Sunday, March 29, 2009


Over the last few months, I've been helping students who are doing the International Baccalaureate Organisation's 'Theory of Knowledge' core subject. Along the way, I've heard from them the various things that their teachers and peers have had to say about the subject, some of which are wise, some of which are less so.

I suppose that in the manner of such exact musings, I should get to the point without drifting too much. Theory of Knowledge (TOK) as an IB core subject is not just about epistemology, although TOK is certainly that. Rather, the point for the student is both pragmatic as well as conceptual. It is practically important because the entire IB syllabus hinges around the question of how a practitioner knows that what he or she asserts is true (or at least, justifiable) and to what degree this is so, and the grades awarded often directly relate to this; it is conceptually important because education is all about knowledge, and if you don't know why you claim to know something, then you probably can't claim knowledge of it.

That leads to the practical use of knowing this. In the TOK core subject, a student is assessed in two ways: a written essay of about 1200-1600 words, answering the student's choice of one of ten offered questions (there's a sample list elsewhere in this blog); and a presentation that is offered to a panel of teachers who use rubrics to produce an internally-moderated score. Essentially, both of these assessment modes are designed to see how much a student knows about the pragmatic and conceptual importance of TOK, and whether that student can present this in a form that is sound and easily understood.

The problem I've faced is that a lot of the output I've seen is neither sound nor easily understood; or if one, not the other. I have no idea why some people can't help their students to do both. The ability to guide students in this is the difference between what I call TOKism and TOKenism. The former is the belief and capacity a teacher has in transmitting a love for knowledge that includes respect for truth and clarity in its presentation; the latter is the lip-service a person pays in acknowledging its importance while actually requiring things like aesthetic or moral prettiness in what the student offers.

I say this because I've seen for myself (having been a senior moderator), and heard from many witnesses and victims, the odd things that TOKenists look at when they claim to be assessing students' work in TOK. Not a few seem to be looking at literary merit and the ability to mount an argument, regardless of how clear or fair that argument is. Worse, some are looking at the quality of style of presentation rather than the content and structure of the presentation itself. I remember one panelist actually remarking, "Well it may be a good argument, very clear, but I just don't like the way he said it."

I guess that in a sense, the ideals of TOK teaching are somewhat injured by that kind of approach. Good clear arguments, covering the process of how somebody knows something and how that person can justify the claim of knowledge, are all that is needed. The introductory definitions must frame the arguments that follow, and the concluding statements must summarise those arguments while being closely derived from them. If this answers the question posed, then that is all that is required, in the main.

The rubrics do indeed award points for other more specific and technical qualities in the essay and presentation. But style never comes into it, and neither does the moral or social approval of the moderator or supervisor.

I look forward to seeing the grades awarded for the dozens of essays I've already read and commented on. It will be one way to sort the TOKists from the TOKenists. It's fortunate that the IBDP examiners themselves don't seem to be biased in this way. I suspect that some school cultures tend to build up groupthink, and that teachers from such schools tend to start believing that there's only one way to think (or that students ought to think).

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Blogger gem said...

Though there are criteria against which a TOK essay should be marked, it appears that examiners interpret the criteria differently. My daughter had a high profile TOK teacher who vetted her essay before submission commenting that the essay was well written and had observed the TOK criteria. Her teacher was a founding member of the IBDP TOK programme so she took him seriously. However, her TOK examiner awarded her a mysterious C grade.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013 10:35:00 pm  

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