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No. 48, November 2003

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Constructing a TOK course--literally!

by Bill Frere
Trinity High School, Illinois, USA

Bill is constructing another thematic course. This time, you can see it happening step-by-step, by visiting his blog (weblog). Bill will begin blogging in January 2004.

On January 2003, after almost two years from the time we decided to embark on this construction project, my wife Ginger and I were finally able to enjoy our newly remodeled kitchen and family room. I had no idea that TOK was lurking in the walls.

During summer vacation I decided to re-think what I'd been doing in my TOK course for the past seven years. The only thing I knew I wanted to keep was a thematic approach that I've used several times, which has enabled me to arrange all the Ways of Knowing (WoKs) and Areas of Knowledge (AoKs) around a unifying theme. This approach is comfortable for me, and provides a common frame of reference to which students can anchor themselves.

The first time I tried a thematic approach was with the theme "flying." I had first-year TOK students put together a model airplane, which enabled them to examine reason, perception, language, knowledge, belief and truth [Ed.: see "Building a model airplane: A unifying analogy for TOK", Forum 35, August 1996]. The second time the theme was "air pollution," more specifically the ozone layer [see "TOK--A thematic approach--Phase II", Forum 42, August 1999]. The third time the theme was water and water pollution [see "Water, water everywhere", IB World, December 1998, pp. 28-29, reprinted at the water project website.]

In the process of re-examining my TOK course, I tossed most of what I had done out the window (kitchen sink included). Besides the thematic approach, I only kept the following ideas: (1) Keep the theme simple, and start with something basic. (2) Continue to use the construction of a model as a hands-on approach to TOK (I've used model planes, cars, and boats). (3) Incorporate a field trip experience that demonstrates how manufacturing a simple object depends on most of the WoKs and AoKs. (Whenever I give presentations about TOK, I use the example of a pencil: a simple object that has a math, a science, an art, a history, and a logic to it.) I wanted my new approach to be just as basic.

Thus I began to search the Internet for model kits different from the ones I've used before, and happened on model framing kits for houses! Using balsa wood, students will be able to build the framework for a basic two-bedroom house in four different styles, which will provide us with some variety.

Upon deciding on the construction theme I started to brainstorm (what I'll wear on the first day of class, possible field trips, guest speakers, Habitat for Humanity as a joint CAS venture, resources, texts, website, etc.), and became increasingly enthusiastic about building a course based on building a house.

In my excitement I did something that I may come to regret: I shared my ideas with a certain Forum editor. Lena Rotenberg convinced me to keep a reflective daily journal of this project as a blog (weblog), to enable other teachers to accompany the entire process of building a thematic course, rather than only seeing the finished product as a published article. I promised her that I'd be candid in journaling what I do; that I'd mention the objectives I intend to meet with each lesson (especially the problems of knowledge I wish to cover, assignments, readings), report on what actually happened in class, and evaluate results, reflecting on what I could have done better. Lena used very underhanded persuasive methods to elicit this promise ("For my birthday gift, you can either do this daily journal, or buy me a Toyota Prius"), but I will follow through.

My course will begin on January 27 and end on March 26. (My school operates on a block schedule of four 90-minute classes per day: TOK is offered as one block in Junior Year, and one block in Senior Year.) Even though there are still a few months before the course starts, I will attempt to document the planning process, as well as the course itself. (You're welcome, Lena!)

I invite you along on this TOK journey, and welcome any comments or questions you may have. Follow the link to the weblog that should be up and running by the middle of December 2003, at [Ed.: Please visit the OCC to get the username and password you'll need to access the blog.] I hope to see you there!

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Forum is jointly published online at by the International Baccalaureate Organization and Lena Rotenberg Educational Consultant, © 2000-2004. Forum is a peer-reviewed publication aiming to offer original, thoughtful articles promoting Theory of Knowledge (TOK) teaching, in a fashion that is immediately useful to teachers. It is published twice per year in English (November and May) and twice per year in Spanish (February and August). Page last modified 2 August, 2004 .