Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day…

…For Teaching ELL, ESL, & EFL

March 17, 2014
by Larry Ferlazzo

“The Long Reach Of Reason” – It’s A Safe Bet That This New TED Talk Animation Will Be Shown In Every TOK Class

'Logic Lane' photo (c) 2003, Anders Sandberg - license:

TED Talks has just unveiled a new animation titled “The Long Reach Of Reason.”

Here’s how Chris Anderson at TED describes it:

Two years ago the psychologist Steven Pinker and the philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, who are married, came to TED to take part in a form of Socratic dialog. Steven Pinker and Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: The long reach of reasonSteven Pinker and Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: The long reach of reasonShe sought to argue that Reason was a much more powerful force in history than it’s normally given credit for. He initially defended the modern consensus among psychologists and neurologists, that most human behavior is best explained through other means: unconscious instincts of various kinds. But over the course of the dialog, he is persuaded by her, and together they look back through history and see how reasoned arguments ended up having massive impacts, even if those impacts sometimes took centuries to unfold.

They turned it into a “talk in animated dialogue form.” I’ve embedded it below, and you can read more about it here.

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March 10, 2014
by Larry Ferlazzo

Recent Student Projects From My Theory Of Knowledge Class

As regular readers know, in addition to teaching Beginning and Intermediate English Language Learners English and Social Studies, I also teacher mainstream ninth-grade English classes and an International Baccalaureate Theory of Knowledge class (and it looks like I’ll be teaching two TOK classes next year!).

In addition to IB Diploma candidates, I heavily recruit other students that are not taking other IB courses, including students who have previously been in my ELL classes.

I thought readers might be interested in some recent projects we’ve done there, and you can see more at our TOK class blog.

After we study each individual Way of Knowing and Area of Knowledge, small groups create posters and make short presentations that usually include:

* What they think the three most important things they’ve learned are and why they’re important.

* A picture they draw along with an explanation of how it’s connected to the WOK or AOK.

* A favorite quote from our textbook or materials we’ve studies and why they think it’s important.

* A Knowledge question.

Here’s a photo of one poster after we studied Human Sciences:


As TOK teachers know, IB added several new Ways of Knowing and Areas of Knowledge to the curriculum this year. I’m finding it difficult to fit them all in, so, for two of the new ones — Religious Knowledge Systems and Indigenous Knowledge Systems — we just spent three days each studying each one.

Taking some questions directly from the new TOK Guide, I had students work in small groups, providing a number of links to resources, and had them develop a short slideshow and presentation using this outline:

What is this Area of Knowledge about?

What practical problems can be solved by applying this knowledge?

What makes this Area of Knowledge important?

Show the connections at least three Ways of Knowing have to this Area of Knowledge.

Here are some slidedecks and you can see more on our class blog:

Indigenous Knowledge Systems

More PowerPoint presentations from Sabreena

Religious Knowledge Systems

More PowerPoint presentations from Thien Y Huynh

Religious Knowledge Systems

More PowerPoint presentations from Pratishma

I’d love to hear ideas on how I can improve these assignments, so feel free to leave a comment!

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February 22, 2014
by Larry Ferlazzo

Great Video For Language Development (& For Ethics Discussion): “Would you give your jacket to Johannes?”

Here’s a great video created by an organization in Norway to raise awareness of the plight of Syrian refugee children. English Language Learners can describe what they see happening the video and discuss what they would do….

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February 15, 2014
by Larry Ferlazzo

“Emotions Of Sound” Is A Great Interactive For ELLs & For IB Students!


Emotions Of Sound is a neat interactive that plays different sounds, along with images. You’re then show several different “emotional” words and have to pick the one that the sound and image elicits from you. After each answer, results are shown for how many people have chosen each word. At the end of the all the questions, the site tells you, overall, how alike or different your responses were from others visiting the site.

It’s a great site for English Language Learners to use for learning feelings-related vocabulary, and would be a fun interactive for IB Theory of Knowledge students to use when studying perception.

I’m adding it to The Best Sites To Learn “Feelings” Words.

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February 2, 2014
by Larry Ferlazzo

Quote Of The Day: “The Dangers of Certainty”

The Dangers of Certainty: A Lesson From Auschwitz is an excellent (though somewhat meandering) column in today’s New York Times, written by Simon Critchley.

I think it relates a lot to what I’ve written about teaching and “school reform” in a Washington Post piece titled The importance of being unprincipled. I’ll also be using in my IB Theory of Knowledge class — I always begin the course by sharing quotations questioning the value of absolute certainty.

