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No. 48, November 2003

 
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A tale of three texts: how one teacher is getting to know TOK

by Tim Waples
Charlotte Country Day School, Charlotte, North Carolina, USA

Tim Waples describes his experiences with TOK textbooks by Tomkinson, Woolman, and now Alchin.


I was more fortunate than many new TOK teachers: I had four months to prepare before taking over the class from a beloved veteran teacher who was leaving the school. Learning of my upcoming assignment in August, I had the opportunity to observe the IB seniors in class throughout the fall semester--the second half of our two-semester, five-day-a-week TOK sequence--before starting fresh on my own in January with a new batch of IB juniors. Doc, my predecessor and TOK mentor, was a classicist who taught Latin and tirelessly worked towards drawing students into a love of language and its history: there is a picture of him in the dictionary next to the word "avuncular."

Through Doc, I met my first TOK textbook, The Enterprise of Knowledge, written by John L. Tomkinson and published by Leader Books in Athens, Greece [reviewed in Forum 43, August 2000]. Enterprise consists of a hefty 451 pages, organized into twenty chapters, plus an appendix addressing religion. The first two chapters, "The Enterprise" and "Knowledge," serve as an introduction, with the remaining chapters organized into three categories: "The Sources of Knowledge" (Sense Experience, Testimony, and Reason), "The Vehicles of Knowledge" (Language, Meaning, Logic, Mathematics, and The Arts), and "The Varieties of Knowledge" (Everyday Knowledge, Empirical and A Priori Knowledge, The [Natural] Sciences, The Human Sciences, History, Explanation, Values, Ethics, Politics, and Philosophy). Doc taught the course using the IB diagram and employing the language most familiar to it (no discussion of "sources," "vehicles," and "varieties"), but he expected students to consume Tomkinson's chapters; I can't recall now if he skipped chapters or altered their order in the progression of his class.

Tomkinson's book is set up for the no-nonsense reader. Each chapter offers a glossary of terms, and many have exercises for which correct answers are printed in the back of the book. Text boxes offer study questions, lists of examples, or "talking points" (digressions of a paragraph or more to explore a particular issue in greater depth, such as the relation of propaganda to education, or the issue of gender equity in language). Perhaps Enterprise's best feature is its "case studies," which are elaborate examples plentifully included in each chapter, ideal for arousing and focusing discussion.

Despite these nuances, Tomkinson's book strikes me as a daunting, weighty mass of words. It is possible that Doc considered this one of the attractions of the text. He required students to produce a list of questions for every chapter, with accompanying answers. He encouraged a certain competitive and quantitative spirit for this task, with students vying to compile the longest list of questions, the most thorough "coverage" of the material. I knew this approach wouldn't work for me: I was in search of a method that put students more immediately and directly into dialogue with each other and with me. I knew I was looking for fewer words on the page, hoping that would lead to more words in the classroom. I wanted students to think that class began with what they already knew, not with what awaited them in the textbook.

I took my nascent impulses about TOK with me to a teacher training workshop I had the privilege of attending that fall. The workshop leaders, Lena Rotenberg and Eileen Dombrowski, inspired and awed me with their attitude of thoughtful playfulness, and with their daunting advice to avoid using a textbook in TOK, or to phase it out as soon as the teacher is comfortable with the course, thereby foregrounding the central task: to encourage student inquiry, not mastery of a given body of information. While I appreciated this theoretical point, I felt that I needed the structure of a text to help me link and reinforce lessons, to give students a clearer sense of progression and interrelation between units. In short, I was insecure about my authority in a TOK classroom, and I wanted some support.

Moreover, I was sensitive to the range in ability and affinity, even within the advanced IB program, of the students at my suburban independent day school. The majority are habituated to carrying a text in their bulging backpacks as a talisman embodying truth and academic reward, the straightforwardly material benefits of the "education" being purchased for them. While I loved the student-centred theory through which TOK was presented to me, I feared that my students were inclined to see "inquiry" as a less rigorous or less rewarding mode of academic activity than traditional feats of review and recall. When I considered all these impressions, jumbled together in my anxious brain, I knew that I needed a TOK text, but one offering students a different feel and message from Tomkinson's compendious volume.

