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No. 48, November 2003

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Nicholas Alchin's Theory of Knowledge: Teacher's Book

by George Spanos
Washington-Lee High School, Arlington, Virginia, USA

If you're unfamiliar with Nick Alchin's textbooks George Spanos provides a panoramic view of the entire text, and an in-depth description of Chapter 9.

Introductory remarks

In his Theory Of Knowledge: Teacher's Book, Nicholas Alchin advises prospective users that "[his] intention has not been to provide 'content'...[but] to offer a loose structure within which to slot all the ideas and approaches that make up all the good practice around the world." As his central theme, Alchin sets out to place emphasis upon the "human nature of knowledge and experience." And, as his central aim, Alchin hopes that his book will enable students to achieve a position that provides an alternative to the extreme positions of "Prejudice and Certainty" and "Relativism and Skepticism." (p.3)

After reading both the Pupil's Book (hereafter referred to as PB) and the Teacher's Book (hereafter referred to as TB), I am confident that Alchin has been true to his word with respect to his central theme and aim, even if it falls to each TOK teacher to reinforce his message. He has, however, been overly modest in terms of his intention; he has, in fact, provided a wealth of 'content' within a well-organized structure that can serve as the primary text of a TOK course. In this review, I will describe the contents of the TB, making reference, where necessary, to the PB and to the TOK curriculum. It should be noted from the outset, however, that I have not yet used either the PB or the TB, so my remarks should be taken as tentative.

Description of the Teacher's Book

The 115-page TB is the first book of its kind to accompany a text intended for use in TOK classes. It is a flexible, soft cover text, approximately legal size (21 cm x 29.5 cm). As in the PB, ample room is provided in the left margin of the TB for notations.

The TB includes an introduction, advice on using the books, a listing of audio, video, online, and other resources, and 15 chapters that follow the order of the 15 chapters of the PB. These are:

Ch. 1: What are we trying to do?
Ch. 2: The natural sciences
Ch. 3: The arts
Ch. 4: Mathematics
Ch. 5: Rationalism: the use of reason
Ch. 6: The social sciences
Ch. 7: History
Ch. 8: Empiricism: the use of the senses
Ch. 9: Paradigms and culture
Ch. 10: Language
Ch. 11: Ethics
Ch. 12: Politics
Ch. 13: Religion
Ch. 14: Feelings, emotions and intuition
Ch. 15: Where do we go from here?

The reader familiar with the current TOK curriculum will quickly recognize that Chapters 2, 3, 4, 6, 7 and 11 address the six Areas of Knowledge (Natural Sciences, The Arts, Mathematics, Human Sciences, History, and Ethics) while Chapters 5, 8, 10 and 14 address the four Ways of Knowing (Reason, Perception, Language, and Emotion). As a rationale for this ordering of the chapters, Alchin explains that students need to be told "a compelling story about what we are trying to do by providing a lucid linking narrative with which to move students from one set of ideas to the next" (p. 4). Hence, after a treatment in Ch. 1 of general epistemology and the issues surrounding collective and individual knowledge, Alchin presents the Natural Sciences (Ch. 2), the Arts (Ch. 3), and Mathematics (Ch. 4). These three areas can be contrasted on the basis of the relative degree of certainty, objectivity, and progress that can be claimed in each. This discussion leads naturally to the chapter on Rationalism (Ch. 5) since we require deductive and inductive tools to assess our arguments, proofs, and experiments, and because we speculate about the status of reason in the Arts, where certainty, objectivity, and progress are arguably irrelevant.

This provides a springboard to the Social Sciences (Ch. 6) and History (Ch. 7), which in turn motivates the chapter on Empiricism (Ch. 8), since these areas of knowledge rely heavily on empirical observation and are more subjective than the natural sciences and mathematics. Chapter 9 (Paradigms and culture) thus becomes a crucial linking chapter because it promotes a Kantian-like synthesis of rationalism and empiricism as a combined Way of Knowing, and because it introduces the culturally sensitive issues surrounding language, ethics, politics and religion in Chapters 10-13. This leads to a consideration of feelings, emotions and intuition (Ch. 14) which, while relevant to all areas of knowledge, is better placed at the end of the text because such considerations become particularly prominent once students have learned something about linguistics, morality, politics, and religion in Chapters 10-13.

