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No. 48, November 2003

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Some further comments for the TOK Curriculum Review Committee

by Ricardo Navia
Colegio Stella Maris, Montevideo, Uruguay

Ricardo Navia argues that in order to attain equity across the IB Diploma Programme world, the IBO needs to (1) define a core curriculum for TOK, (2) make a diverse set of readings available to schools, (3) define a TOK terminology common to the entire TOK community, and (4) reconsider the time allotment for the course.

In March of 2003 Ricardo Navia wrote this letter to the curriculum review committee, responding to the Curriculum Review Report published in February 2003 [reporting on the meeting held between 21 and 23 October, 2002]. [The report is available at the OCC.] What do you think of his proposals?

Although it's been less than two years since I started teaching TOK, for many years I have been employing pedagogical criteria similar to those of the IB. Thus, I feel compelled to send you further comments about the TOK curriculum.

I think that the themes, the teaching styles, and the assessment criteria of TOK have successfully harmonized important pedagogical aims that are usually difficult to combine. For instance, critical thought and creativity on one hand, and the demand for a certain level of conceptual and expressive rigour on the other; or between considering personal experience and the need to universalize; or between recognizing cultural differences and attempting a cosmopolitan view. Reconciling so many opposing polarities is a major achievement, and I think that this is the first thing a new teacher realizes. The comments that follow belong within the framework of this primary appreciation. I will focus on some of the bulleted items listed in section 4 of the Report, "Perceptions of the current TOK course," which portray the initial perceptions of those who attended the Curriculum Review meeting.

"The initial observations of the participants on the TOK course were as follows:

The fact that TOK does not require an examination at the end of the course is positive because it allows the teacher more time to teach."
Yes, it does. Even more importantly, the absence of a final exam promotes a much more creative, analytical, argumentative, and expressive activity through the development of the Essay. Moreover, the fact that teachers help students to improve on their essays--without, of course, doing the work for them--weakens the traditional scheme of the teacher-examiner in contraposition to the student-examinee. This places teachers and students in a joint process of construction, which is quite impressive. The Essay is also more similar to what students will encounter at the university.

"The TOK assessment criteria are not clear and coherent, and therefore equity across the IB Diploma Programme world is difficult to achieve."
In my opinion this is not completely true. To the contrary, I think TOK's assessment criteria are one of its most successful elements, for they contribute to the attainment of the difficult harmonization of pedagogical aims that I mentioned. I generally agree with the requirements addressed by the different criteria, as well as with the levels of accomplishment set in each. Maybe I'm not experienced enough to form a judgment, but it seems to me that, if there is indeed a problem of inequity, it may be due to other difficulties that I will discuss later: the lack of a common core content (essential topics to be taught), bibliography, and vocabulary.

"Some ways of knowing and areas of knowledge may be missing from the Guide."
I believe that there are no important absences, but I have two suggestions. First, that we use the term "Rationality" instead of "Reason": it fits better with the concept of knowledge as a construction, allows for extra-theoretical factors to affect knowledge, and is compatible with the notion of a historic construction of areas of knowledge. Second, the expression "Ways of Knowing" is confusing in Spanish ("formas del conocimiento"): it is too easily associated with what the TOK diagram considers to be "Areas of Knowledge." Perhaps we could use "vías del conocimiento" or the classic "sources of knowledge" (though the latter has inconvenient connotations that I shall not analyze here).

"TOK students are not being excited by the course. They are producing dull essays and are working in a mechanical mode."
I dare not analyze student excitement; research should be conducted. As for dull essays written in a mechanical fashion, I believe that this can be countered. Without wishing to limit teachers' freedom of expression and creativity, teachers and their students would benefit by being offered relevant, updated, and high-quality teaching resources, covering all parts of the TOK curriculum.

"The flexibility of the Guide places great responsibility on the teacher."
I agree. I think that this is connected with the discussion described in Section 6 of the Report: "It could be argued that there is a particular need for clarity in what is required in the course, especially for teachers new to the subject." According to the Report the committee then wondered if there might be essential topics that could comprise a "core curriculum" for TOK, and then counter-argued that maybe "the strength of the course lay precisely in its flexibility."

Four main needs for TOK

I agree with the need to define a core curriculum, based on four main needs: (1) to identify basic TOK content, (2) to compile a collection of high quality, relevant, and updated texts, (3) to have a minimum set of agreements about concepts and terminology, and (4) to reconsider the time necessary to complete the course. I will develop each of these in turn.

