back:

I like the move from issues to questions. First of all, I like it because a question is more dynamic, more driving than an issue. A question pushes inquiry; an issue merely invites a response: we are either “fer it” or “agin it” or we’re sitting on the fence. Questions are just much more interesting and like the little cyclops in Kostas Kiriakis wonderful and must-read cartoon, A Day at the Park, I would never trade a good question for an answer.

Secondly, the word, issue, is a loaded term and it was in a large part responsible for pushing Theory of Knowledge students (and most everyone) to thinking erroneously that TOK was about contentious issues and ethics. However engaging that discussion may be, it has nothing to do with the critical analysis of knowledge.

Questions–good questions–are much harder to create than issues, or answers. That is generally true and also particularly true in high school where students have already spent a decade working pretty much solidly on finding answers. Questions–good questions–are also much harder to assess than answers. Anyone can mark a set of answers, there’s always a key somewhere, but we really have to know our stuff to mark questions.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. We, that is students and teachers both, also need–maybe mainly need–a sense of curiosity and a tolerance for ambiguity, uncertainty, wrong turns and backtrackings as there is no guarantee that a question will take us to where the curriculum guide says the answer lies. Not even good questions are sure to get us there and we should keep in mind that the International Baccalaureate Organization’s idea of there should not be taken as final. (It has, for example, an inherently Western bias.)

The happy thing, though, is that of all the courses in the Diploma Program, TOK is the one place where we can get away with being messy like this. It’s a shame the IBO doesn’t start TOK in the Middle Years Program; it seems late to start teaching the fun of asking good questions in Grade 11.

What makes good questions fun, is that they contain some element of risk, some possibility of going wildly off track. That is why we can never ever let anyone start a question with “To what extent…?” If we want a good, simple first step to teaching knowledge questions, we should forbid anything that starts that way. First of all, it’s overused. Google “ibo ‘to what extent’” we get 7.2 million hits. Anyways, “To what extent” is not really a question, is it? It’s more an essay format asking us to report out on our depth of knowledge and our ability to analyse the value of different bits of information. It’s an answer disguised as a question. It’s a pseudo-question akin to Dan Meyer’s psuedo-context in math problems. So, for example off the top of my head, something like “To what extent do teachers and textbooks as bona fide authorities shape my understanding in History class” is not so fun as “Why do I believe anything I learn in school?” I mean, after a good question, we should feel a bit rattled. As an exercise, it wouldn’t hurt to try rewriting some “to what extent…” pseudo-questions as fun questions. Meyer talks about relevant questions being those that students want to answer. A good TOK questions has the same quality.

It helps, too, if day-to-day we cultivate a hermeneutic of suspicion in TOK so that we start to ask reflexively, “What’s going on here?” But that is tricky. I think we need to work up to a good question, like the way we draft an essay. It helps to do that with someone else, or several others, by the way. Incidentally, we know IB is big on its terminology but I’ve found it’s better to come up with a good question first, then swap in the TOK words such as Areas of Knowledge, Ways of Knowing and Personal and Shared knowledge and so on. Those terms are the least interesting aspect of TOK but the easiest thing to master so I see a tendency to want to structure classes around that conceptual framework, as the TOK textbooks do, and put off the challenging work of question-finding.

We don’t spend enough time with questions because really we’re already thinking of the answer. When I worked in Sweden, we came up with the expression bra start which literally means “good start” but can be understood as “Good start, so why are we in a rush to keep going. Let’s just stay here in the question a while longer.” If we want a stronger caution, Flaubert says, “Stupidity lies in wanting to draw conclusions.”  So maybe if we catch ourselves feeling like our question is pointing to an answer, it’s time to give it a rethink. The best way to teach questions is to ask lots of good ones. And, as Kiriakis loveable cyclops suggests, if a question isn’t quite right, it will suggest another one that is a little but better.

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

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