My search led me to Michael Woolman's Ways of Knowing, published by IBID Press in Victoria, Australia. Woolman demonstrates the spirit of his approach in "An Introduction," where a line drawing introduces us to "Theory of Knowledge," a duck-billed platypus! The 306-page text includes cartoons, line drawings, and thumbnail-sized black and white photos to illustrate and break up the text, in addition to a generous offering of charts, diagrams, lists, and text boxes to enhance the visual appeal. I liked the informality of Woolman's approach, the frequent attempts at humor (although only moderately successful at best), and the study questions offered before and after each chapter. Ways of Knowing seemed somehow more manageable and less inhibiting than The Enterprise of Knowledge.

I also found the structure of Ways of Knowing a more comfortable fit with my desire to teach the course according to the IB diagram, starting in the center with Knower(s) and Knowing, moving out to Ways of Knowing, and finally out to Areas of Knowledge. Woolman's text is divided into five sections and fifteen chapters, although these divisions do not coincide with the IB diagram. The first section, titled "Ways-of-Knowing," actually begins by dealing with definitions and theories of truth--which I regard a province of the IB's Knower(s), not of the four Ways-of-Knowing--before moving into perception and skepticism. Thus rationalism and empiricism, by the nature of this organization, become principal organizing concepts for this section. Section Two addresses "The Prison of Logic" and "The Prairie of Language." The third section, appropriately titled "Areas of Knowledge," includes "Natural Science," "Mathematics," "The Human Sciences," and "History." Unfortunately, Section Four, which presents two chapters, "Literature, Music & Art" and a nicely interdisciplinary exploration of "Creativity," returns to the "Ways-of-Knowing" nomenclature to ask if these humanities areas might be more aptly labeled "Ways-of-Experiencing." Finally, the fifth section, "Other Areas of Knowledge," introduces three chapters: "Ethics," "International Knowledge," and "Classifying Areas of Knowledge," a reflection upon how knowledge is classified by libraries and universities.

In other words, Woolman doesn't closely follow the IB terminology, but he does use it somewhat idiosyncratically. I suspect that, for Woolman, "Areas of Knowledge" are a subset, by-product, or offshoot of "Ways of Knowing," but I have not found any clear or direct indication of how he views this relationship. Despite the potential for confusion, however, I found that the structure of the individual chapters fits comfortably with my attempts to introduce concerns and concepts to my students. I used Woolman's plentiful and often clever study questions regularly as prompts to begin class, or as homework assignments for students to ponder or respond to in writing. Our best discussions often came from the separate sections of supplementary material at the end of most chapters, which contain some of the most valuable information in the book: brief bibliographies of related texts for further inquiry; snippets of philosophy from the likes of Plato (p. 38), Descartes (p. 48), and Orwell (p. 96); poems by Coleridge (p. 231) and D.H. Lawrence (p. 213); lists of syllogisms (p. 67) and logical fallacies (p. 70); descriptions of Bacon's idols (p. 49) and Gardner's intelligences (p. 296); and several challenges to an unthinking acceptance of scholastic practice, namely, "Is School Science Real Science?" (p. 124), "Is Economics a Science?" (p. 166), and "Why School History Is Not Real History" (p. 188).

Over the year and a half that I've used Ways of Knowing, I haven't always found the engaged and self-confident reaction from students that I see in my mind's (heart's?) eye and seek in the classroom. Certainly the phenomenon of the twenty-first-century teenager has something to do with my experience; possibly aspects of Woolman's text also contribute to my sense that something is wanting. But the logical and instinctive place to seek improvement is to look at my own pedagogical practice: throughout my time in TOK, I have frequently asked myself what I can do to approach more closely my idealistic goals for the course and the classroom. I have gradually come to see that, perhaps because my disciplinary training is in English and history, the class activity I have planned most often is discussion in response to readings assigned as homework. I am increasingly alert to the shortcomings of adopting a single or even a usual approach to conducting class: I've found that my habits were neglecting differences among students' learning styles and interests.

