As regular readers know, in addition to sharing my thoughts on the new International Baccalaureate Theory of Knowledge Guide, I’ve been publishing guest posts from TOK textbook authors and educators from around the world. You can see them all at The Best Commentaries On The New IB Theory Of Knowledge Teaching Guide.

Today, Eileen Dombrowski has agreed to share her commentary. Eileen is the lead author of the TOK course companion, published by Oxford University Press. The 2013 edition was written in cooperation with the IB and gives support to the new TOK course. Eileen taught IB English A and TOK for roughly 20 years for the United World Colleges (mainly Pearson College in Canada). She has been a TOK assessor, including Deputy Chief Assessor for a term, and has led TOK workshops around the world. In recent years, she has worked entirely online:

Structure and Freedom in the New TOK Course

Thanks for the invitation, Larry. I’ve immersed myself totally in the new course as I’ve written the revised, expanded version of the TOK Course Companion, Oxford University Press 2013, which supports the whole of the new course. Thinking and writing about the new ideas introduced, I’ve come to like the changes very much indeed. I’m very happy to see, though, that you’re raising some central questions about what some of those changes actually mean, and how teachers are expected to implement them in terms of practical course planning.

I’ve already written in my own blog TOK meets global citizenship about some of the most significant changes. In the post “TOK changes: not just optional extras,” I argue that the new WOK and AOK change how we think of any one of them as part of a new whole, and possibly how we conceive of knowledge.

I’ve also commented on the knowledge framework: “Framing knowledge: getting the structuring ‘just right.’” I argue there that, as teachers, we are always doing a balancing act between spontaneity and structure, and that the new course offers both an underlying conceptual framework and the encouragement not to follow it mechanically, marching sequentially from topic to topic.

In connection with the degree to which teachers have freedom to follow their own paths through the course, I’ll attempt my own personal response to your question, “Do you think [the encouragement to teach WOK within AOK] means it just won’t work to have the WOK taught separately at all?” Within the Teacher Support Material presently on the Online Curriculum Centre, there does seem to be a push to compress the WOK tightly and place the emphasis on AOK. The suggested course plans there scoot over the WOK briefly, or treat them entirely in context of AOK.

Is this change, I wonder, made with a view of solving a specific problem? One problem, I gather from curriculum review reports, has been that WOK were sometimes being treated in TOK classes as if they existed isolation from each other – as if emotion OR reason contributed to an AOK, for instance, rather than interacting and contributing in their own ways. I interpret the encouragement to teach the WOK almost entirely within AOK as a particular solution to that particular problem.

This approach could, indeed, lead to good teaching. WOK would have to be considered in context of methodologies, so would not be able to be treated as separate, unconnected pieces. There are other solutions, however, to the problem of WOK treated in isolation, and ones that I prefer.

Personally, I recommend teaching all eight WOK first, largely to lay down the concepts and vocabulary with which you’ll later be talking about methodology. In TOK, what does “intuition” mean, for instance, in context of cognitive psychology? And how does a 21st century understanding of intuition change a grasp of “reason”? Divergent understandings of “faith”, similarly, can derail a discussion. The associations of the terms, and the assumptions that students bring to them – as in any discussion of “memory” — are also valuable to question before trying to use the terms. An advance treatment prepares concepts to be put into play across all the AOK.

In treating WOK first, I’d also hope to encourage students to appreciate the questions of knowledge that each WOK raises, and the importance of using it thoughtfully to build knowledge. In many areas of knowledge, after all, the methodology is a formalization of critical thinking skills that students should be developing in any case for everyday knowledge.

Treating WOK separately before AOK need not precipitate the problem that they are treated in isolation from each other. Not at all. I struggle to think how memory or imagination could possibly be considered without the matrix of the other WOK, just as I cannot imagine how the methodology of AOK could possibly be treated without considering the interplay of ways of knowing.

Moreover, I wouldn’t skip any one of the WOK. Treating all of them does mean sweeping over WOK without the depth that every single one begs for – but such is the constant need in a short course that aims to survey the whole of knowledge. We can at least open the door and look into each WOK, even if we don’t have a lot of time to romp about inside. Later, dealing with AOK, we’ll regain the time because we’ll open discussions on methodology with a better prior understanding of the ways of knowing which contribute to it, their interactions, and the importance of using them critically in making knowledge claims.