In Chapter 15 (Where do we go from here?), Alchin urges teachers to point students in a positive direction that avoids the twin dangers of epistemological dogmatism and skepticism, one or the other of which is often the extreme position that students take away from their TOK course. He views this chapter as more of a beginning than an end, and in this sense seems to parallel the message of the final two hexagrams of the great Chinese classic, the I Ching. These are:

Hexagram 63 Chi Chi: After Completion
Hexagram 64 Wei Chi: Before Completion

While Hexagram 63 symbolizes a time when there has been a transition from confusion to order, Hexagram 64 symbolizes a time when this transition has not yet been completed. In my experience, and apparently in Alchin's, TOK students often feel deflated by all of the unanswered questions that remain at the conclusion of the TOK course. After all, in their other classes they feel a sense of closure once they have completed their exams and achieved a measurable stage of content mastery. But, in TOK, it is incumbent upon the instructor to encourage students to face uncertainty and inconclusiveness in a constructive manner, i.e., to accept the situation, recognize its challenges, and yet continue to ask the kinds of questions that Socrates had in mind when he taught his students that the unexamined life was not worth living.

Chapter structure and a preview of Chapter 9

At the beginning of each TB chapter, Alchin restates the aims of the corresponding chapter of the PB and gives suggestions for teaching individual sections. Except for Ch. 3 (The Arts) and Ch. 6 (Social Sciences), each chapter begins with a section entitled "Teaching Activities," which provides ideas for activities that might be used to introduce each chapter. It is unclear why Ch. 3 and Ch. 6 lack this section, but it doesn't seem to matter since teaching activities are scattered throughout other sections of each chapter. In these sections, Alchin specifies corresponding page numbers from the PB and provides background information, answers to exercises in the PB, additional teaching activities, and advice on how to use the activities. Some chapters (4, 5, 8, 9, 10) also include reproducible pages that can be used for teaching activities suggested in the TB.

As mentioned in the preceding section, Chapter 9 (Paradigms and culture) is a crucial linking chapter; hence I will cite some TB examples from that chapter to both underline its importance and to give the reader the flavor of the TB.

Like each chapter of the PB, Ch. 9 begins with a set of quotations that relate to the main chapter topic. On page 8 of the TB, Alchin urges teachers to familiarize themselves with these quotations and to use them to summarize positions that the students themselves might espouse in classroom discussions.

On TB pages 81-85, Alchin provides a "simulation game" that can be used as an introductory activity for extending the notion of paradigms to the cultural realm. [Editor's Note: The simulation that George mentions is a derivative of the classic BaFa-BaFa game, adapted for use in TOK.] Two reproducible pages are included that describe the rituals and customs of two contrasting cultures. The students are divided into groups, directed to practice the rituals of one or the other of the two cultures, and then given the opportunity to further develop their respective cultures through several role play sessions. Once this has been done, students of one culture visit the other culture to observe them in action and to collect data on a third reproducible page. This page provides space for four visits to the other culture with each visit focusing on the social structure, economy, customs, status indicators, gender roles, and values of that culture.

On p. 84 of the TB, Alchin urges instructors to emphasize the distinction between cultural descriptions and cultural explanations in conducting this simulation game. Since the data collection phase will focus primarily on description, the discussion stage should be used to ask the higher order question of why the particular culture engages in certain customs. The TB provides the teacher with ideas for starting such discussions, e.g., Is the individual or society the center of the simulated culture? Is it an equitable society in terms of material wealth? He then provides a lengthy list of questions that can be used by students to examine their own cultures, e.g., Do men and women greet each other differently? How do teachers and students talk to each other? Can a woman ask a man out on a date?

