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29/05/2020  •  10 min read

Theory of Knowledge | TOK

New to Teaching TOK? Here’s Some Advice

Whether we are new to teaching altogether or are experienced teachers, having to familiarise ourselves with a new curriculum – a new IB Diploma Guide, for example, or the UK ‘A’ levels, or APs for U.S. schools – is something we normally take in our stride. We are, after all, subject specialists, so we already know the content and understand that it will be more or less the same in a new curriculum.

The IB Diploma Theory of Knowledge (TOK) course, however, seems to make us all believe that we know nothing about anything. One look at the Guide has us believing we have to teach Mathematics, and the Natural Sciences, and History, and… ‘But I don’t know any of those subjects!’ we respond. ‘I teach Spanish. How can I possibly be expected to do that?!’

Here is the big secret: You already possess the knowledge and skills needed to make you an effective teacher. That is all that is required. Remember that there is no course content in TOK, so students do not have to demonstrate by the end of the course that they know X. 

You already know …

1… how to help students who do not automatically ‘get’ your subject (and many students take a while to ‘get’ TOK). You have strategies for teaching difficult concepts, ideas or skills. You know how to differentiate, and you know how to unlock a student’s interest.

2… how to introduce students to a subject that is new to them (because every subject is new to every student at some point) in ways they can connect with. At some point, TOK is new to everyone, students and teachers alike, but the skills involved in doing well at TOK are as old as the hills.

3… how to plan lessons and units of work which build on and help students develop the skills that they will be ultimately assessed on (‘backward planning,’ or ‘planning for assessment’ or ‘beginning with the end in mind’).

4… how to encourage students to explore their own fields of interest and expertise whilst challenging them to consider subjects they always thought they were not good at, or found no enjoyment in, in a way that makes them meaningful.

5… how to provoke intellectual and academic curiosity. You do this every day in your specialist teaching subject, and this is also what led you to study your specialist subject at college or university prior to becoming the effective teacher that you now are.

But surely that’s not all you need to know? Well, it both is and – of course – is not because, after all, it is still a new course, and you are new to teaching it. (But don’t forget, the students are equally new to it.) So there are a few more things that you already know how to do that will prepare you for the peculiar twists and turns of teaching TOK. 

TOK assessments, or ‘teaching with the end in mind’

There are two assessments in TOK – the externally assessed essay on a prescribed title (worth two-thirds of the overall mark) and the internal assessment – the Exhibition – which counts for the other third. Pay close attention to the suggested number of hours allocated to explicit preparation for these assessments. Otherwise, the entire course risks becoming merely extended preparation for the ‘tests’, which is to miss out on the intellectual and academic pleasure of teaching and learning TOK. 

Secondly, find plenty of exemplar essays and Exhibitions, available either in the Kognity TOK textbook or from the IB Teacher Support Material pages, that you can then go through with students. Finally, don’t be put off by the jargon – e.g. ‘knowledge claims’, ‘knowledge questions’ etc. You know what these terms mean – you make knowledge claims every day in your subject teaching, and every time a student asks, ‘But how do you know?’ you know that a knowledge question is being asked.

Reality checks

There are two main ‘reality checks’ that many students will happily provide you with, whether you ask or not. Unfortunately, it makes no difference how long you have been teaching TOK; you are guaranteed to hear them year after year. 

The first is that TOK is a ‘waste of time’. Students will tell you this after a few weeks, or even a year. This may be the conclusion that they have come to, or because that is the ‘wisdom’ inherited from previous cohorts of students. The second ‘reality check’ – in truth only a variation of the first – is that it is a waste of time because it is ‘only worth 1.5 bonus points towards the Diploma’.

This is how to counter these attitudes. Firstly, the pragmatic approach: failing TOK means failing the entire Diploma. This rarely works with all of the ‘reality check’ brigade, but it will work with some. Secondly, TOK is all – and only – about encouraging students to reflect critically on the ‘exploration and reflection on the nature of knowledge and the process of knowing” (Guide p.5). If you use stimuli materials from the students’ other Diploma classes, you are helping them to think critically about their other subjects. Thus it will have a beneficial effect on their learning and, subsequently, attainment in those other subjects, because thinking critically about what and how they are learning is often what makes the difference between earning a ‘7’ as opposed to a ‘6′. 

Teaching colleagues

One of the IB Diploma mantras is that ‘Every teacher is a TOK teacher!’, and you will definitely come across some teachers who enjoy embedding TOK into their curriculum. However, you will also come across those who do not. They may make some of the same claims as the ‘reality check’ brigade claim, or maintain that they simply don’t ‘get’ it, and this can all sometimes transmit itself to students. Thus, as mentioned above, the ‘minimum commitment’ way to get these teachers’ expertise is by asking them to provide you with teaching and learning materials that they use in their own classes (perhaps from the Kognity textbooks that they use…). You can then ‘repurpose’ these for the TOK classroom, for example, by giving them access to the knowledge frameworks and knowledge questions you will be using to structure your lessons and units of work, and asking them for anything they have that responds in some way to the featured knowledge questions. 

And, on that note… 

Planning TOK around the knowledge frameworks and knowledge questions

The TOK Guide is structured around so-called ‘knowledge frameworks’ for each of the elements – the ‘areas of knowledge’ and the ‘optional themes’ – that guide enquiry in TOK. There is no need to reinvent the wheel: the knowledge frameworks are, in essence, units of work, and the knowledge questions provided can be used to guide enquiry in each lesson or series of lessons. For the sake of simplicity, think of a TOK lesson as consisting of: 

  • a knowledge question,
  • the discussion of which is stimulated by resources taken from your colleagues’ (and your own!) teaching and learning materials, (and/or an object, so as to prepare students for the Exhibition IA task),
  • and which ends with some sort of conclusion being drawn (followed by, perhaps, a short piece of reflective writing).

… but then you already know this, because you already know how to plan successful lessons in your own subject! 

Teaching alone, or as part of a team

Have you been given the ‘dubious’ honour of being the only TOK teacher, or are you joining an existing team? Whatever the answer, insist on attending a professional development course, not least because it will fill you with the confidence of knowing – rather than just believing – that the ‘5 things you already know’ are key to teaching the course well! This is certainly a ‘must’ if you are the only one teaching the course (whether because your school is new to the IB Diploma, or it is a small school). If you are new, and teaching alone, don’t be worried about the units that are not your area of expertise, such as Mathematics or The Arts. As we said above, in TOK it is not the content that matters (and you can always call upon a student with a love of that subject to help you out). TOK is not about the what but about the how – and the ability that you already possess to guide and lead enquiry is the essence of TOK. 

If, on the other hand, you are new to teaching TOK and are part of a team, ask to teach those parts of the course that you feel more comfortable with as a way of getting into the swing of things. 

Lastly, welcome to the weird and wonderful world of teaching TOK. It might take you a couple of years to get into it, as it did for every single TOK teacher I have ever met. However, reminding yourself every so often that you can teach it because it is the reason you became a teacher in the first place will see you through your initial trepidation. Then, one day, you will have become a ‘veteran’ TOK teacher writing a blog like this for teachers new to TOK. See you on the other side!

If you enjoyed this article and want more help teaching Theory of Knowledge, David has also hosted a webinar with us about the new part of the syllabus – the Exhibition, which you can find here – just follow the link and sign up to receive the recording in your inbox. Check back on the blog next week for our next post which will be a Q&A about the TOK Exhibition.