Last week, I published my thoughts on the new IB Theory of Knowledge Guide (see Attention IB Theory Of Knowledge Teachers: How Is The New TOK Guide Going To Affect How You Teach?).

I’ve invited a number of other TOK educators to contribute their own thoughts, and Canadian teacher Brad Ovenell-Carter has already contributed a guest post. More are on the way.

Today, I feel very lucky to have a guest commentary from Richard van de Lagemaat, author of the bestselling TOK textbook, Theory of Knowledge for the IB Diploma. It’s the book we use at our school, and one that I’ve recommended to many other TOK teachers over the years.

TOK book

GUEST POST BY Richard van de Lagemaat

Richard van de Lagemaat is the founder and director of InThinking. He has more than 30 years experience in international education. His book Theory of Knowledge for the IB Diploma has sold more than 80,000 copies:

A key sentence in the new subject guide (SG) comes at the start (page 3): “Teachers are not obliged to follow the suggested examples and ideas presented in this guide; it offer a framework rather than prescribed content.”

The strength of the new SG is that it offers more options – four new WOKs and two new AOKs – and more guidance by, for example suggesting a map metaphor for knowledge and a “knowledge framework” – scope, concepts, methods, historical, links to personal knowledge – to help structure discussion of AOKs. Two possible dangers that might arise are: (1) overloading the course; and (2) reducing it to a shopping list which simply ticks off items in, say, the knowledge framework. So it is important to remember that we can’t cover everything and that we are encouraged to design our own “unique TOK course” (p.3).

The new guide does not radically change the way I think about TOK, but I’ll mention a few thoughts.

The emphasis on the map metaphor for knowledge is, I think, a good one. I’ve always begun the course by looking at problems with physical maps and then having students think about corresponding problems with our “mental maps”. These seems to work well. However, I notice the SG makes no mention of the standard definition of knowledge as “justified true belief”. Such a definition is only a starting point for thinking, and it may not cover every kind of knowledge, but I find it a useful structuring device and would continue to use it. (Actually, I think the JTB framework can be applied to “knowing how” as well as “knowing that”.)

The distinction between personal knowledge and shared knowledge strikes me as a useful one. I think it is particularly important that students understand that there is more to knowledge that what they happen to think about something. As the guide points out, academic subjects are “highly structured” and have “established methods for producing knowledge”. We want to encourages students to question things, but they also need to be aware that to be of value criticism needs to be informed criticism. The SG’s explanation of the distinction between personal and shared knowledge is at times confusing. For example, it classifies “know how” as personal knowledge, but such knowledge can, of course, also be shared. Hence the proliferation of “how to” books and wiki-hows. Well, this is all good material for discussion!

Like Larry, I think there is virtue in covering at least some WOKs as separate units. I would focus on language, reason, perception, and intuition – which strike me as the primary WOKs in the sense of being most frequently appealed to in answering the question “How do you know?” (I associate language with second-hand knowledge.) I think treating these WOKs as separate units helps equip students with BS-detectors which are needed more than ever in the Internet age. However, they need to be constantly related to the various AOKs. The other WOKs I would be inclined to integrate more generally in to the course. One might, for example, raise the question of whether all knowledge is ultimately based on faith and then consider the similarities and differences between epistemic faith and religious faith.

When it comes to AOKs, I would make the knowledge framework (KF) implicit rather than explicit. (How dull it would be if we plodded through each AOK beginning with scope and then progressing through the other four elements!) The element of the (KF) I would draw most attention to is method. While it is important for students to grasp the general point that knowledge has a history and have a few examples to hand, I doubt if there is enough time to do much on the historical development of each AOK.

I am delighted to see the inclusion of religion in the SG. I have always taught and there is already a chapter in my book on it. I am a bit perplexed by “indigenous knowledge” partly it doesn’t seem to fit in with the other AOKs, and partly because it seems too narrow. I would therefore do a unit – or have a leitmotif running through the course – called “Cultural perspectives on knowledge”. This could certainly include indigenous perspectives, but might also look at, say, Chinese or Indian culture – which are not usually thought of as indigenous.

Larry asked me to limit myself to 800 words and I haven’t said anything about assessment. To be brief, I welcome the new impression marking and the five broad bands (ten marks) for scoring essays and presentations. Hopefully, it is then easier to agree good, ok, not so good, amazing, or appalling than a mark out of 40! Only time will tell if the new system leads to more consistency in assessment.

To conclude, I am excited by the new options the SG offers, but I don’t think there is a single best way to teach the course. Indeed, since TOK emphasizes the validity of different perspectives, it would be strange – and sad – if we all ended up marching to the same tune!