In addition to the simulation game, Alchin provides ideas for using the Ch. 9 PB Resource file concerning the classic story about the body rituals of the Nacirema (PB pp. 193-195) and two of the videos listed in the TB Resources section: The Power of the Situation and Constructing Social Reality and Kidnapped by UFOs? (TB p. 6). The story about the Nacirema [Ed.: see the OCC for further information] is intended to show students how an outsider might objectively describe a culture. As a follow up, Alchin urges that teachers have students write a similar story. The first video is included because it concerns our dependence upon culture in constructing social reality, while the latter is included because it models the contrasting scientific and "I want to believe" paradigms. For the latter video, Alchin includes a set of questions that can be used as a follow up to watching the video.

Thus, Alchin has provided supplemental activities in the TB that not only support and extend the content of the PB, but also lead into the types of questions that arise in subsequent chapters dealing with language, ethics, politics, religion, and emotions. For teachers such as myself who have had difficulty in encouraging some students to see beyond their cultural "filters" and adopt a more global point of view, these activities are welcome, indeed.

Some suggested improvements

While I am very enthusiastic about the prospects of using the TB and PB, there are several areas where instructors will probably feel the need to inject their own resources.

First, since Alchin does not explicitly refer to the TOK Curriculum Guide in the TB or the PB, the instructor may wish to point out the relationship between the PB content and the Knowers and Knowing, Ways of Knowing, and Areas of Knowing section of the Curriculum Guide. This could be easily achieved through the use of the TOK Diagram. Since the TOK Curriculum is subject to change in future reviews, Alchin's omission of explicit reference was probably a wise editorial decision, but instructors will probably want students to be aware of the "official" categories as they prepare them for the required prescribed essay and internal assessment oral presentation.

Second, with respect to assessment, it might have been useful for Alchin to include specific ideas in the TB that would help teachers prepare students for essays and oral presentations that require attention to problems of knowledge as they relate to the areas and ways of knowing. I have found that my students often find it difficult to understand exactly what a problem of knowledge is, and I have to spend a good deal of time and effort in making sure that they at least pay lip service to this crucial aspect of the curriculum in their essays and oral presentations. Perhaps a future edition of the TB could include "How to prepare students to write a TOK essay" and "How to prepare students to make a TOK presentation" sections that provide tips on how to use content from the text to fashion effective essays and oral presentations. Since these are areas of the curriculum that are likely to remain relatively intact, their inclusion would make the TB even more useful than it appears to be at present.

Finally, Alchin makes no reference in either the PB or the TB of the three theories of truth that are often included in instructors' discussions of knowledge, nor explicit reference to the Linking Questions (p. 30 of the TOK Subject Guide). Details on the correspondence, coherence and pragmatic theories would be particularly useful for instructors who are new to the TOK curriculum, particularly those with little or no background in epistemology.

Concluding remarks

As stated in the introduction, I am planning to use the PB and TB extensively in my TOK classes in the 2003-2004 school year, so I should have a good deal to say about their effectiveness by the end of June 2004. Since my classes meet every day for the entire 180-day school year, I am hoping that the books will enable me to provide students with a positive direction and sufficient content to last the entire year. I have been particularly concerned about the 3-4 months that follow the completion of the assessments, since students often perceive the course as being over once they have submitted their prescribed essay and made their presentation. Thus, anything that will help fill that daunting gap is welcome. It seems to me that the ordering of the chapters will be very helpful in this regard since the contemporary issues raised in the areas of ethics, politics, and religion come last and will be fresh in the minds of students when they complete the assessment phase.

In tentative conclusion, then, I think Alchin should be commended for providing a teacher's edition that both explains and supplements his student edition and that motivates instructors to use the activities in the two texts and encourages them to create their own activities and lesson plans. Although TOK teachers tend to be an independent lot, unwilling to give too much ground to central command, I suspect that there are enough veterans, and surely enough current and future rookies, who will welcome the important information (dare I say "content"?) and activities that Alchin provides in this well-written, well-edited, and intellectually stimulating text.


[Editor's note: Nick Alchin's books can be purchased directly from the publisher (if the link does not work, go to John Murray and search for ALCHIN). Also, from (it is NOT available at Inspection copies are available by e-mailing ]


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