Saturday, October 24, 2015

On Theory of Knowledge...snippets from a larger thread of conversation.

I agree with my colleagues who argue that it is important to not over-generalise the results of this survey. However, discounting student opinion entirely is not the solution either. The survey as a whole does seem to reflect my experience with students/student essays & presentations over the years both as a TOK teacher, Coordinator and Examiner.

I find it important to refer to school ethos vis-a-vis the treatment of TOK. The more sensible and sensitive students seem to have picked up on this aspect and have duly reflected on the school's/teacher's approach and erudition. I have taught TOK in two schools in the same city in India, and the difference in terms of perception about TOK was/is palpable. It is not surprising then to find that students tend to find their TOK lessons "confusing" to say the least.

The first school had at least ten to twelve teachers involved in the teaching of the TOK course. There was a TOK Coordinator who held regular meetings to guide us, but basically each teacher's classes were a representation of his/her unique engagement/disengagement with TOK. Standardisation was problematic across a large cohort of students and teachers. All teachers were not necessarily temperamentally equipped to deal with TOK; however, not teaching the subject was not a choice. Eventually, some teachers did manage to come to terms with the subject and even went on to become examiners and involved TOK teachers.

The current school where I am now the TOK Coordinator has fewer students. The school management firmly believes that TOK should only be taught by a teacher who is equipped to teach the subject. However, how does a teacher qualify to teach TOK remains mysterious. It is assumed that psychology/humanities teachers will automatically make good TOK teachers. While the assumption might not be entirely fallacious, it does allow many potentially good future TOK teachers to wash their hands off the subject. Each teacher while acknowledging the "importance" of TOK tends to talk about their personal inadequacy in dealing with the "abstract" (one teacher candidly called the subject "useless") and refuses to teach it. The IBDP Coordinator does not believe in "forcing" TOK upon a reluctant teacher. Not having to teach TOK is seen as an achievement by most teachers, and as something that reinforces the autonomy of their specific subject.

Obviously, both these management policies create problems for the Coordination and the delivery of the TOK programme. The student observation then that, "Although interesting at times and useful in helping students construct a better view of reality, quality of teachers are not alwys on par." is a very poignant and telling comment about the fate and future of the TOK course.

Theresa Hurley cautions against condemning the TOK teacher based on subjective student assessment. However, I must confess that both as a teacher and examiner I find that the nature of student inadequacies often reflects the nature of teacher evolution and involvement. Before RM assessor/Scoris, when physical essays from a single school came to one, it became evident very quickly which school/teacher had given the course its due in terms of time and teacher commitment. It is imperative that a curriculum review focus on refining the subject, but the precarious placement of TOK both at the core while simultaneously at the margin is akin to Schrodinger's cat being dead and alive at the same time. This metaphysical superposition of the TOK state within the school's curriculum comes to light very obviously in the nature of essays churned out by the students. Plagiarism and the sale of tailor-made TOK essays is an inevitable fallout of the failure of the system and not the subject.

As Brett Hall points out, Theory of Knowledge suffers from the problem of nomenclature. Epistemology does seem to be the closest analogy. Critical-thinking applied to real life situations does briefly meet the brief of describing the subject. I would beg to differ with Robert Somers' assumption that critical thinking is a "Western" construct that the IB is imposing in contradiction with its basic premise of open-mindedness. A lack of knowledge and understanding of traditions of critical thinking seems to be the problem here. This self-aggrandising and unproblematic ownership of a tradition is rather facile. In order to acknowledge the plethora of ideologies, the introduction to the TOK guide itself makes mention of the multiplicity of cultural and critical perspectives. A closer reading of the guide might be immensely useful.

Student responses like "Incredibly useful and life changing" and "My TOK classes made me the person I am today", are testimony of the utility of the programme. The review I hope focuses on clarifying and further accentuating and substantiating this inherent potential.  

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