When I first approached the task of teaching TOK from a thematic point of view, it was relatively simple to create a central focus; any object would suffice; in my case, it was flying (model airplanes). As I prepared for the second year of TOK with these same students, given the nature of the topics left to cover (scientific & mathematical knowledge, aesthetic, historical, political and moral judgment), it was evident that something more complex was required, an issue and not merely an object. However, I still wanted to feed off the original theme, only go deeper, or in this case, perhaps "fly a little higher". I also wanted to consider the "international" aspect of TOK so as not to limit our perspective to a purely American point of view. With these considerations in mind, I selected the issue of the ozone layer/hole. It seemed a perfect fit: a global problem with political, historical, and moral connotations.
In practical terms, I wanted this second half of TOK to be more student-generated, not merely a "sit and wait for the teacher to tell you what to do" class. The students were split into small groups (generally 3) and assigned an in-class presentation that combined the subject area with the issue, for instance, the aesthetics of the ozone, the political implications of the ozone, and so on. In other words, it was left to the students to make the connections between what we discussed in class (as a normal part of TOK) with the issue of the ozone layer. What I got was an amazing array of original and thought-provoking group projects.
The group presenting the "aesthetics of the ozone" transformed my classroom into an art gallery, complete with invitations, program, and a wide range of displays consisting of automotive junk (mufflers, gaskets, radiators, oil cans, fan belts), posters and models of sleek racing machines, and on the floor a huge artistic rendering of the earth (which we later learned was actually a depiction of the earth and the ozone holes) each exhibit marked with an appropriate title and caption. Once the students had the opportunity to view the gallery, we gathered together for a discussion of what constitutes art (good and bad), what is beauty, and some rather interesting comments about one person's junk being another person's artwork.
The small group presenting the "science of the ozone layer" distributed scholarly articles presenting the view that the ozone layer does not exist. Dazzled by the charts and graphs, and probably by the pretentious titles of the authors, the majority of the class was convinced of the validity of the articles UNTIL the small group confessed that the articles were completely fabricated and false. That led to a very lively discussion of the general public's sometimes blind acceptance of scientific theories, merely because of a fancy chart or title. What began as strictly the "science" of the ozone layer soon became a wide-ranging class that also considered the problems/concerns of morality and politics. It was a situation that admirably demonstrated the interconnectedness of the various forms of knowledge and judgment.
The other small groups followed in a similar vein but time and space preclude me from mentioning all of them in detail. I would like to add that I did not completely abandon the activity of assembling a model, as I did with airplanes in the first year of TOK. This time, students worked on model cars, a relatively simple project; however, given that one of the greatest contributors to the ozone hole has been automobile airconditioning (Freon), they were also charged with describing whether or not the model they assembled had been fitted with ozone-friendly air-conditioning as well as how/when these modification were enacted by the government and implemented by the manufacturer.
To research the problem from an "international" point of view, as a final project, the students (using the Internet) contacted governments other than the United States (Australia, Switzerland, to name a few) to learn what measures may/may not have been enacted to ease the problem of the ozone hole. Such a task was designed not only to raise the student's consciousness but also to determine how a global problem can have significant political, historical and moral ramifications that a strictly American point of view might never have considered. While results were mixed, due to limited computer /Internet availability, the exercise does hold promise for the future. Perhaps a simple exercise involving communication among a number of IB schools worldwide would provide the kind of international perspective that TOK demands.
The applications for such a thematic approach, particularly for that part of TOK concerned with "judgment", are probably boundless. I am encouraged by the first attempt at tackling TOK with a global problem/issue as the central theme. Other thematic possibilities that cross political boundaries in their effects are immediately apparent: AIDS, nuclear testing, poverty, space exploration and human rights violations. Increased use of the Internet, in my opinion, can only help to enhance the universality of some of the problems affecting our planet as well as speak volumes about the necessity of communication among all people in the search for a viable solution.