Here’s an excerpt, followed by a video accompanying the column:


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January 19, 2014
by Larry Ferlazzo

Infographic: “Word Science”

As regular readers know, I spend very little time and thought into writing the typically bland headlines in my blog posts. I just figure my reputation for useful content, and the content itself, will do the job of encouraging people to read it.

However, I found this infographic from Short Stack pretty interesting, not so much because I’ll be using it to craft future headlines, but because I think it makes for an interesting part of a lesson on language in my IB Theory of Knowledge classes.

Nevertheless, I’ll still add it to The Best Sources Of Advice For Teachers (And Others!) On How To Be Better Bloggers.

word science
Explore more infographics like this one on the web’s largest information design community – Visually.

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January 16, 2014
by Larry Ferlazzo
1 Comment

The Best Videos Documenting The History Of The English Language

'McGuffey Reader illustration n.d.' photo (c) 2009, Miami University Libraries - Digital Collections - license:

There are quite a number of decent videos documenting the history of the English language, and I’m trying to figure out how to use them in my IB Theory of Knowledge class. Ideas are welcome.

Here are the videos I know about:

The Story Of English is a nine-part television series, and I’ve embedded the entire playlist below:

How did English evolve? is from TED-Ed. I’ve embedded the video below, and you can see the entire lesson here.

Here’s an “oldie” from The British Council:

Get the Embed Code to Add This Infographic to Your Site.
‘The History of the English Language’ courtesy of Brighton School of Business and Management.

11 places to visit on a tour of the English language is from The Week.

Let me know what I’m missing….

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January 15, 2014
by Larry Ferlazzo

More “What If?” History Projects — Plus, What Students Thought Of Them….


Last week, I shared a few of the “What If?” history project my IB Theory of Knowledge students created and added them to The Best Resources For Teaching “What If?” History Lessons.

Students just completed a simple evaluation of the project, and I thought readers might be interested in what they thought of it. As my IB students have done in previous years, they are teaching my English Language Learners how to do it, too, so I’ll also be sharing those presentations in a few days.

But, before I share my IB students’ comments, I thought I’d share one more of their PowerPoints:

Here are their evaluations:

What did you like or not like about the project and why?

I liked doing this project because it led me to imagine the world today with events changed.

I liked it because it was fun.

I didn’t like it because it wasn’t really fun.

I really liked doing the project because it allowed me to work with others I hadn’t worked with yet.

I liked it because it was a great way to see how things would have been different.

I liked it because we had fun and used creativity to create events that never happened.

What could be done to improve it?

Most people said “we could have used one more day to prepare.”

It was pretty cool. I really don’t know what could be better.

What did you learn about history?

I was able to understand the significance of an event and how it plays a role in the way our lives are today. I learned to appreciate and be grateful for these events, because if they never occurred I wouldn’t be here right now or possibly my life may be extremely different.

I did learn about history and how a small event can easily change the future. Anything can change our lives in the future.

I learned that history always has a cause and effect rule to it.

History is built up depending on who writes or sees it.

I learned about many different perspectives of history. Also, what I thought up as a consequence/effect, others didn’t…


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January 14, 2014
by Larry Ferlazzo

Here’s What My IB Theory Of Knowledge Students Are Doing For Their Semester “Final”

'Knowledge is addictive' photo (c) 2006, Beatrice Murch - license:

I’ve previously posted what my ELL Geography students and what my ELL History students (as well as my mainstream ninth-grade classes) are doing for their semester finals next week. I’ve also published what my ELL students are doing for their English “final.”

I thought some readers might also be interested in what my IB Theory of Knowledge students are doing for theirs, too.

I’ve picked what I think are five of the more accessible TOK essay prompts from previous years and have created this First Semester Final. Students will pick one and write their response.

I’ll also be taking them to the Computer Lab for a period to quickly review TOK essay prep materials we’ll be going over much more extensively later this year — just so they can get a taste of it prior to the final.

I’m just telling students to try their best and not get too worried about the final — I’m viewing much more as a formative assessment than as a summative one.

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January 12, 2014
by Larry Ferlazzo

This Year’s “What If?” History Presentations

As usual, my IB Theory of Knowledge class did “What If?” presentations as part of their study of history, and are teaching my ELL U.S. History students how to do the same.

Here are a couple of examples, which I’ll be adding to The Best Resources For Teaching “What If?” History Lessons. The second one is just a thumbnail and you have to click on it:

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January 11, 2014
by Larry Ferlazzo

Excellent History Question For Students: “What Are History’s Biggest Turning-Point Years?”