One way I've tried to address this imbalance has been to trim and focus the readings from Ways of Knowing: by making students responsible for fewer pages, I hoped to focus their attention more narrowly on the ideas to be discussed in class. However, I experienced their response as diffidence towards the issues I had hoped they would raise, towards the text generally, and, in a few cases, even towards the proposition that class discussion could be meaningful, productive, or fun. In other words, both the routine of assigned reading and the reduction of that reading seemed to lead students to a reduced involvement, a step closer to disengagement or apathy. Ultimately, even though I saw the somewhat casual approach in Woolman's text as more desirable than Tomkinson's, that difference didn't seem to effect an appreciable alteration in the way students experienced the course. Although I recognized that the most direct way to address my dissatisfaction was through my own pedagogy, I also found myself, after two years with Woolman, in search of another TOK text.

This January, I'm starting my third cycle as a TOK teacher with Nick Alchin's Theory of Knowledge, published in late 2002 by John Murray, in London. Unlike Tomkinson and Woolman, Alchin offers a 115pp. legal-sized "teacher's book" (hereafter referred to as TB) to accompany his 328pp. trade-sized student's book (or SB), both of which are divided into fifteen chapters. In the TB, Alchin explains the "lucid linking narrative" he offers in his sequence of chapters, which intersperses Areas of Knowledge and Ways of Knowing. After a brief, thoughtful introduction, Alchin discusses three Areas of Knowledge ("The natural sciences," "The arts," and "Mathematics"), then pulls back to explore Reason; discusses two more Areas of Knowledge ("The social sciences" and "History"), then treats Perception and Language, with a useful chapter on "Paradigms and culture" between them. Alchin continues his mix of Areas and Ways with chapters on "Ethics," "Politics," "Religion," and Emotion, wrapping up with a brief conclusion that emphasizes each person's individuality in the search for knowledge and understanding.

While I am impressed with Alchin's scheme, I remain reluctant to change my dependence upon the TOK diagram, which I have found immeasurably useful as an organizing principle for my course. However, I believe that Alchin's chapters can be addressed out of numerical sequence without confusion or disruption. If I wish to begin with Ways of Knowing, I can start with Chapters 1 (Intro), 5 ("Rationalism: the use of reason"), 8 ("Empiricism: the use of the senses"), 9 ("Paradigms and culture"), 10 ("Language"), and 14 ("Feelings, emotions and intuition") before returning to earlier chapters to explore Areas of Knowledge, without losing my students along the way.

What draws me most powerfully to Alchin's text is how his philosophy about "doing TOK" (for lack of a better verb) fits my evolving thoughts. The author expresses it quite clearly in the introduction to his teacher's book:

"The intended audience is students who have, for most of their lives, been bombarded with 'facts,' and for whom learning may sometimes seem to be accumulation of 'truths'…. For many, the transition from the sponge model of education to a more dynamic but initially less confident model is exciting; but for many it is confusing; ideally, it should be both. (TB 1)"

Alchin's purpose infuses the methodology of his text. Rather than presenting information about each of the Ways and Areas, information that students (or teachers) may all too easily take for an "accumulation of truths," Alchin presents problems, showing how "they seem to accumulate, interlink, and present a rich, dense and profoundly thick barrier to knowledge" (TB 1). Hence, the excitement and the confusion that Alchin hopes will ultimately compel students to think, question, and judge for themselves, with curiosity and reverence for the past, present, and future efforts of others. I join Alchin in that hope.