1. The need to identify basic TOK content

I think that there are a number of circumstances that underline the need to identify "basic TOK content". First, when assessment is external (with prescribed titles, assessment criteria and standards for their application) some explicit basic agreements are necessary in order to attain equity. Otherwise, those teachers and students who feel more "empathetic"--either with the imagination of those who write the prescribed titles, or with the expectations of those who correct the essays--would be favored.

Identifying basic content would be a mere clarification of agreements which, it can be argued, already exist. Such agreements are implicit in the questions included in the Subject Guide, as well as in the assessment criteria. (This implicit agreement is what makes the prescribed titles mostly understandable, instead of inscrutable to the TOK community worldwide.)

It is not so hard to demonstrate that the questions included in the Guide rely on certain unavoidable themes: for example, that knowledge is neither a copy nor a reflection but a construction; that the knower (or knowers) is not passive but active; that knowledge is not necessarily an individual process but involves a social matrix; that language has very important cognitive functions; etc. We could make a long--but not infinite--list of items on which consensus is not impossible.

2. The need to compile a collection of high quality, relevant and updated texts

I share the IBO's idea not to favour the use of manuals or set texts. This does not mean, however, that the IBO should not provide an ever-increasing number of TOK teachers with pertinent and high quality materials. The way to combat the danger of an impoverishing orthodoxy (everyone using the same book) is to offer plentiful, diverse and alternative choices, not to deny that the problem exists.

For example, the Guide correctly maintains that there is a connection between language, society, and knowledge. Wouldn't it be great if teachers could have easy access to anthologies containing not only texts by Herder and Humboldt, but also by Wittgenstein and Searle? Another example: the Guide emphasizes the relationship between truth and rationality, and links it to certain non-cognitive values. Selected passages from Putnam, Habermas, or from the correspondence between Russell and Einstein would be useful to explore these issues. I am using sophisticated examples to show how equity could be attained; however, materials such as newspaper or magazine articles should also be included.

An obvious problem is that such texts are difficult for teachers to access, unless the IBO makes it available to teachers. This does not mean that the use of this material would be prescribed.

I believe that the availability of such materials, combined with the identification of basic TOK content, would contribute to the balance between schools, students, and teachers, and thus to equitable assessment. Perhaps access to these texts would even help improve the quality of essays, which sometimes tend to be insubstantial.

3. The need to have a minimal set of agreements about concepts and terminology

In the Guide as well as in some of the prescribed titles I notice some terminological and conceptual ambiguity, or alternatively the assumption of certain terminological or conceptual agreements that are not so obvious. For example, when we consider the triad knowledge, the arts, and truth, we can talk about at least three relationships: (a) knowledge that can be conveyed through the works of art; (b) knowledge involved in the judgment of aesthetic appreciation; and (c) knowledge involved in the creation, execution or identification of a piece of art. These approaches are closely linked together, but it may be convenient to come to certain agreements about what we're talking about, or at least to acknowledge the possibility of multiple interpretations and thus student responses.

The Guide has made some progress in this regard, but it seems that this should be a permanent effort. On the one hand it is desirable to prevent confusion among new teachers and students, but on the other we should aim to avoid authoritarian or impoverishing unification. This is not an easy task because TOK is a new discipline arising from the combination of many traditions including philosophy, anthropology, art criticism, and others. The IBO, however, has a good track record in bringing opposites together, and perhaps could pursue these clarifications as well.

4. The need to reconsider the time needed to complete this course

I think that there is a disproportion between what we want to accomplish in TOK regarding teaching content, skills, and conducting assessment, and the hundred hours' duration of the course. Teachers often face an unsolvable dilemma: either they take the necessary time to conduct class discussions and to train analytical skills, or they focus on content, which students also need as a basis for their analysis. There is often no time to do both.

If we really want a course that deals with at least some of the important issues included in the Guide and we desire to do it using a constructivist--and not an expository--methodology (which means using a critical, participatory, and interdisciplinary approach), then the hours allotted to TOK must be extended.

Regarding time constraints, there's something else I would like to mention. We talk about introducing contemporary or global issues in TOK. Obviously, we are interested in these matters and realize it is important that young people be concerned with them. Nevertheless, given the time deficits already mentioned, we cannot include these without extending the time allocation for the course. A compromise solution could be not to incorporate them as a prescribed part of the syllabus, but to include them as a required part of the Presentation.

The author thanks the Uruguayan college student Micaela da Silveira for the first English version of this article.

Please let your opinions be known by replying to this article.


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