'The Death of General Wolfe at Quebec (1759)' photo (c) 2012, Special Collections Toronto Public Library - license:

What Are History’s Biggest Turning-Point Years? is a very interesting headline in a Slate article which, in turn, is based on this research based on a review of 120 years worth of dissertation titles.

Here’s what they concluded:

Unexpectedly for me, 1763, the year the Seven Years’ War ended and also a key date in the run-up to the American Revolution, turns out to be the year that most exceeds expectations. Next up are the more obvious dates of 1914, 1789, 1848, and 1776.

It seems to me that it would be a great question to ask my history and Theory of Knowledge students: What do you think the biggest turning-point year in World History or U.S. History? Provide evidence supporting your response.

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December 28, 2013
by Larry Ferlazzo

“the danger of not having your own stories”

A tweet today from Carol Jago today reminded me of one of my favorite quotes.

It’s from the late Chinua Achebe who, in an interview where he spoke about “the danger of not having your own stories,” said:


The importance of who is telling the story is a critical one in history, broader social change, and education.

I highlighted it earlier today in my post titled From The Archives: “English Language Learners and the Power of Personal Stories” and have also written about it in Students Remember More When They Tell Stories.

David B. Cohen and I led a workshop on the topic a few years back as it relates to education policy, and David wrote two posts on the idea: “The Danger of a Single Story” Part One and Part Two.

And, of course, in IB Theory of Knowledge, the idea of who is telling the story in in history an important part of the course.

Any additional ideas on how we can lift-up our students stories, make sure our stories as teachers are part of the policy debate, and highlight the stories of the “hunted lions” in history?

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December 19, 2013
by Larry Ferlazzo

The Best Theory Of Knowledge Resources In 2013 – Part Two


As regular readers know, I teach an International Baccalaureate “Theory of Knowledge” class. Our school structures our IB program a bit differently from many others by having a whole lot of students take individual IB classes and we have relatively few who are taking all IB classes in order to get the IB diploma. I really like this set-up, and it opens up my TOK class to a lot more students.

As I’ve said before, I can’t think of a high school class that would be more fun to teach or more fun to take…

You might also be interested in:

The Best Theory Of Knowledge Resources In 2013 – So Far

The Best Theory Of Knowledge Resources In 2012 — Part Two

The Best Theory Of Knowledge Resources In 2012 — Part One

The Best Theory Of Knowledge Resources In 2011

The Best Theory Of Knowledge Resources — 2010

Here are my choices for The Best Theory Of Knowledge Resources In 2013 – Part Two:

The Best Posts On Teaching TOK “Knowledge Questions”

Unspeak is described as:

an interactive documentary investigating the manipulative power of language.

The site looks pretty wild and, if you can figure it out, engaging. I think it would be useful for IB Theory Of Knowledge classes when studying language.

Here’s an introductory video to it:

One of the major projects I had students do this year was a presentation on the Ways of Knowing, and how each one can help and hinder a search for knowledge. There has been a fair amount of discussion about if, in light of the new TOK Course Guide, if the WOK should be taught separately (see The Best Commentaries On The New IB Theory Of Knowledge Teaching Guide). I’ve decided to continue to do so, and it seems to be working out well.

You can read the instructions for this project at our class blog, as well as seeing the PowerPoints different small groups prepared for their presentation.

My original intention was to have most, if not all, also create an audio narrated version of their slides using Screencast-o-Matic after they gave their presentations to the class. However, we ended up being pressed for time as we neared Thanksgiving break. One group was able to do so, and I’ve embedded it below.

I think the whole project went well. Creating the presentation, giving it, and then listening to them, all provided opportunities for formative assessment, review, and practice for the TOK presentations they have to do in the spring.

Let me know what you think, and please share your ideas on how we could have done it better…

“The Challenger Disaster” was shown on the Discovery Channel and The Science Channel, and it was an impressive movie. Even though I’ve blogged a lot about Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, I was not aware of his critical role in determining the cause of that space shuttle disaster.

You can see clips from the movie here and read about it this New York Times article.

It could certainly be used in IB Theory of Knowledge classes as part of a discussion about why some people don’t want knowledge to be found, and to also help teach the scientific method.

Here’s a video of Feynman’s climatic moment at the actual hearings:

Here’s a good image useful for teaching Perception in IB Theory of Knowledge classes:


For teachers of the International Baccalaureate Theory of Knowledge course, I thought I’d how I introduce the concept of “intuition” (as I’m sure you’ll know if you’re a TOK teacher, intuition used to be taught as part of the “emotion” Way of Knowing, but has now “graduated” to being its own WOK).

An episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation is our entry point….

First, I show a clip introducing the characters Data and Geordi, usually using this scene (it still boggles my mind that so few students have ever seen the show). You can also show the actual scene here:

Secondly, I pass out the section of the script for the “The Defector” episode where Geordi explains to Data what it means to have a “gut” feeling (it’s scene 44) and students act it out in pairs among themselves (I push them to have fun with it).

Thirdly, I ask them to come up with a one sentence summary of how Geordi explained what a gut feeling (intuition) means and ask if they agree or disagree with it and why. We come back as a class and /discuss.

Finally, if I’m feeling ambitious and we have time for it, I have a few volunteers come to the front to act it out and videotape their performance, which I’ll then post on our class blog. Here’s one example, and you can see more here.

How do you introduce the concept of intuition, and do you have any interesting lessons you’d like to share?

Wendi Pillars (you can read her blog here and follow her on Twitter here) sent me this great series of videos.

Here’s what she wrote:

They’re rich for material!
Perception, bias, expectations, “acting one’s age”, advertisement as persuasion…etc….

I agree. They’d be particularly good for a Theory of Knowledge class when discussing perception, and, as Wendi mentions, great for any class studying advertising.

Even if you don’t have any interest in those topics, though, they are a must-watch for anyone who’s a basketball fan!

The Best Videos Of Tom Lehrer’s Songs

A Halloween scare can sharpen the brain is an excellent article on emotion for IB Theory Of Knowledge classes. It’s from The Los Angeles Times.

Here’s how it begins:

Halloween is the time to indulge those seemingly pathological cravings to get scared out of your skull. Who in their right mind would subject themselves to blood-splattery horror movies or haunted houses blaring high-pitched screams while serving bowls of grapes dressed as slimy, edible eyeballs? Lots of us, and experts say good can actually come from these predilections.

Fear protects us

“People think being afraid is a bad thing, but the reason we evolved to be afraid is that the world is pretty dangerous and we’ve evolved very powerful systems that automatically force us to do our natural defensive and protective behaviors,” says Michael Fanselow, a UCLA behavioral neuroscientist.

Some fears are learned; others are encoded in our DNA: Rotting flesh (we’re looking at you, zombies), snakes, blood, heights — even our tiny-brained ancestors understood these were unsafe. And the fear prompted immediate responses, Fanselow says.

I have a “The Best” list called The Best Video Clips Of Sneaky Critters that includes great clips to show to English Language Learners and then have them describe what they see. I also use them in my IB Theory of Knowledge class in a discussion about if animals have ethics. Here’s a new addition:

Here’s a project we do when studying language: students have to build free-standing towers with two sheets of paper, a 10 inch piece of tape, ten paper clips, and a scissors — without talking, and complete it in twenty minutes. We were studying what ideas could — and couldn’t — be communicated with gestures.

Afterword, students discuss what ideas were easy or hard to communicate, and if complex ideas required using words.

Here’s a photo of the winning group this year and their leaning tower:


You can see all their creations at our TOK class blog.

I’ve previously posted about Bridge 8′s great critical thinking animations, which I’ve used in IB Theory of Knowledge classes. Now they’ve come out with another series of animations, this time on “This Thing Called Science.”:

The Best Online Resources For Teaching The Difference Between Correlation & Causation

An Illustrated Book Of Bad Arguments is a freely available online book that has wonderful illustrations of logical fallacies.

It’s perfect for IB Theory of Knowledge classes, and I’m adding it to The Best Multimedia Resources For Learning About Fallacies.

Here are some examples from it:

Slippery Slope:


Straw Man:


Appeal To Bandwagon:


Guest Post: “IB TOK: Making Claims and Seeking Truth Lesson”

Floating In My Mind is a short animated video about making memories and losing them.

I think it could be an interesting movie to show to my English Language Learners to see how they would describe what they saw — I wonder if all would describe it literally or if some, unprompted, would see the deeper story it’s trying to tell.

And I also think it would be a good video to show Theory of Knowledge students when studying memory, one of the new Ways Of Knowing.

First Draft: My Theory Of Knowledge Lesson About Syria Next Monday — Help Me Make It Better

The Best Commentaries On The New IB Theory Of Knowledge Teaching Guide

This is not only a very funny video, but it’s also one that can be used in classroom lessons. I’m thinking specifically of IB Theory of Knowledge when we learn about perception.

Thanks to Judie Haynes for the tip.