One way Alchin makes his methodology apparent is by opening each chapter with a "file folder" of quotations, many of which contrast with each other or stake out positions that will inspire reaction and position-taking from students. Tomkinson and (to a greater degree) Woolman also include quotations, but in a way that is static, not dialogic. For example, in Alchin's "Mathematics" chapter, Hermann Weyl's comment, "You can not apply mathematics as long as words becloud reality," jostles against Robert Jensen's "On each decision, the mathematical analysis only got me to the point where my intuition had to take over" (SB 52). Considering these two sound bites together foregrounds a handful of contentious questions: What is "reality?" How does language ("words") or intuition (emotion?) relate to it, and to math? Does math lead or follow other forms of knowing as we make decisions or pursue understanding? Suddenly, studying math entirely separately from the other Areas of Knowledge and Ways of Knowing seems a bit more impossible--which is just what I'm hoping students will gather, as much on their own as from me. Alchin reinforces this impression by concluding each chapter with a paragraph or so on "Where do we go from here?" This feature, which propels Alchin's "lucid linking narrative," once again demonstrates that the connectedness of the Areas and Ways must be considered as we focus on each in turn. Also, although Woolman offers brief bibliographies after each chapter, Alchin annotates his, giving teachers and students alike a better understanding of how to pursue their curiosities.

Chapter by chapter, Alchin underlines the focus on problems to be questioned rather than material to be covered. One small but meaningful way in which he does this is to eschew the numerical subdividing that both Tomkinson and Woolman adopt (Woolman even goes into a second level of subordination; i.e.: "10.1.5 Each Generation's Reconstruction [of History]"). Many of Alchin's subheadings are questions, not categories: "Mathematics: invention or discovery?" (SB 54); "How much can the social sciences tell us?" (SB 116); "[W]hich is the right version of history?" (SB 135). Alchin conveys more clearly than other authors that the most a TOK textbook can do is offer a sampling of issues, questions, and examples, and that it is up to the reader to "go from here." (So often, my students try to ease their way out of a tight spot by saying, "It's all up to the individual," to which my favorite response is, "Okay. You're an individual. Tell us how it is for you," placing them right back on the hook.) Another important technique Alchin uses is to present "Aims" at the beginning of each chapter. These can focus student attention without limiting their field of vision: "[B]e able to give at least an initial definition of 'knowledge' and distinguish between 'knowledge' and 'belief'" (SB 3).

Finally, Alchin knows what TOK teachers want most: lots and lots of materials from which to fashion classroom exercises. The student's book contains copious study questions and short supplementary readings (Alchin calls them "resource files"); the teacher's book is comprised primarily of activities that support the issues addressed in each chapter, with brief discussions and still more bibliographic references. Included are: a fun non-verbal communication exercise; a diverse cultures simulation; historiographic skits; useful and entertaining sketches from Monty Python and Abbott & Costello; lateral thinking puzzles; and more than a dozen diagrams and charts that can be turned into overhead transparencies. In short, Alchin, with the combination of teacher and student texts, is practicing what he preaches in the teacher's book:

"The text does not pretend to begin to make real the profound problems of knowledge--as always this responsibility and privilege remains with the teacher….[A] central theme of the books is to stress the human nature of knowledge and experience. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in an exciting Theory of Knowledge class; in this, a book can play only a supporting role. (TB 3)"

So my exploration of TOK texts once again takes me back to my own practice. I've learned over the last three semesters that teachers as well as students have to work hard and self-consciously to break out of the habits and patterns of the traditional classroom. For me, that means less dependence upon language and greater emphasis on activity. It means more student-centredness, accompanied by quiet, deft ways of pushing students to build on their activity as they grow in self-awareness, to gain in respect for differences of all kinds, and to strive to synthesize the problems and achievements that arise over a year of TOK inquiry. I expect Alchin's texts to be a stalwart ally, although the real--whatever that means!--text will be the one my students and I construct together.

For more about TOK textbooks, visit a special thread on the OCC.

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