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No. 40, April 1998

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TOK Assessment

by Kate Jenkins
SOS-Hermann Gmeiner International College, Ghana

Suggestions for improving the TOK assessment Guidelines.
(Note: this article refers to the Curriculum Review that resulted in the Subject Guide published in 1999. Prior to this review, TOK assessment
consisted of two written essays, one on a title prescribed by IBCA, and the other on title freely chosen by the school or student.)

Thank you to John Green for opening up the debate on TOK assessment. It's something that many (or perhaps most) of us have been dissatisfied with for years, and it's timely that the debate should now become public in the context of a review of TOK. It should also not surprise us, as TOK teachers, that we will bring to the debate perceptions based on our own cultural, academic and personal backgrounds. So, no matter what decision is taken, it will not suit everybody, nor will there be a single, right answer. What we should, however, expect to happen, is that the new TOK assessment tool will move us closer to the aims and the nature of the course.

It seems to me that the heart of the problem in assessing TOK is that we are not able to give credit to students who demonstrate a high degree of critical reflection on the question of knowledge--as seen in consistent oral contributions, journal entries, reports and so on--but who flounder when it comes to presenting these ideas in a formal essay.

I don't think that it is relevant to try to pinpoint any group which has particular problems with the task. Non-native speakers of the working language are perhaps more likely to encounter difficulties, but then they are often the very students who also write outstanding essays. There are many other factors at work such as cultural background, school policy, teaching methods, and individual abilities. It seems to me that a safer generalization is that the very able students will be the ones to score highly in TOK, no matter what assessment tools we use. Concerns expressed about the problems of marking, sampling, guidance, and statistical models are common to many other IB subjects, and should not loom too large in discussing the suitability of essays as an assessment tool. These problems could be addressed by revising the criteria, giving guidelines in regard to assistance, nominating particular candidates as samples, changing the statistical model and so on, remembering that the attempt to quantify students through whatever method is only going to give a rough approximation of the real state of affairs.

Yet, is abandoning assessment the solution to the assessment problem? Although I am in many ways a strong supporter of non-quantified assessment (my own children did not receive a grade or a mark until Year 11), in this case, I don't think so. Comparing CAS and TOK is like comparing apples and pears. The central idea of CAS is service, and to award grades for service would distort its very purpose (somewhat like the instrument and the electron in the Uncertainty Principle). To assess TOK, on the other hand, does not lead us to this inherent contradiction. It might be difficult to assess, but the assessment itself is not going to change the nature of the subject. Assessment and quantifying is an integral part of the IB diploma and TOK is very much a part of the academic program. Following the logic in John Green's article, one could argue for almost every subject to be made non-assessable. Just to give one example, biology is also more difficult for non-native speakers, and the internally assessed components of the sciences are equally open to inconsistencies and unfairness. Some questions in the scripts themselves are also open to subjective interpretations.

There are also practical reasons for maintaining assessment. For one, it is of some assistance to IB Coordinators in trying to persuade school administrators that TOK should be adequately represented in the timetable, and in allocating staff. For another, it acts as a motivation for students who are accustomed to being motivated in this way. Of course, it can be argued that the marks are not sufficient to act as a motivator; but to follow that to its logical conclusion, one would have to acknowledge that not assessing TOK is likely to reduce student motivation even further.

In the context of retaining assessment, how then can we more carefully match the assessment with the aims and the nature of the subject, and yet retain the moderating process? At the heart of TOK is discussion and the students' exploration of their own and other people's ideas and experiences. Some students demonstrate, for example, several valuable TOK skills--fine reflective thinking, ability to construct logical arguments, concern for asking 'How do we know?', sensitivity to other cultures, and originality--in class and group discussions, in journal writing, in short exercises and so on, but are unable to express their ideas as well in a formal essay. My suggestion is this:

•  Retain one essay and the compulsory essay topics. The essay is a stimulus for rigorous thought, and is an appropriate vehicle for students to demonstrate their understanding and their reasoning ability. The compulsory topics have given an impetus to the task, and it is possible to moderate it, albeit imperfectly (as is also the case in other subjects)

•  Introduce an internally assessed task similar to the Group 4 project. This model would work rather well in TOK, especially if were stipulated that the topic should be one of global significance. It would be interdisciplinary, and it could include more than one school. The procedure would be familiar to students from their science projects, and having a standard procedure would inspire confidence and credibility.

•  The Essay should not have more weight than the Project.

We are trying to give TOK a push more firmly towards internationalism, to encourage students to be more original and creative, and to improve assessment. I think that this suggestion might invigorate TOK in just these ways.

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