Here’s a great illustration on the shelf-life of knowledge that’s perfect for IB Theory Of Knowledge classes. I can see using this as a model, and then having students develop their own (along with their justifications).


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License. By Abstruse Goose

Place Pulse is a site from MIT that shows you two Google Street View images from around the world, and then asks you to “vote” on which one looks “livelier”; “safer” or any number of other comparative adjectives (you can switch them by clicking on the question mark).

It’s an intriguing way to teach comparative adjectives to English Language Learners, as well as having IB Theory of Knowledge students explore perception.

If You’re Ever Teaching About Racial Profiling, You Definitely Want To Show This Video:

How My IB Theory Of Knowledge Students Evaluated Me This Year

You might also be interested in my other over 1,200 “The Best…” lists and, particularly, this year’s end-of-year favorites.

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December 15, 2013
by Larry Ferlazzo

The Best Posts On Teaching TOK “Knowledge Questions”

Three weeks ago I published a post wondering how people teaching the IB Theory of Knowledge course handled instruction on the concept of “knowledge questions” and invited guests to contribute.

I’ll be publishing my annual round-up of of “Best” TOK resources, and wanted to post this collection on the topic prior to that time.

Here they are:

Attention, IB Theory Of Knowledge Teachers! How Do You Teach “Knowledge Questions” (Formerly “Knowledge Issues”)?
is my original post, which also includes some useful resources.

Response: How Do You Teach About Knowledge Questions? is by TOK textbook author Eileen Dombrowski.

Response: Teaching Knowledge Questions is by TOK teacher Brad Ovenell-Carter.

Another Response: Teaching Knowledge Questions is by Prof. Crow, writing on behalf of TOK Tutor.

I’ll be adding to this list as more guest responses come in….

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December 13, 2013
by Larry Ferlazzo

Another Response: Teaching Knowledge Questions

Two weeks 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.

Last week’s commentary came 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.

Today, Prof. Crow is writing on behalf of TOK Tutor. He’s a retired teacher specialising in TOK writing & presentation skills:

New TOK Curriculum – First exam 2015

Knowledge Questions (KQs)

I find the recent TOK Essay May 2014 Question 2 so interesting with regard to KQs: if students can understand the analogy of building & construction, then the idea of KQs should be fairly straightforward to grasp. Thus, there are various resources that HELP us to build knowledge (the WOKs, notions of truth, testing, evidence and methodology…), but these same resources, just like a builder’s tools, have their limitations and can often HINDER our attempt to build knowledge.

So, a KQ is part of our toolkit that allows us to sharpen up our thinking about knowledge; to focus our enquiry into how the WOKs, for example, help or hinder the construction of knowledge and to develop our arguments and counter claims as part of our investigation into knowledge. And, just like a master builder, we need to look after our tools so that they’re ready to hand and efficient when we’re exploring how knowledge is constructed. One way in which to do this is to look closely at, and to refine, the language in which we frame our KQs.

Consider these alternative questions:

1. Can we trust the senses?

2. When can we trust the senses?

3. Should we trust the senses?

4. To what extent should we trust the senses?

All four questions are forms of KQ, but they are varied in their impact and the quality of enquiry they generate.

KQs of the first type are fairly ‘weak’. Notice how they start with the verb ‘can’. Questions which start with variations of this verb (‘is’, ‘do’, ‘will’, ‘have’ and so on) are ‘closed’ questions, to which you can usually answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ without much further informed discussion.

KQs of the second type are sound, but may end up in a more factual discussion of the topic instead of one that questions how knowledge is built. Notice how it starts with one of the 5 Ws, ‘when’.

KQs of the third type are slightly stronger and more ‘open’ in their impact: the verb ‘should’ already introduces an ethical element to our thinking and encourages us to weigh up the strengths and weaknesses of our topic. Alternative starting expressions could be ‘might’, ‘could’, or ‘would’ either alone or in conjunction with one of the 5Ws.

KQs of the fourth type are perhaps the strongest. Look at the command expression ‘To what extent…’ whose job it is to challenge us not only to explore the scale and depth of knowledge, but also to evaluate the methods of its construction. Other command expressions are ‘In what ways…’ (which allows us to compare and contrast how knowledge is built in different AOKs) and ‘How far…’ (which allows us to enquire into issues related to the limits of knowledge and its implications.)

For further elaboration of these ideas about KQs, you’re welcome to download previous issues of the newsletter, ‘The TOKnologist.’

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December 8, 2013
by Larry Ferlazzo

Response: Teaching Knowledge Questions

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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